Promising Practice in Workplace PAS: Orientation with PAS
Lewis Kraus M.P.H., M.C.P.
Lita Jans Ph.D.
Susan Stoddard Ph.D.
Center for Personal Assistance Service
2560 Ninth Street, Suite 320
Berkeley, CA 94710-2566
Key features of the promising practice
- Orients new or relocated employees with blindness/visual impairments to workplace and home environments.
- Services arranged by experienced diversity specialist who has ongoing relationships with community providers, enabling immediate implementation.
- Practice is contracted through independent contractors and funded by central accommodations fund, eliminating costs to individual departments.
Key features of the organization
- For-profit corporation
- Information Services - Software Manufacturer
- 35,000 employees nationally
- 5-10% of workforce with disabilities
Microsoft is well known as a leading software manufacturer. The company employs a large workforce of 35,000 at its Redmond, Washington headquarters and in field offices around the country. A diversity consultant in Microsoft's human resources department specializes in addressing the needs of employees with disabilities, who are estimated to comprise 5-10% of the company's workforce.
The diversity consultant at Microsoft prepares for new employees with disabilities, as well as addressing the needs of current employees. For existing and new employees, she arranges for assistive technology and personal assistants such as sign language interpreters and computer aided real-time (CART) captioning for employees who are deaf or hearing impaired, and readers for employees who are blind.
With both new and existing employees, her goal is to provide resources to allow the employees to do their jobs effectively. She meets with each employee to make plans for the needed assistance. She has accumulated a library of outside resources that she can share with employees; but she leaves the choice of resources to them. By making their own choices, the employees can quickly take charge of obtaining and maintaining their own assistance.
Description of practice
New employees at Microsoft, like those at many other organizations, receive an orientation to their job and the facility or campus in which they will work. For employees with visual impairments or blindness, this orientation is particularly important to understand all of the locations that they will need to navigate every day.
In 2002, Microsoft contacted a state organization (Department of Services for the Blind) to inquire about possible resources to assist with orientation of employees who had visual impairments or who were blind. The agency connected Microsoft with an independent contractor who provided orientation and mobility services.
Microsoft's practice is to contract with an orientation and mobility specialist to acquaint new or relocated employees with their new physical surroundings, including not only the physical office area, but also the break rooms, bathrooms, elevators, exits, and cafeteria. Using verbal methods, walkthroughs, and tactile mapping (with scaled layouts of buildings that can be felt spatially), specialists show employees how to move around in the facility. The specialists also work with staff who have helper or guide dogs to show them where to take the animals for breaks.
Typical sessions last one hour and are supervised by the employee. Additional sessions are contracted when needed. The rate is $50 per hour.
Furthermore, the practice extends to the home. Since many new employees need to be relocated when hired, the diversity consultant sets up the orientation and mobility specialist to familiarize the employee with his or her new home and the surrounding area. This includes the best way to get to the nearest transportation, and the locations of nearby neighborhood establishments, such as stores, theatres, and other resources. In this way, Microsoft deals proactively with potential issues outside of work that could hinder an employee from being able to work independently.
Typically, the process starts when an employment recruiter alerts the diversity consultant to the potential need for mobility orientation. The diversity consultant introduces herself and her role to the new employee. Any need for mobility orientation is conveyed verbally, rather than through a written procedure. The diversity consultant generally has about two weeks before the new hire's arrival to make any accommodation arrangements, including assistive technology, training, and mobility orientation. She uses the resources of local community partners to provide the mobility orientation. In her experience, these partners build great rapport and are readily accepted by new employees.
The orientation and mobility specialist is also used to orient existing employees to a new facility. This may be necessary when employees are reassigned through promotion or reorganization to other locations on the same campus or at new offices.
Benefits and challenges
Clearly, both Microsoft and the employee benefit from the speed with which the employee with a disability is oriented and ready to work on the first day. Using an orientation and mobility specialist enables the new or relocated employee to focus on work rather than becoming disoriented or distracted in a new work or home environment. One orientation and mobility specialist described a benefit of her services as "helping those who are visually impaired to be independent within their buildings, so they are more efficient in their work, they can get to meetings on time, and others don't have to spend their time to get them to the meeting."
The practice of quickly providing an individually tailored orientation to both work and home environments addresses two identified barriers to workplace PAS: waiting time for accommodations and lack of employee preparation. The diversity consultant comments, "Where this has helped Microsoft is when the service is provided when they are interns. When they are ready to work fulltime, they know what service Microsoft will have available for them should they decide to work here and they can compare it with what others are willing to provide."
She adds that employees have evaluated the program and found it to be helpful. One person who used the assistance said it " … gave me increased independence in going from work to home and around the campus. It helped me to be more productive more quickly."
One challenge is making the local connections to provide these types of personal assistance services. To make this a successful service, the diversity consultant has found it critical to stay in close touch with community partners. Regular communication with community partners also helps her to identify and develop other resources for the company and its employees.
The orientation and mobility specialists are hired using a central accommodations fund, a method that addresses the barrier of perceived costs of PAS. By using this type of system, the human resources office can better understand the spending patterns, and individual supervisors do not have to make judgments about paying for the service out of their departmental budgets. This fund is available for all workplace accommodations and services.
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