For architects with disabilities, conversations with hiring managers can be a sensitive topic. Though the profession has evolved considerably over the past few decades to reflect greater respect for individuals with disabilities, fears of workplace discrimination remain real for many. Here designers and architects from several firms and an attorney share how to discuss any disabilities at work.
Know Your Rights
Before speaking with a prospective or current employer about your disability, you should understand your legal rights and protections. Eve Hill, a disability rights attorney at the Baltimore-based Brown, Goldstein & Levy, cites Title 1 of the American with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating against “qualified individuals with disabilities in job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, [and] job training.”
As an applicant, you have no legal obligation to disclose a need for job accommodations during the hiring process. “Your employer or prospective employer is not allowed to ask you anything about your disability other than if you need accommodations for a job application or interview," Hill says. "Nothing about the job until you get the job.”
Once you're hired, Hill says, employers are required to make reasonable accommodations, unless doing so would cause them undue hardship—a legal judgment that is extremely rare, she adds. “In general, anything a person [with disabilities] needs to do the job is reasonable.”
John Gleichman, AIA, an architect and specifications writer at the Chicago-based Sheehan Nagle Hartray Architects who is blind, further recommends consulting a firm’s employee handbook and guidelines developed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an agency that interprets and enforces Title 1. For architects working for firms with fewer than 15 people, he suggests reviewing coverage provided by state departments of disability rights or civil rights and consulting with a local ADA office or advocacy group.
Communicate Your Needs
Often the best way to talk with an employer is to be honest and direct about what accommodations you need, which will then allow you to work collaboratively toward a solution, says Greg Wharton, AIA, an associate director and principal at Toronto-based architecture and engineering firm IBI Group. Wharton describes himself as profoundly hearing impaired. Earlier in his career, Wharton decided to conceal his hearing loss due to a mitochondrial DNA defect of the auditory nerve from his colleagues. He says his own embarrassment about his limitations hurt his relations with his employer and led him to miss instructions. Because they were unaware he had hearing limitations, many of his colleagues perceived him as stupid, cavalier, or arrogant. “I left the company in a cloud because of that and even debated with myself whether I wanted to continue to be an architect,” Wharton says. “I had to reevaluate a lot of things in my life.”
Wharton opted to be more open with subsequent employers, even requesting several months of medical leave for a cochlear implant while working at a global architecture firm based in Seattle. “I was working as a direct assistant to the senior design principal, who depended on me for many things,” Wharton says. “I told him my hearing issues had grown far worse, to the point it was necessary to get the procedure to continue to function. I was missing things in conversation and struggling to keep up."
Wharton’s supervisor responded positively, saying, "We’ll work out a schedule, and work out what you need to do; don’t worry about it. We’ll talk to HR and get the wheels in motion.” At IBI, when Wharton requested hearing accommodations to better communicate with colleagues and clients, including a customized $1,000 noise-canceling computer headset, the firm also readily fulfilled his requests.
For Gleichman, who was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease in his late 30s, requesting alternative accommodations and purchasing accessibility hardware and software has been key to sustaining his employment. He uses ZoomText software to process Microsoft OfficeWord and Excel documents; an analog magnifier for writing checks and reading short, printed documents; an iPad Pro for email and internet research; and an iPhone equipped with voice-over for texting, emails, phone calls, and internet research.
Initially, Gleichman purchased these products himself to keep his limited vision private. As cultural attitudes changed and his condition deteriorated, Gleichman decided to approach management. “Now the office purchases these products for me, and we talk about what I’m doing and what I need, openly," he says. "It’s great.” Together, they forged a plan that allowed him to choose projects accessible via taxi or mass-transit so he doesn’t have to drive. He also relocated to a workspace that receives little daylight, which aggravates his eyes.
Many human resources departments must be supportive to requests for accommodations, particularly at firms with 100 or more employees, or non-exempt federal contractors who have 50 or more employees and contracts of $50,000 or more. These firms are legally required to submit an EEO-1 compliance survey to the EEOC, an additional protection against discrimination. But Wharton believes engaging HR is a step that follows after an initial meeting with a mentor or supervisor. “Be open and personal, rather than starting out of the gate with official procedural things," Wharton recommends. "Avoid escalating to HR unless absolutely necessary.”
Make an Impact
Many architects with disabilities are speaking out about their experiences, with the understanding that increasing their representation in the field will help the practice design more inclusive spaces. Todd Hanson, FAIA, a principal at Portsmouth, N.H.–based JSA diagnosed with primary lateral schlerosis, a rare form of ALS affecting speech and mobility, recently developed a product and service offering that differentiates the firm. “JSA fully supported an initiative I began called Assess Navigators,” he says. “We assess venues and provide a web-based accessibility road map. We also educate business owners, municipalities, and groups of all types on how and why to embrace inclusion.”
The ways in which those with disabilities can influence the development of the built environment are significant. David Gissen, a visiting professor of architectural design at Yale University who became an above-the-knee amputee in the early 1990s, recently taught a studio course called “Another Day in Vienna.” Inspired by his own experience navigating shadeless boulevards in a wheelchair during an oppressive heat wave in the city, Gissen called on students to re-examine Modernism’s preference for sun exposure. “As someone who is seeking a career and has some form of impairment, you bring so much perspective to this profession that is badly needed," he says. "[It's] a real benefit to the design of buildings and the built environment.”