5 Tips for Accommodating Employees With Disabilities in Your Wellness Program

More than 9 million workers in the United States have at least one disability. The disability may be visible, such as an amputation or a wheelchair, or it could be invisible, such as a chronic illness, a traumatic brain injury or an inherited syndrome. As more older adults choose to remain in the workforce longer, you may also begin to see more age-related disabilities among your employees.

That’s where your workplace wellness program comes in. Just like your wellness plan can target specific health goals and metrics, inclusive workplace practices can help address the needs of employees with disabilities.

Here are five tips to help you develop an inclusive workplace wellness program.

1. Be Inclusive From the Beginning

Place employees with disabilities — both visible and invisible — on any planning committee you’ve formed for your wellness program. Also make sure to include employees of varying levels of physical fitness. Having a variety of voices in the planning stages will help your company develop programs, challenges and incentives that are accessible to as many people as possible.

2. Offer Program and Wellness Information in Many Formats

Consider how people with certain disabilities may view and process information differently. An on-site kickoff can be a great way to introduce a new wellness program or highlight any changes you’ve made to an existing one. But after the meeting, make the details about the program — including information on activities and program incentives — available in multiple formats. The same principle applies to information from in-office sessions: Offer summaries in print, large print, audio and video formats to aid employees with brain injuries, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, vision impairments or other conditions.

3. Provide Alternative Ways to Earn Wellness Rewards

Federal law places restrictions on the scope of incentives for wellness plan participation. Specifically, the Department of Labor says you must offer alternative standards or waivers for employees who are unable to meet the requirements of a wellness program due to their medical situation.

Getting 10,000 steps in a day is a popular goal, but employees who have movement limitations or chronic conditions may not be able to safely meet that standard. Be proactive about creating substitutes for various aspects of your program. Your choices should encourage more activity and still allow those employees to compete for prizes or achieve rewards. Employees in a wheelchair, for example, can log “steps” by wearing a pedometer on the arm. An incentive based on how much someone’s step total increased from their starting point, rather than one based on a set number of total steps, could benefits others. For many, simply adding in one day a week of exercise also makes a difference.

4. Take a Holistic Approach to Health

Chances are, your first instinct will be to gauge the program’s success using movement and biometric screenings. Look deeper: There’s a lot more to overall health. Stress reduction, better sleep habits and good nutrition are also vital to wellness — and, notably, they all present opportunities for improvement that anyone can participate in. Consider introducing health challenges other than fitness, such as drinking more water, sleeping for at least 7 hours a night or regularly practicing mindfulness.

5. Keep the Program Flexible and Voluntary

To stay within legal requirements, keep your wellness program voluntary. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rules say you can’t require biometric screenings and health risk assessments, either, in part because they ask questions about disability-related health issues. Make sure employees know that these activities are not mandatory, and that they won’t face consequences if they choose not to participate.

Keeping your office’s wellness program flexible ensures you don’t lose sight of what really matters — promoting wellness for all employees. When you account for disabilities from the get-go, your program gains a framework that you can adapt to fit any employee’s needs. A strong and comprehensive wellness program is just one more way inclusive workplace practices support a healthy workplace culture.

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