What we know about trauma is….
Trauma impacts the regulatory system and the regulation of the senses. Part of the neurobiology of trauma is that it can cause hypersensitivity to sights, smells, sounds, touches, and tastes. This will be different for every person. Awareness of this, can guide your discussion. Another effect of trauma is hypervigilance. This is an acute awareness and attention to situational safety. Safety and control are issues for survivors of trauma (and really, for all people); one important way to address these is through predictability and transparency. Let employees know what is going on, what to expect, anticipated upcoming disruptions, etc. On an individual basis accommodations may mean having a work environment where one can keep their back towards the wall, able to see the door, or it may mean entering/exiting a busy building during less-busy times, going through security with the same officer every day, or having a workspace near a stairwell. Again, this is different for every person. What is activating for one person, may be an accommodation need of another.
People with Trauma- or Stressor-Related experiences, along with those with anxiety challenges or other mental/emotional health concerns (in short, any one of us, on a given day) sometimes have challenges managing the regulatory system of the body. This means that the brain or body becomes activated by something and, instead of re-regulating once the danger has been assessed and safety established, the body remains in a state of dysregulation. Examples of this include elevated pulse, sweating, flushing, obsessive/anxious thoughts, and difficulty focusing. People may need accommodations to allow themselves to re-regulate such as going on a walk, leaving the building, turning the lights out in their office. Remember, every person is different and requires a conversation about their specific needs.
Working with the person to address their specific areas of activation and concern is the best way to map out accommodation needs. Again: ASKING, LISTENING, and DISCUSSING. This is the EXACT same process and conversation that you ought to have with someone with any other kind of dis/ability. If you have multiple employees with physical disabilities, each will have different needs, and these needs may change day to day. This is the same for people with trauma and those with mental or behavioral health concerns. Some days music in the office will be acceptable, some days it will be activating. Some days a quiet workspace will be productive, while other days headphones must be in place for anything to get accomplished. One person’s soothing headphones are another person’s smothered nightmare. ADA accommodations are unique to each individual person with their life experience and symptoms. So again, the best starting point is a conversation with the requesting individual person about what their accommodation needs are. This should be part of an ongoing conversation, as needs may change over time, or with changes in the environment.
To summarize here are some of the things to consider in meeting the accommodation needs of someone with a history of trauma and/or a Trauma- or Other-Stressor-Related Experiences:
- Sensory sensitivity
- Safety concerns
- Ways to re-regulate (allowing for a variety of ways)
Trauma Informed Care (TIC) provides an excellent framework for considering ways to improve your workplace for everyone—regardless of their specific diagnosis, dis/ability, experiences, or trauma history. By making your workplace trauma informed, you may be able to reduce the amount of accommodation requests/needs by developing an environment that does not re-traumatize those who engage with it.
Here are some suggestions to start this process:
Brainstorm ideas about your work space with your current employees. What are things that bother them? What elements do they like? The suggestions generated can/should be applied to your entire organization and engagement with both established and potential employees and clients.
Consider “universal design” concepts for physical and mental health-related dis/abilities. Where do you interview new potential employees? How is the room set up? How are the lights? Sounds? Smells? Are the chairs accommodating to folks of different body types and mobilities? Do you meet new people on the ground level or are stairs or an elevator required? How is the work space set up? Can folks change the arrangement of their furniture? Are there mobility issues? Safety concerns? Natural light? Areas for privacy? Is there safe, accessible parking?
Neutral walkthroughs of the workplace. Have your staff, a client, a facility worker, a community partner, do a walkthrough. What is their experience of being in your work space? What is noticed? Ask that they give attention to signage, layout, furniture, art, protocols (guests, traffic, bathrooms, expectations). Here is a worksheet to help with this.
The take-home message is that, when approached about ADA accommodations for Trauma- and Stressor-Related experiences, begin by ASKING, LISTENING, and DISCUSSING what the person’s specific needs and accommodations might be. Doing so will make it possible for the employee to be successful. Expanding this idea to make the workplace more trauma informed may benefit everyone! TIC is essential for anyone with a history of trauma and, as we like to say, it’s really quite nice for everyone else, too.