managing a mentally disabled worker who wants to do more, when you can’t invest in long-term training

A reader writes:

I am writing to you about a problem my boss has with one of my coworkers. (I’m his PA, and since he’s not that good at hands-on people management, I try to advise him as much as possible on difficult matters, but now we’re at a loss.) I’ll call the coworker John.

John has been working with us for 3.5 years now, and he’s a bit of a special case: he’s very slightly mentally disabled. He had an accident that basically left his head not working as well as before. You wouldn’t notice it if you didn’t know it; he acts perfectly normally. He was hired as part of a special program to do the one thing here that is extremely repetitive (and yes, boring), but it has to be done (it’s computer work, a bit similar to data entry, so day after day, he basically does the same thing).

A couple of months ago, he came to my boss saying he wanted to do something else, something more complicated. We tried training him, but it didn’t work. (It would have taken about two years to really get him going, considering it took one year to learn his first task.) He went back to doing what he did before (and does well).

Now, last week, he came to my boss again, almost in tears and very frustrated, saying that it wasn’t fair that because he’s disabled, we won’t let him do anything else, and he wants another chance to be trained to do other things.

I understand his frustration, it must suck to see other people climbing up the ladder and being stuck at the bottom, but there really is nothing we can do about it. He’s paid the same as everyone else, and treated the same (he’s not the only one doing the tedious work; there are two more people doing the same). But there is just no way we have the time and resources to train him, when we know it won’t work.

How do we handle this? Do you have any idea how to tell someone that this is as far as they will go? And yes, it is because of his disability, but we are really, honestly, not discriminating! It’s like me wanting to be trained as an engineer : I might want to, but I just can’t because I simply can’t do the math.

What a tough situation for him, and for your manager.

The kindest thing your manager can do, though, is to be direct. John deserves to have the same information that you both have — the knowledge that, like it or not, his role at the company isn’t going to change. He can then decide whether he’s okay with that, or whether he’d rather look at other options.

You boss should say something like this: “The work you do is great, and I appreciate that you want to do more here. I was glad to try training you for the X role a few months ago, but as you know, the training ended up not getting us where we’d need you to be. I’d love to offer you other roles, but realistically, we’d only be able to offer limited training. I very much want you to continue working with us, but I also want to be honest with you about the fact that we’re not likely to be able to offer you new roles. I understand if that ends up being a deal-breaker, but I hope you’ll stay with us because we really value you here.”

It’s a hard message to deliver, but it’s far better for John to hear it than to be in the dark about his prospects there and/or continue to be frustrated.

That said, it might be worth seeing if there are small changes that your manager can make to his current job. It doesn’t have to be a whole new role — it could be tweaks to what he’s doing now. Can he be responsible for additional element related to his current work (even a small one)? That might provide the type of challenge he’s looking for, as well as increasing his sense of responsibility and satisfaction.

Obviously, you can’t do this if training him on that new element would take a huge amount of resources, but I wonder if there aren’t small things that wouldn’t take the same amount of training as a whole new job.

Good luck.

{ 69 comments… read them below }

  1. Andrea

    Does ADA apply at all here? I mean, what does HR say? If a person with no legs wanted to start doing a job where they had to stand all day, would you say no, or would you give them the tools to be able to be the same height as someone standing?
    If there are tools that you can use to help John succeed at something different, why not use them?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      It sounds like the tools in this case would be a very long training period, which the business can’t accommodate without undue hardship. The ADA requires employers to make reasonable accommodations that don’t cause “undue hardship” to the employer. If the job can’t be performed without that reasonable accommodation, there’s no requirement to employ the person.

      I would think that needing to train someone for a year for a job that normally would only require a few weeks of training time would be considered an undue hardship, so I don’t think the ADA would require this. Also, it’s reasonable to say that you need to hire people who can already perform the essential functions of the position (assuming you’re really doing that); there’s no requirement that you hire someone and train them to do the job, if you wouldn’t otherwise be offering that training.

      1. Joey

        Sort of. They really need to look at alternate solutions besides the standard training as part of ADA. That might mean exploring additional equipment/resources/tools before they discount the idea. They key is they need to have the dialogue with him about what it would take to accommodate him and any alternative solutions.

      2. Jessa

        There are resources. Vocational Rehab and other groups in the US at least can provide job coaches/assistance in training, etc. Also there are tax breaks for the company to do this, so it’s possible that they can make up the cost of someone to help train this person to do more. If the person in question has a specific disorder or injury there may be a group FOR people with that disorder or injury that can also provide resources. I wouldn’t give up completely on the idea of training him to do more before looking into those possibilities, because they won’t cost your company anything, and can save you money on taxes.

        (disclaimer – not a lawyer, but a former Special Ed teacher, and a disabled person who went through a lot of these services myself and also recommended students to use them.)

        1. Been there/done that

          Jessa, you are right. I am legally blind, due to issues at birth. VR assisted me with training as well as providing to on the job. I previously worked for a Center for independent Living and we encourage individauls to tell employers about the WOTC plan which provides tax breaks for hiring those with disabilities. I really like what AAM said about tweaking his job. This could be just what he needs.

        2. OP

          Hi Jessa, you’re right about the coaches/tax breaks and such, but unfortunatly, these resources were used when he was hired. We had tax breaks for 2 years, and someone to coach him for 6 months, and that’s all we can get (I checked). But thanks anyway.

    2. HR Manager

      I’m a HR Manager in Canada, and discrimination doesn’t need to be malicious for it to be discrimination. This would be viewed as discrimination, as your not offering him the same opportunities as other people because of his disability. However, you can say the discrimination is justified if it would put the employer at undue hardship to accommodate the employee. It isn’t a blanket get out of jail free card as what constitutes undue hardship needs to be considered on a case by case basis, for example my employer is a 10,000+ employee organization, so what we can do for a individual with a disability is far more than what a 5 person organization can accommodate.

      That said this isn’t a cut and dried case, and there might be other tasks your employee could take on. One of the keys things when dealing with cases where discrimination looms large is not to make hard and fast rules, and don’t make assumptions. Explore all the options even if it isn’t exactly what the employee is requesting.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        That sounds similar to the U.S. But they’re not required to offer people the same opportunities as others if the person has shown that they’re not well suited for those opportunities, which it sounds like may have happened here.

        1. HR Manager

          That’s absolutely the case in Canada, but the bar for undue hardship is way higher than in the states. In both countries you really need to avoid making assumptions along the lines of x can’t do y because he has a visual disability. You need to try things out (which the op did), or get objective evidence – don’t base things on a subjective opinion.

  2. fposte

    You might also frame it as something that’s a common worker experience, not limited to him, since it really isn’t limited to him. Lots of people would like to grow in their work in ways their work can’t support.

    I like the suggestion of finding him another growth spot, since he seems to be somebody reliable at repetitive work; can you find something that would take a bit of load off of somebody else and that needs minimal training, since it sounds like training is really the obstacle? Or is what he’s yearning for the kind of task that you really do need training for, and that’s the whole roadblock right there?

    1. Chinook

      Would it be possible to turn it back on the employee and ask him what it is he would like to do in the company (the same wya you would with any low level employee with aspirations for professional growth). Maybe he sees a way for his task list to grow that you don’t. As well, ask him what he thinks would need to be successful for this and what he thinks would the advantage for the business if he does this.

      Essentially, make him build a business case the way you would for any employee.

      1. MarieK

        Wow, this is a tough situation to be in. I like the idea of asking him what type of additional responsibilities he might like. It’s important to be honest with him and make it clear that asking him what he’s interested in does not guarantee a new role, but it might give you a little more perspective.

    2. Rindle

      Totally agree with fposte on the “common worker experience” point. I like the idea of trying something new that requires minimal training, but since it took him a year to learn the equivalent of data entry, there may not be any other reasonable options.

  3. Forrest

    Oh, this hits close to home. My sister is mentally handicap and will never proceed very far from what she does now. Indeed, it took her a long time to find the position she’s been in now. (By the way, I highly recommend Wegman’s if anyone wants to support a company that is open to helping people like my sister.)

    I would be honest with John but I agree with Alison – there may be small teaks that he can do. He’s probably bored and rather than learning a whole new task, would be happy to learn a modified one or something similar. Hell, he’d probably be happy to help with administration (like copying or filing) for a while. Anything to break away from the same old same old for a while.

    That said, if there really isn’t anything, I hope your boss talks to John with kindness but also as if he would to anyone who was “normal” and needed to hear this conversation.

    1. businesslady

      off-topic, but I just moved to central NY & I *love* Wegmans. & now, learning that they’ve got progressive hiring practices makes me love them more.

        1. ChristineSW

          Wegman’s is HUGE. There’s even a second floor…I went to a volunteer appreciation dinner at our Wegman’s in April.

    2. LizNYC

      Former Ithacan here and I miss Wegman’s so much! I graduated from college *cough* years ago and I still have the keytag on my keychain. I love that store! (In an obsessive way, for sure)

      1. Anonymous

        My only problem with both Wegmans locations in my area is that they are a total zoo morning noon and night. I had to stop shopping there because of the crowds. I wish they would add locations!

      2. Editor

        Another former Ithacan. Being transferred from Ithaca to Kentucky was just awful in terms of grocery shopping. Kroger just doesn’t have the same standards Wegman’s does. I was ecstatic when, after we’d moved to PA, we got a Wegman’s nearby. They’re a good employer.

        Where I live now is an Interstate corridor, and a lot of the warehouses also hire workers with various handicaps. I think there’s a lot of partnering between nonprofits like ARC, special education vocational programs, and the warehouse employers.

  4. km

    Is it possible to utilize any type of follow-up support from the program that placed him in the job? (It’s unclear from the OP’s letter if the program that placed him was an internal organizational initiative or an external vocational rehab type organization. If it was an external org, there might be a contact there who can provide support/advice/suggestions.

    1. clobbered

      Yeah, definitely check if there is some kind of social service support for this. For example it may be that the training before failed because it wasn’t appropriate to his abilities, and with coaching a more effective program can be devised. For example, instead of actively training him, maybe write a very detailed document that he can always consult instead of having to retain verbal instructions, etc.

      1. Evan

        Frankly, as a non-disabled person, I would vastly prefer having a detailed document to consult, too. Just a thought.

    2. TheSnarkyB

      Exactly. This sounds like a problem that really needs a 3rd party/advocate-type situation. Not to make your company adopt a resolution that you don’t like, but to serve as a go-between, whatever the solution. Since you, OP, and your boss aren’t medical or psychological professionals, you don’t know precisely how his brain works, just how it’s been explained to you or how long it takes for you to explain something to him. A lot of times it’s the vehicle of explanation that causes a problem (I.e. verbal instead of visual, etc). It sounds like this man should be talking with a case worker or placement specialist about getting into some occupational therapy. That should make him feel at least more satisfied with his efforts to move up, and perhaps there’s room for small improvement. It’s possible that he hasn’t had the need for those services before, but they’re out there and he qualifies. Is there an employee referral/assistance program, or can you contact any sort of liaison/govt appointed advocate/case worker for him?
      I hope it works out! Outside help could mean little/no burden on your resources.

    3. AF

      Yes +1 on that – I was about to post the same thing. The program that referred may need to do follow-up anyway if they’re getting funding and need to measure outcomes for their clients. Good luck!

    4. Sara M

      Poor John. What a frustrating situation for everyone. Ditto this–an outside placement organization, if there is one, is exactly who to ask for help.

    5. COT

      I was going to suggest the same thing, as well. Whether it’s an external or internal program for employees with disabilities, whoever runs that program may be able to help out here–even if John isn’t technically a client of theirs any more.

      1. Pussyfooter

        +1 to these suggestions that maybe *someone* can help John reach more of his goals, even when it’s not feasible for his company to do it.

        Despite years of honors English classes and reading a lot on my own, I had something happen that left my Working Memory all bunked up. It took me six months to read my first book after that happened–lots of frustrating repetition–but now I can read comfortably for most situations.

        I couldn’t get help from government for my problems, yet I’m actively searching out ways to manage the resulting issues and retrain myself. If John is self-aware and otherwise normal, maybe he can build a system of training for himself beyond what his job can support? Maybe the company can give him old data to learn to manipulate on his own time? Maybe friends can drill him on the parts where he needs extra help/interrupt errors until he can self-manage…or whatever issue slows him down.

        If he’s willing and able to get there, maybe he can set up a system for doing it without inconveniencing employers and achieve new professional goals on a slower timeline.

  5. Beth

    I’ve worked several times with outside organizations who have placed disabled workers with us. Was that the case with the OP or did they seek the person out themselves? The difference being, in my experience, we had a case worker who would help mitigate issues where the worker wanted to do beyond the scope of his responsibilities/ capabilities. That having been said, I would treat him like any other employee. “Yes, John. I understand that you would like to have more responsibilities. We tried xxx but that didn’t work. Is there something specific you are interested in doing.” That may answer your question, one of the workers we had, specifically asked for more responsibility when we asked what he wanted to do, he wanted to water the plants! Simple addition to his job. So I’d start asking what he is interested in. On one hand it’s nice to be sensitive to how he feels; on the other hand, you don’t want to set him up to fail but allowing him to try something that is beyond his reach.

    1. Chinook

      “one of the workers we had, specifically asked for more responsibility when we asked what he wanted to do, he wanted to water the plants!”

      This is an important point. Because you are working with someone whose brain doesn’t work like the average person, their perception of “more responsibility” could be vastly different from the company’s.

    2. Not So NewReader

      A friend who worked with folks with disabilities often would ask the folks how to set up a job for them or what they would like to do. The answers she got were AMAZING.
      Definitely, ask him if he sees something he would like to do OR if he has thoughts on work he has already done.
      Everyone develops work-arounds or double checks for their stumbling blocks. Heck, I do that. John is probably no different in that regard. He knows his stumbling blocks and he knows his strengths.

  6. SJ

    Man…I don’t have any insight, I just feel so badly for the guy. First he suffers a TBI that changes him and has to get used to that and his new life, and now he’s faced with the specter of doing the same monotonous, tedious task for years on end, AND dealing emotionally with the loss of his potential? I’d totally be in tears.

    I do hope there can be some minor variation added to his duties…no one likes having to do the exact same task day in and day out, all day, AFAIK.

    1. tcookson

      I have nothing to add as far as advice (except to second that maybe an advocate can still be of assistance, even though OP’s company has “used up” their allotted resources). But this reminds me of a very talented young professor who used to work in our university department and was involved in a catastrophic motorcycle accident. He had to have cognitive tests at 6 mos. and at 1 yr. to test his ability to return to work, and did not pass either of them. I heard that he made it through the hiring process at another university, but was let go after just a few months when they realized that he couldn’t perform the work. He is aware of the difference in his cognitive process and still remembers his previous ability to do high-cognitive-function jobs, but he just can’t do that kind of work anymore.

  7. Anna

    I love the ideas of training him on SOME new task, something small and new to him. Thinking outside the box.

    As an alternative, maybe he could be considered for some volunteer work? If he is completing his work well and timely, perhaps there is some volunteer work he can participate in? Helping to set up for special events, meetings, etc. I am BIG on volunteer work to help people do something besides the same-old.

    1. annie

      I was going to suggest that too, perhaps he can work on a committee that is more “extra curricular”, like the holiday party planning, or the company volunteer park cleanup day. It obviously does not solve the boredom problem, but it might improve his job satisfaction.

      1. Forrest

        I think she means volunteer work, as in work outside of his normal duties, not volunteer work as in unpaid. At least I hope so!

          1. Liane

            Many companies have charities that they support not just with money but by encouraging employees to volunteer for them. For example, the local branch of my company organizes employee volunteers for the food drive booth at an annual weekend festival. A previous employer allowed us to do presentations (on anything kid-friendly, not just related to the job) for the local school district’s “teach-in,” which was even on-the-clock; the company had time-tracking &/or payroll codes for workday time spent on charitable activities they sponsored.
            I think this is the kind of volunteering Anna means.

            1. Forrest

              I hope not – its hard enough for disabled people to find paying gigs. We shouldn’t get into the mind set that volunteering is a substitute for training and growing one’s career in the workplace. For the guy wanted to do something for free, he would. We would all find it unacceptable if a “normal” employee wanted to grow and their employer only offered ways to make the company looked good that were unpaid.

              For nondisabled people, volunteering would be an addition, not an in place of. It should be no different for disabled people.

              1. Caffeine Queen

                I agree with you………However, I find that, in this blog, Alison always recommends volunteer work as a way to build your network, particularly if you’ve been let go or if you’re a new parent who’s decided to stay at home but who would like to come back to the workforce.

                Also, as someone living in DC and working in the non-profit field, volunteer work/internships/unpaid work in general is how we get our paid jobs! I’m not disabled but volunteer work helped me get great positions. Networking happens during service events and long term gigs can help you keep your skills sharp. Volunteer work can involve professional skillsets-for example, volunteering with Spanish speaking organizations enables me to keep my own language skills up, which are quite useful to my employer now.

                All of this is a very long winded way of saying that it’s not just disabled people who depend on volunteer work for expanding skill sets and advancing. Not to say we’re all mercenaries-most of us wouldn’t be in the fields we’re in without truly caring. All the same, volunteering can be (and often is) a way of networking in the non-profit world.

      2. Colette

        I assumed Anna was suggesting he be paid to help out with special events, which are outside his usual job duties. But if the suggestion is that he not be paid to help out, then yes, I agree that’s not OK.

        1. Anna

          Yes, he would be paid his usual salary for the week. When he finishes his work, he can help with other things. Some of the things I have done in the past in clude Toastmasters (our on-site corporate club), holiday party planning, worked on a web project for the company’s newest product line. I didn’t make more money or work different/more hours, I just got to do other things. No one made me and I got ALOT out of it, developmentally. I was not being trained/developed for any formal position like management… presumably because they didn’t think I was qualified. I solved my own boredom problem.

      3. Sarah G.

        If it’s a nonprofit, paid employees can volunteer, with certain specifications. She doesn’t say what kind of employer it is.

  8. Elizabeth West

    As a person with a learning disability (dyscalculia) that has limited her employment to a very narrow range (basically, nothing with any significant math or accounting), I can understand how frustrated John must be. km had an excellent suggestion regarding the program that placed him, or an outside advocate. And Beth’s suggestion about asking John what he wants to do is also good.

    Please update us, OP; I’m very interested to know what your company does to work through this. I hope it turns out so that John can stay with you, because it sounds like an awesome and sensitive place for him to be.

  9. Kay

    I just wanted to chime in and agree with the people above who mentioned a third party service provider who might be able to help. There are a few different agencies (I work at one) that can help provide extra training or other supports which might make the situation easier.

  10. Coelura

    The state VocRehab office will help with training, even providing an on the job coach to sit with him and provide the continuous training he needs. The training does not cost the employer. I recommend reaching out to VocRehab and seeing how they can help with this situation.

    1. Sarah G.

      This is a good idea to at least look into, but he would need to be low-functioning enough to qualify for these services. It’s worth a try, but with state funding being cut pretty much everywhere, it can be extremely difficult to qualify for this level of services.
      Hopefully the organization that placed him at the job can help. I would love the OP to weigh in.
      Regardless, it’s important to have a dialog with John before doing anything in the way of pursuing other resources. John might not *want* to go to Voc Rehab, or he might have already tried that; he needs to be an active participant in these choices.

  11. Mrs Addams

    How about letting John shadow a few other co-workers for the day?

    If John is just getting bored of the same-old mundane job, by shadowing others he gets a break from his work and an opportunity to see other departments/processes etc. Whilst he might not be doing anything, it’ll give him something other than repetitive task to do. If at all possible, scheduling a monthly/fortnightly/weekly shadowing day would give John something to look forward to and a break from the norm.

    It might also open doors for him – maybe there’s no other job in your department that he can do without training, but he might find a task or process that he has a particular knack for in another department. Or maybe Wakeen in accounts has to photocopy and file last week’s invoices every Monday afternoon, and that’s something John could do – Wakeen can hand off a mundane task and use the time for other projects, and John has more responsibility.

    Shadowing also allows John to consider what other roles he may be appropriate for if he does decide to leave your organisation. If the accident was fairly recent, he’s still probably getting used to the fact that his potential now isn’t the same as it was before the accident, and hasn’t necessarily adjusted his goals and expectations accordingly. By exploring other roles within the organisation he can get ideas and consider what other types of job he could do, which he could then feed back to the programme administrators who may be able to help him find similar roles in other companies, or provide access to external training and education to help him pursue those goals.

    1. Forrest

      And you know what? He may actually train on something by shadowing. You’d be surprised what people pick up on outside of normal training lessons.

  12. ChristineSW

    This topic is very near and dear to me both on a personal and professional level. It can be really disheartening to know that you are capable of so much more, but feel stuck. I certainly don’t think an employer should have to bear undue hardship, but I also would want to John to feel like he’s growing in the job.

    Has John given any specific ideas about what he’s interested in doing? If not, maybe you could ask. Are there any specific tasks he wants to try? Are there any specific skills he has expressed wanting to learn? I like what someone above said – how he may find there’s something he has a “knack” for, which I think is fairly common with certain cognitive disabilities.

    Is he receiving, or has he received, services through Voc Rehab (either directly or through a contracted community nonprofit)? If so, I recommend reaching out to them. Perhaps they can suggest some alternatives that won’t require a lot of new training.

    Please keep us posted on this.

  13. Joey

    Op,
    Although you say you treat him “the same as everyone else” its important to remember that ADA requires more than that. It requires that you engage in an interactive process to determine if there are accommodations that aren’t an undue hardship on your company. And obviously to provide those accommodations.

  14. mlhd

    There may be a government or nonprofit agency for the disabled that can assist with funding and/or training for this worker.

  15. Editor

    I notice you say John “was hired as part of a special program” and received about a year’s training. Can you go back to the program sponsors to find out if they can help provide the training or have any suggestions? That’s really what everyone else here seems to be saying — ask John what he wants, but see if a third party can help him obtain the results he craves.

    Could or would an EAP referral help provide him with an appropriate short-term therapist or case worker to help him navigate his choices? I am concerned about him because his limitations might make depression more likely, and it isn’t like his current job is varied enough to take his mind off his troubles (this may be projecting how I’d feel, so John might not be responding as I would).

  16. OP

    First of all : thank you all for your conserned responses, you gave me some good ideas. But to give you some more information about our situation : we’re in Europe, so while we have a vast social security network, it’s different in many ways than the U.S. The program that placed him here helped us deal with his social skills, his way of behaving and his concentration issues (e.g. he can take a cigarette break every hour and take a shorter lunch break instead, so he can stay focused), but not the actual training of what he has to do. We’re a small firm, there are only 16 employees and our boss, so there are not many different things you can do. All the other jobs here require a lot of interpretation (we are a engineering firm, so they’re all technical drawing people, no idea what the correct English job title is for that) and that’s where it goes wrong : it’s very hard to teach when to do what – where, because it depends on the specific situation/plan they have to draw. So far, he’s not been able to make the smallest of correct interpretations, and I’m not sure that’s something you can teach…
    I like the idea of small extra responsibilities though, I’ll try my best to ask for his help with small things I need done, something I already do, but could definitely do more. And the idea of being direct, but that’s where my boss comes in, I’ll pass that message, but he’s is extremely un-confrontational, so I’m not sure he’ll deliver the message.
    I’ll make sure to let you know how it goes from here!

    1. Lora

      Drafting/CAD I think is what you mean? Where the engineer sends a sketch (redline drawing) and the drafting folks make into an official Drawing Of Record? Yeah, there is NO room for error in that job, and reviewing and correcting someone’s mistakes would be a full time job.

      Drafting can certainly be taught, and engineering programs in the US have drawing classes as part of freshman engineering curricula, but it does take some time to learn, depending on the complexity of the drawing. And it depends on *what* you’re drawing–P&IDs, ladder logic, process flow diagrams are pretty simple, but architectural drawings with utility overlays are complicated. Heck, those things make MY head hurt… But yeah, I can see it being really, really REALLY difficult for someone with concentration problems to manage.

      Is there nothing else at your firm that doesn’t involve drawing? Updating the website, milestone reports, helping out with project management even? I mean 90% of project management is going through checklists (punchlists) and bugging people, “did you do your job? did you do your job? did YOU do your job?” Milestone reports can be done with macros–I used to have very low-level techs fill out milestone reports and data report sheets without any problems, it was just a matter of setting up the report macro in Microsoft Access and a form for them to enter the data. Checking off turnover packages? That’s a big one at my current job, making sure vendors have provided all the documentation for something that they need to, making sure all the materials certificates are together, scanned into pdfs, we’re not missing anything, stuff like that. And if it is missing, bug the vendor to get it. It’s boring and annoying, but needs done and doesn’t take an engineer to go through a list checking off boxes and making phone calls/sending emails to people for updates. Setting up or maintaining a document archival system?

      1. OP

        That’s exactly what it is :-) thanks! They draw water and sewerage pipes, both design and as-built, so as you said : no room for errors (that could cost €€€€ if overlooked). I will start looking for things he can do that don’t require the level of concentration needed for drafting/CAD, you gave me some great ideas!

        1. Pam

          At the engineering firm I used to work for, we kept a company library of relevant industry articles, journals, etc. That way if you came across a design or system or topic that you were not familiar with, you could pull the entire file of articles (from the last 20+ years my firm had been collecting them!) on that topic and use that as research. Sometimes a google search doesn’t pull up relevant topics.

          Maybe this employee could assist in starting a reference library like this? Employees would need to label the articles with the relevant file topic (we actually had a form for submission to the library) and then your employee could create the folder and file away and keep organized. We also had a check in / check out system like a normal library. Perhaps this employee could help manage that?

          Or what about internal mail? I know with 16 people it’s not much but at an engineering firm, we had quite a few things (specifications, redlines) that had to be hand-delivered to other employees. If each employee had a internal inbox/outbox, this person could be responsible for the mail?

  17. JustANote

    Slightly off topic, but I just wanted to recognise the OP for making a genuine effort to help John. While helping him is the right thing, so many people just go through the motions. It takes a lot of extra work and effort for a manager when a staff member needs extra support. And yes, I know that’s part of the job, but I just thought that going over and above should be acknowledged too.

  18. ella

    There’s one thing that set off some anger in my head (I tried to think of a more gentler wording, but really, I suppose anger is what it was), and that’s this sentence:

    But there is just no way we have the time and resources to train him, when we know it won’t work.

    It may be a semantic thing, but I’ve never met a disabled person in my life–particularly not one who’s employable, as John is–who wasn’t able to learn things. Does training him take a ton of extra time? Absolutely it does, and you (and your firm) has to decide whether they’re willing to take the time. But there’s a difference between him not being able to learn (at any pace), and you not being willing to train him.

    I appreciate that you’re willing to employ him and it sounds like you treat him as well as you can. But my sister (who’s mentally disabled) has run this cycle a few times in her employment career–a company is willing to take her on, and they treat her with kid gloves at first, and put in time and effort to train her on the one thing; and eventually she gets bored and starts slacking off or breaking rules but they won’t train her on new things because it took so long the first time. And all of a sudden her bosses will be telling my family that she has to “adhere to all the rules that all the other employees adhere to” or she’ll get fired, nevermind that they’re not holding her to the same standard as everyone else to begin with, because they take for granted that every other employee would like some variation in their routine so they get it, but not my sister because it’s too much trouble (and/or because people with disabilities don’t need to be challenged, or something); and nevermind that they’ve been letting her slide on all these rules for past two years because she’s “special.”

    So she gets fired, and then she has nowhere to go and nothing to do for months and months except for her day program (which is 12 hours a week, thanks, America), until the placement agency can find something else for her. Which they have to take her away from three months later because it turns out that someone there likes to prey on vulnerable folk that he thinks are too stupid to know when something really really wrong is being done to them.

    I’m sorry. I’m sure that John’s situation doesn’t resemble my sister’s. But that sentence, coupled with AAM’s hints that John may get pushed out (of his own accord or not so much), just set my hackles up. You shouldn’t keep a guy on just out of pity, but if he’s so slow to adapt, how does letting him go–or him quitting out of frustration–help anybody?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Well, now, wait — I didn’t say anything hinting that he should or might get pushed out. I said that if it’s not realistic for the company to provide the amount of training that would be needed, the fair thing to do is to tell John that so that he can make his own decisions about whether he wants to stay or not.

      And I don’t think it’s crazy that a business might be willing to make a one-time investment of extra training time, but not do it again after that if the person wants to move to a new role. They spent a year training him for the task he’s doing; it’s entirely reasonable to decide that while they were able to do that, they can’t responsible invest another year on training for a different task.

    2. OP

      We don’t want him to leave, and won’t let him get to that point if we can avoid it. Also, he’s not the only one doing what he does : there are two more people (not disabled) doing the same thing. They don’t seem to mind that they’re not moving up. And we’re not keeping him on out of pity, he’s a valued coworker and we really need him to do what he does (he’s reliable, never late, hardly ever sick, says “hello” and “goodbye” and treats everyone with respect : that’s a coworker you do not want to lose, trust me). So where as I understand your situation with your sister (I’m sorry for that btw, it can’t be easy for her having to start over again and again), please note that we are not at all trying to push him out.

    3. Forrest

      Oh come on now.

      Can mentally disabled people learn things? Of course! Do a lot of employers treat them with kitten gloves when they shouldn’t? Certainly. Do a lot of employers do a 180 when the charm of helping someone and the pr of employing a disabled person wears off and they need to get actual business done but haven’t set standards? Sure. I’ve seen it happen to my sister.

      But it does disabled people a disservice to say they can do anything “normal” people can do if we just put in enough time. The ability to learn comes in so many levels. My sister will never be a rocket scientist, no matter how many people focus on her and no matter how much time is spent. Heck, I’m not going to be a rock scientist either. My sister is also never going to be able to learn how to drive a car like I can but I’m also never going to learn to be a great artist like her.

      And its ok. Its perfectly ok.

      In my opinion, the thought process of “disabled people are just like us! they can do whatever we do!” can be just as dangerous as “disabled people can’t do anything! handle them gently!”

      The OP/LW is the only person here capable of determining if John can learn the next level of tasks. Frankly, if the company has spent time training him, then they’ve already set themselves apart from the companies that have fired out siblings.

      Finally, you can’t argue for fair treatment and for disabled people to be treated like non disabled employees and then turn around and say your hackles are up when people do discuss treating people like John like other employees. A lot of employees, regardless if they are disabled or not, will run into the problem John is having. Its not pushing someone out to say they can’t invest more time, money or energy into an employee and that employees needs to decide if he wants to stay or go.

  19. Jackie

    I’m really glad the OP raised this important topic in such a thoughtful way. I run a program (in the US) that helps people with disabilities to find employment in large companies and school districts. This really is a common issue- how do we help someone grow who needs a ton of support to get there? And in my experience there’s no easy answer but even asking how you can help him, OP, is a HUGE step in the right direction.
    If I had one piece of advice to offer, I would echo what others have said about really talking to John about his career trajectory and expand on that a bit. What are his goals with your company (or in general)? What kinds of tasks would he like to be doing in a year? Two years? And when he answers, it’s important to listen carefully and try to understand the root of what he’s hoping to do- what is it- specifically- that motivates him?
    Once you have this info OP, use it to honor his “dream” in a way that is respectful of the needs of both the employee and the employer. A great example- if a person said that they want to be a computer programmer the next question to ask is- what is it about computer programming that you think you’d like? The answer to this question is the key. If they said they would really like it because they love to type numbers using the number pad, you’ve learned something super important. A person who loves using 10-key would probably be amazing at entering data into Excel. They might not be willing or able to undergo the training necessary to program but if 10-key is the appeal, you can honor that in another way.
    This approach honors the employee’s needs, wants, abilities, and goals in a way that is respectful while still recognizing that there are potentially limitations within the company. And it’s also in keeping with the spirit of disability rights’ laws, regulations, and movements. In the end, I always recommend that co-workers and employers ask themselves what they would want someone to do for them- within reason- in this situation. Honoring the dream in even the smallest way is usually a part of the answer.

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