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Are You Prepared To Relocate Families With Special Needs

June 1, 1997
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Related Topics: Disabilities, Relocation Services, Featured Article
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If you found out today that you're expected to manage the relocation of an employee with a physical disability, would you know what to do? What if you're relocating an able-bodied employee and discover that a member of his or her immediate family has a serious disability? Have you given much thought to how these challenges are different from relocating an employee who doesn't have a disability in his or her family?

According to the 1992 U.S. Census report, 49 million Americans have a significant disability -- one that affects a person's ability to perform the activities of daily living. That works out to be approximately one person in five. With the population aging and a decade to go before the first baby boomers hit the traditional retirement age, the number of people with disabilities who will be tapped for relocations is likely to rise. This clearly is an issue that HR needs to pay greater attention to.

Indeed, according to Steve Mumma, senior vice president at Evansville, Indiana-based Atlas Van Lines, there has been a fairly steady growth in the number of employees with disabilities being relocated in the past few years. The number of family members with disabilities who influence the relocation decision is also on the rise. Atlas' "Annual Survey of Corporate Relocation Policies" conducted in 1996 shows that two-thirds of companies responding had experiences with employees declining relocation in the last year. Until just a few years ago, the primary reason for turn-downs was the cost of living in the new location. But of those respondents who declined in the 1996 survey, more than half (54.7 percent) cited family ties (not including spouse's employment) as the primary reason. Mumma suggests that many of these ties are related to health and disability issues.

For years now, HR professionals have worked diligently to meet the letter and spirit of the ADA and other disability-related legislation. In the workplace, once the special needs have been analyzed it's relatively easy to determine what accommodation is necessary to enable an employee to perform his or her job. Relocating a family, however, always has been a task that involves more delicate and personalized attention. It's important to understand the different needs of each individual, whether it's the employee or his or her child or spouse. Consider the issues that relate to each of these groups and learn which resources will best help you in the relocation process.

Each relocation is unique.
Part of the problem with managing the relocation of employees who are disabled or who have immediate family members who are disabled is that there's no standard for what should be offered by the company. When HR relocates a family with an infant, it can expect the family will be concerned with day care and education issues. If that same family's infant has been diagnosed with a disability, then HR will need to take into consideration a number of specialized medical facilities, social service organizations and specialized education. The most appropriate of these should be offered along with helping the family find support for any other specific needs. Each situation is one-of-a-kind.

Because each situation is different from the next, it's important that human resources clarifies the disabled individual's special needs. As a first step, HR must establish clear communication. Before involving a moving company, Mumma suggests the employee and the HR manager discuss exactly what will be needed. Some considerations could be as simple as installing ramps and grab bars in the new residence or workplace. Others might be more complicated, such as arranging for a service to help evaluate different school options in the new community, or handling the transportation and assembly of delicate medical equipment.

Mumma has an unusual perspective on moving families with persons with disabilities because of firsthand experience. His wife, Carol, uses a wheelchair. He reminds HR professionals, "In dealing with these employees [with disabilities], above all else, [remember] they're human beings. Secondly, they're employees. Third, they happen to be disabled."

Mumma adds emphatically that employees at the same level -- whether or not they're dealing with disabilities -- should expect they can negotiate the same level of benefits. The accommodations made because of the disability should be in addition to, not instead of, the benefits the employee's peers are receiving.

Before involving a moving company, the employee and the HR manager should discuss exactly what will be needed.

Susan Blasius is the manager of destination services for Forward Mobility, a relocation management consulting service in Bernardsville, New Jersey. She recently faced the challenge of relocating a hearing-impaired employee of a major telecommunications corporation to Atlanta. Her problem was communicating with the employee. How could she communicate with the employee about ongoing concerns, and how could her company's representative communicate with him during the one-day tour of residential areas?

Blasius decided to take a two-pronged approach. She arranged to use Relay, a government-sponsored phone service administered by the local telephone company. Relay used technology to interface between Blasius and the client for the needs assessment. She also arranged for a sign-language interpreter to accompany the client and a rental expert as they toured possible apartments. After the tour, the communication continued using e-mail and fax, and the employee (and employer) were delighted. In this case, the extras were paid for by the employer.

Another Forward Mobility consultant, Kimberly J. Woods, faced a very different challenge. Woods is the manager of Reconnecting Lifestyles -- a department that helps relocating families reconnect with favorite activities in the new location. A large pharmaceutical corporation was relocating an employee and family from New Jersey to North Carolina. The family included a 13-year-old son who uses a wheelchair. As an active teenager, the boy wanted information about accessible sports programs in his new community. His parents also wanted information about medical resources in the area, governmental and social programs that might be available and, of course, schools.

Woods researched those topics and supplied the information to the family. There was no additional charge for the extra service beyond what any able-bodied family would require. Woods states: "We charge a rate per child to the company we're working with. It's a standard fee." She adds that since some clients need more time and others need less, it all evens out.

When relocating an employee with a disability, consider the working environment.
When the employee is the person with the disability, HR needs to do some initial research to be sure the transition to the new workplace is as smooth as possible. It's important to make a list of accommodations the company now makes for that person. Are there ramps and special push-plates to open the building door? Is there Braille signage at elevators and other critical points in the building? Is there special computer or phone equipment that will need to be moved or duplicated?

Then consider: What, if anything, will need to be done to accommodate this employee in getting into the workplace and doing his or her job? How soon can those modifications be made? What extra support will the employee need to find a new home? Go over every step of the home-search trip with the employee beforehand. Some items of accommodation may not have occurred to you -- like ground transportation. You're probably accustomed to having people rent a car when they get off the plane. Renting a wheelchair-accessible van isn't nearly as easy. One company that offers rental vans with a wide range of options is Wheelers' Accessible Van Rental Inc. based in Glendale, Arizona. If your employee uses public transportation to get to work and to handle personal needs, you'll want to be sure that equivalent transportation is available in the new community.

Help families find the best schools for their children with disabilities.
When the employee has a school-age child or other children with disabilities, the role of the HR professional becomes even more important in facilitating the relocation process.

The first step is to identify with the employee and his or her family what the specific educational needs are. Some services the family already may be accessing include: special transportation, tutoring, sheltered classrooms, aids to assist with manipulating materials, speech therapy and physical therapy. Are these the same services they'll need in their new home? Are the child's needs changing and requiring more or fewer services and programs?

It might appear that since there are laws regarding education for children with disabilities, exactly the same services will be available anywhere in the United States. Not so. Each school district works to comply with the law, but based on the school's previous experiences with disabilities, there will be some variations in the types of services and programs that actually exist in different communities.

Judith Heumann, assistant secretary with the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the U.S. Department of Education says, "Every state has a State Department of Education and within that department an Office of Special Education. It would be helpful to contact that office and get the basic information about what the law is at the federal level and what provisions there are in that state."

Because several school districts are likely to be within reasonable commute distance of the new job site, Heumann says the smart thing for HR professionals to do is to gather information from several of those school districts before the family narrows down areas where they're interested in living.

This advice is echoed by Forward Mobility's Woods who says that in her experience, families usually choose a school district first. "Choosing a school," Woods contends, "is probably one of the most important things when people are relocating to a new area to ensure their children are going to have the best education they can."

A family member's needs may require finding a residential school. Whether the issue arises because of poor educational opportunities at the relocation site or because of changing family dynamics, it's important for HR staff to be able to offer resources. One comprehensive resource is the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Private Schools for Exceptional Children (NAPSEC). Its staff will ask a few simple questions about the child and the kind of facility the family wants. Then they'll compile a list of schools individually selected to meet that child's and family's specific needs.

Since children need more from life than just school, HR can help by searching out some resources for them. HR professionals should check with national organizations that work with the child's condition to see if they have offices in the new area. Examples from the book "Raising a Child Who Has a Physical Disability," (published by Wiley) include: the United Cerebral Palsy Association Inc., the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Juvenile Diabetes Foundation International and National Easter Seal Society. The patient-services coordinator at the local office of any of these organizations can give excellent referrals to medical providers, sports and recreational programs and other resources available in that locality.

When relocating an employee overseas, educating the child with a disability becomes even more difficult. Lynn Hudson, account manager for Ernst & Young Global Expatriate Services says, "It's much harder for these children to have special classes. Usually if U.S. citizens are going overseas, they want their child to go to either an American School or an International School because those are accredited and their credits will transfer. Those schools are generally fairly small and really not able to handle children who have severe learning differences or physical differences."

She cautions that if the child isn't able to be educated in a school setting and there's a compulsory school-attendance law in the new country, these issues have to be dealt with before the family relocates, and they may be quite involved.

Spouses with disabilities may have career issues too.
While HR professionals already have been sensitized to accompanying-spouse issues, if that spouse has a disability, they'll need to be prepared to deal with that as well.

Heumann notes that each state is dealing with the Rehabilitation Act -- which defines services that should be available to all Americans. Every state has an office to handle programs related to the act. The office is generally in the state capitol and has a name like Office of Rehabilitation or Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. "[The people at these offices] can give you information about the federal law and how the state is implementing it," Heumann notes. Some of the kinds of assistance people can obtain from these offices include: job training, education (possibly even college tuition) and employment placement assistance. These offices also may be able to provide information about locally organized resources like support groups.

Open communication is essential during the relocation process. There likely will be problems or concerns that haven't come up before. Because the employee has more experience dealing with his or her disability than most HR professionals do, he or she may be able to offer some excellent suggestions for resolving those issues.

So, if you do find out that you're managing the relocation of an employee who's dealing with a disability, you see that it's a unique -- but manageable -- situation. Once you've done it, you'll realize that it also can be some of the most rewarding work you've ever done.

Workforce, June 1997, Vol. 76, No. 6, pp. 44-50.

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