Special Delivery

Disabled transferees face a number of challenges, but HR is often not made aware of the special accommodations they require.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007
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Legally blind for half his life, Paul Mogan has never let his disability hold him back. Boasting a master's degree in electrical engineering, he achieved his dream of going to work for NASA at the Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral in Florida.

During his 20-year tenure with the organization, Mogan has held a variety of engineering positions, including running labs and working in technology development. Due to his increasingly limited eyesight, Mogan moved into a full-time leadership-development position in 2001, where he directed other engineers, rather than playing a hands-on role himself.

In 2005, he sought to advance his career even further by applying for the NASA Administrator's Fellowship. Accepted into the program, Mogan was told he would be sent to teach biomedical engineering at Baltimore's Morgan State University for one year, then on a variety of developmental assignments, including stints at the Rand Corp. and the National Academy of Public Administration, both located in Washington. 

Naturally, such activities would require him to temporarily leave Florida, where he lived with his wife and kids. Rather than uprooting his family twice in just over a year, Mogan decided to look for rental property in Columbia, Md., which he had determined to be a reasonable commute to either Baltimore or the nation's capital.

Upon visiting Columbia to seek out suitable housing, however, he says his initial reaction was, "I can't do this."

Mogan was particularly concerned about his ability to get around in the new location. Because of his disability, he knew he would have to rely on public transportation -- specifically, long-haul commuter buses -- to get him to and from work each day.

Much to his dismay, he quickly learned the "fouled up" state of the transportation system. He cites unreliable bus schedules that listed buses as running every 20 minutes, when they truly ran an hour and a half apart. What's more, Mogan discovered he would have to take an additional bus after departing the commuter bus and then walk the final three-quarters of a mile to his office. In short, his commute would be a much greater ordeal than initially thought.

Still Mogan forged ahead and, with the assistance of a helpful realtor, found a suitable townhouse to rent for himself and his family. Because he was working on assignment for NASA, the than organization agreed to ship his specialized hardware and software, including Zoom Text, a screen reader and magnifier, as well as an extra large monitor.

Over time, he even came to know several faculty members well enough to commute with them, rather than having to endure the bus ride every day.

Today, back at Kennedy Space Center, Mogan serves as a project integrator in NASA's constellation program.

He brands his relocation experience a success, although he realizes in hindsight that NASA would have been willing to provide him with more assistance had he merely stepped forward and explained what he needed. For example, Mogan paid to have his wife accompany him on his site visit/home-finding trip, unaware that NASA would have picked up the tab.

"While they could make that information more readily available, I put three-quarters of the blame on me for not going to the travel people ahead of time and talking to them," says Mogan.

"If you don't identify yourself and explain your needs to the proper people," he adds, "you can't expect them to help you because they don't know."

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Ignorance of transferees' special needs appears to be fairly common. According to Anita Brienza, spokesperson for the Washington-based Employee Relocation Council, an informal survey of numerous members undertaken specifically for this article revealed that corporate relocation professionals are rarely aware of disability-related needs among their transferee population.

"A number of my corporate respondents said they honestly couldn't remember any relocations that involved this issue," says Brienza. "In many instances, it seems, the transferee is reluctant to share that information with colleagues or relocation management, preferring to keep it a family matter."

That seems to be the case at Detroit-based General Motors Corp., where Relocation Manager Carol Pickens says she sees "less than a handful" of relocations involving a disability each year. She suspects it's not a case of few employees with disabilities relocating, but merely that her department is rarely made aware of them. Pickens concedes that GM doesn't go out of its way to solicit such information from its transferees.

"We don't ask the question," says Pickens. "If the employee volunteers that information, that's the only way that we really know about it."

When an employee chooses to divulge his or her disability, Pickens says, there are a number of things the company can do to assist him or her in making the move a little easier.

With the employee's permission, for example, GM will ask the realtor to provide an agent who has experience in locating special accommodations such as those required by the transferee.

Frequently, it's a matter of providing transferees with listings of suitable housing in the areas they have identified as acceptable, says Dawn Conciatori, vice president of Prudential Centennial Realty in Scarsdale, N.Y. Often, she says, employees have specific requests that help narrow down where they will be willing to consider living. She recalls one move that involved a family member on dialysis and, thus, required housing options near the closest dialysis center.

When a disability is brought to the attention of household-goods movers, it's basically a non-issue, according to Greg Hoover, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Atlas Van Lines in Evansville, Ind.

All relocations have their own sets of challenges, he says, and a move that involves a disability is really no different from the rest. The greatest challenge arises when a move necessitates the transport of specialized equipment, such as oxygen tanks, which require special shipping arrangements due to their flammability.

Even then, Hoover says, as long as the van line is given adequate advance notice, it is easily able to make arrangements with a third-party company that specializes in transporting such hazardous cargo.

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Going the Extra Mile

Upon arrival in the new location, "a disabled person is more likely to need help unpacking or putting household goods in their proper places," according to Christine Buckley, manager of international consulting firm The IMPACT Group in St. Louis. In those instances, she says, it's helpful to bring in staffers from home-cleaning companies, such as Merry Maids, to help set up the new household.

Depending on the severity of the disability, in-home care also may be required. While the company is unlikely to foot the bill for such assistance, Buckley says an organization can provide a great service to the employee by helping to arrange for a visa for a nurse or other health-care professional who has agreed to move overseas with the family.

Even when it has been determined that all of his or her needs can be met in the new location, there are times when an employee dealing with a disability will still turn down the opportunity to relocate. In those instances, it's often a matter of the comfort factor, according to Achim Mossmann, director of global mobility advisory services within the international executive services practice at KPMG LLP, located in Montvale, N.J.

"Even though the company made all the efforts and it looks like everything is in order, there is that level of comfort of being at home, being close to relatives, having the support, having your doctor and all that," he says.

Mogan agrees: "As a disabled person, you surround yourself with the systems and support that will make life easier.

As a result, disabled people tend to be a little more hesitant to go outside their routine because they know it's going to be difficult to recreate that support system they have developed over the course of many years."

Should an employee choose not to accept a relocation for reasons involving a disability, it's important to respect that decision and not allow it to negatively impact his or her career path, says Dennis Zeleny, a Delaware-based human resource consultant whose 30-year career has included stints as vice president of human resources for Frito-Lay, vice president of global human resources for Honeywell, executive vice president of human resources for DuPont and chief administrative officer for CareMark.

What's more, he says, organizations shouldn't take employees out of the running for future assignments out of a concern that a disability may make the move difficult for them.

Instead, he suggests employers make special provisions, such as allowing for longer or additional site visits or house-hunting trips, to help them make a fully informed decision.

If there was ever a time for organizations to re-evaluate their relocation policies with regard to potential transferees with disabilities, it's now, says Carmelita Brown, vice president of Prudential Relocation in Valhalla, N.Y.

She predicts the number of disabled people being asked to move is about to rise exponentially, as more service people return from Iraq.

"Because of the war, we will have a number of men and women coming back with some form of disability who will re-enter the workforce and may be asked to relocate," says Brown.

"As a result," she adds, "there may be more people who have disabilities coming forward as part of a relocation in the near future."

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