Accommodations for Aphasia: Fetterman and Navigating the Workplace
Starting a new job is stressful at the best of times. Starting a new high-profile job like senator is even more stressful. But what about starting a new, high-profile job with aphasia? John Fetterman, a senator from Pennsylvania, is learning the ropes while recovering from a stroke.
The New York Times recently wrote about his accommodations for aphasia and physical impairments following the stroke, which includes closed captioning and “live audio-to-text transcription for the committees on which Mr. Fetterman serves.”
While the article categorizes the impairment as a hearing issue, his description of aphasia will be familiar to people in our community:
Mr. Fetterman suffers from auditory processing issues, forcing him to rely primarily on a tablet to transcribe what is being said to him. The hearing issues are inconsistent; they often get worse when he is in a stressful or unfamiliar situation. When it’s bad, Mr. Fetterman has described it as trying to make out the muffled voice of the teacher in the “Peanuts” cartoon, whose words could never be deciphered.
Stress worsens aphasia, making it difficult to hear, understand, or speak.
The Senate is working to meet his needs, and Senator Bob Casey points out that this is how workplaces should be.
“The right attitude has to be consistent with what we hope we learned in the last 30 years or so, that we can provide reasonable accommodations in the workplace,” said Mr. Casey. “If we’re doing it right, it should not be him adapting to the workplace, it should be senators in both parties adapting and accommodating him. Just like we would anyone.”
Other workplaces could take their cue from the Senate and adapt workplaces to fit employees.
What are accommodations employers can make?
Slow down: An employee’s work pace may need to change temporarily or forever. Moreover, slowing down the speed of meetings and conversations will help all employees — even those without aphasia — process new information.
Use multiple forms of communication: Aphasia-friendly communication is just good communication. Everyone benefits when people use multiple forms of communication, such as hand gestures while speaking or giving the same information in a meeting and an email.
Create a quiet space to work: The article about Fetterman highlights how noisy environments can be stressful for people with aphasia. Ensure that people have quiet, distraction-free places to work.
Prepare co-workers: Training and information can go a long way in helping workplaces accommodate to fit everyone’s needs. A recent article from the American Bar Association highlights what courts can do, beginning with education.
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