For more than 12 years, Michael Hurt has championed the founding principles of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). At Illinois State, he has served in this capacity for the past four years and is currently the training/employment accommodations manager.
Prior to coming to Illinois State, Hurt was the human resources director at the Peoria Housing Authority and the labor relations manager for the City of Peoria.
Hurt developed a passion for ADA and compassion for individuals with disabilities when his son was diagnosed with a learning disability. His son had symptoms resembling autism, which affected his communication skills. He was not able to relate well to his peers and endured some cruelty from other children as well as impatience from some educators. Hurt and his wife learned to advocate for and protect their son throughout the educational process. They enrolled him in Hammitt School at the Baby Fold when he was three years old, where he remained in special education classes until he reached the eighth grade. Hurt said his son learned some amazing coping skills for his disability, and Hurt himself found a calling for helping individuals with disabilities.
Under the ADA, any U.S. organization with over 15 employees must provide workplace accommodations for individuals with verified disabilities. The original intent was to prevent individuals with disabilities from being discriminated against in employment, public accommodation and housing. Since its creation in 1990, several landmark court cases have somewhat eroded the original intent of the act, but the University and Hurt’s work allowed Illinois State to remain unaffected. The ADA will celebrate its 20th anniversary on July 26.
Beginning with the application process, candidates may need to request an accommodation to complete the interview process. Special accommodations may include mobility issues, blindness or low vision, hearing impairments, among others, which are remedied with screen reading technology or a hired reader for visually impaired applicants. The testing room also has a dedicated disability station outfitted to accommodate most disabilities.
Existing employees also require accommodations and may develop a disability after hire. Employees in the aging workforce, for example, begin to weaken physically, so accommodations such as a special chair or time off to rest must be made for those who want to continue working. Such accommodations result in a great deal of appreciation from department supervisors.
“These are valued employees, but the employee may have developed a condition that is causing them to suffer on the job, possibly forcing them into early retirement,” Hurt said. “As a result, all of that knowledge, experience and skill would also go out the door with them. We have been doing this for years and want to help employees to continue working for as long as they are physically able.”
Other types of employee disabilities include those of returning war veterans who may be re-entering the workforce with a traumatic brain injury or a missing limb and are taking medications with impairing side effects. To help them cope, flexible work hours or additional breaks may be allowed to aid in their recovery.
Hurt attributes such successful accommodations to the University’s compassionate, flexible and determined staff and also to technology. “Twenty-five years ago, these same employees would likely have been out of a job,” Hurt explained. “The technology for accessibility and disability accommodations has become so sophisticated that we have been very successful in implementing reasonable workplace accommodations. One of my main roles is to stay abreast of new technological developments. If a specific technology fits an employee, we work to get it for them and get them back to work.”
For example, professors with carpel tunnel syndrome now have software that enables them to type by simply speaking into a microphone. Innovative developments have had a special impact on those with visual disabilities. Many visually impaired employees essentially function the same as their unimpaired coworkers because of the technology that is made available to them.
When asked about the greatest reward of his job, Hurt’s response required no hesitation. With a smile, he described the quality audits that he conducts each year by randomly selecting disability accommodated employees. He sends them a letter asking them how they’re doing and if they need additional assistance. Invariably, the responses are filled with appreciation and praise.
He added, “It’s very gratifying because I’m just doing my job; it’s nothing out of the ordinary.”