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Melanie Domanico Uses Her Personal Experience and Empathy to Keep Employees Working
Melanie Domanico is an equal opportunity and accommodations specialist with the Office of Disability Access and Inclusion. When faced with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities—like breathing, walking, seeing or hearing—Syracuse University employees are entitled to reasonable accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). “An accommodation is a modification to a job that still allows the employee to perform their essential functions,” says Domanico. She directs employees in the process, connecting with their supervisor and their physician to keep people working and productive.
Identifying accommodations is not a one-size-fits-all approach. An accommodation request is the beginning of an ongoing, interactive process, Domanico says. “The physician doesn’t understand the person’s responsibilities, and that’s where I come in.” Using her professional and personal experience with disability and interacting with physicians, the results are a net positive for the University and the employee. Retaining experienced workers allows the University to benefit from their contributions and often leads to better employee relations and reduced costs.
Domanico is effective because she knows firsthand how circumstances and responsibilities can change when dealing with a new medical diagnosis or disability. Domanico was diagnosed with cancer at a young age. The experience of facing such a serious medical emergency shifted her perspective. While obviously life-threatening, cancer also limited her ability to participate in everyday activities. Her experience with cancer inspired her early work as a rehabilitation counselor before coming to Syracuse. Her experience allows her to think creatively about how someone can perform their essential job functions while managing their disability. “There are usually many ways to get to the same outcome,” she says.
Supporting employees through the accommodations process is very personal for Domanico for another reason. While working as a rehabilitation counselor, Domanico’s son, Colin, was born with several disabilities and health issues, including a congenital heart defect. Domanico left her full-time role to advocate and care for her son until he died at two years old. The limits Colin would have needed to manage have inspired Domanico to be a constant advocate for accessibility. “I think about that when I’m looking at different situations and scenarios.”
Dealing with her own illness and being the parent of a child with disabilities gives her insight. Domanico uses her personal connection to educate supervisors on disability issues, using her background as a counselor and as a caregiver. “I know how to handle this both from a professional and personal standpoint,” she says.
Domanico’s priority is to support the employee’s return or stay at work. “What you do is a big part of who you are,” Domanico says. Working with the employee, their department and their physician, Domanico brings everyone to the table to establish what reasonable accommodation would work best for all parties. This process also respects people’s privacy. “Many employees are hesitant to request an accommodation because they are unsure of where their medical information is housed,” says Domanico. “It stays confidential with me. Their supervisor and Human Resources are not made aware of the disability, only of the limitations to discuss appropriate accommodations.”
Employees should not delay if they need assistance, as obtaining an accommodation is an interactive process that develops and refines a plan through open communication. In the end, accommodations contribute to a more diverse, inclusive and equitable workforce at Syracuse University, she says.
COVID-19 has had a profound impact on Domanico’s work; she has never been so busy. She is receiving more accommodation requests, and employees with existing accommodations need additional accommodations or changes to their existing accommodations.
“I’ve been doing this a really long time, and I normally have the answers for most cases, but not only are there more accommodation requests, they are also becoming more complex. Accommodations and social distancing are not always compatible; processes are taking longer,” she says. Ongoing follow-ups are scheduled to ensure that accommodations remain effective, as needs may change over time.
As Domanico navigates the ever-changing landscape of workplace accommodations during COVID-19, her goal is the same: ensuring an employee is provided the accommodations they need to be successful. Domanico is also involved with other initiatives to make an accessible campus, participating in the Accessibility Assessment Committee and working closely with the interim ADA coordinator and the Center for Disability Resources (formerly known as the Office of Disability Services; the Center for Disability Resources underwent a name change this summer).
“We’ve developed a workshop called ‘Rethinking the Disability Paradigm’ with the ADA coordinator, director, and assistant and associate directors of the Center for Disability Resources,” she says. The workshop challenges biases associated with disability in the workplace and is currently offered as a professional development opportunity on campus.
University employees are encouraged to request a reasonable accommodation at any time if they have a disability and need an accommodation to perform their essential job functions. They can do so by visiting the Center for Disability Resources. Medical information is kept confidential and employees with questions should email ADA@syr.edu.