Reasonable Accommodation Is Not Enough

Wheelchair symbol painted on a road to illustrate reasonable accommodation

The summer I graduated high school I worked in a contact lens factory called Obrig Laboratories. I recall decades later the line of stations staffed by guys in wheelchairs. As explained in this historic video, the company prided itself on hiring the disabled and designed stations to accommodate wheelchairs. This was 1967. The Americans with Disabilities Act in the U.S. would not become law for another 23 years. What was not common in 1967 is routine today as companies in many countries are legally required to make adjustments called reasonable accommodations so that people with disabilities can be hired. But merely making small adjustments is only the beginning as reasonable accommodation is not enough. Companies need to go beyond hiring and focus on how to make the workplace a welcoming environment where those with disability challenges can thrive.

Two Important ADA Concepts

Two important concepts came out of the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA. Essential functions is the idea that each job entails a mix of tasks that must be performed (essential) and those that are optional (nonessential). For a sales clerk, operating a cash register would be an essential function since the most important task for a clerk is ringing up purchases. Sweeping the floor before closing would likely be nonessential because it is not an integral part of the job, and might even be performed by an outside custodial service.

A reasonable accommodation is an adjustment made to the job or job environment that would allow a disabled employee to perform the job. For example, a sales clerk confined to a wheel chair might only need the accommodation of having a wheel chair ramp installed to be able to enter the store. The idea that the accommodation is reasonable recognized that there are limits to what an employer could be expected to provide. A cost of a wheelchair ramp would not be prohibitive, and it serves a secondary purpose of making the store accessible to handicapped customers. Thus today most stores and public buildings in the U.S. and many other places have ramps. If a reasonable accommodation is not possible, an employer can fail to hire someone who is disabled if they are unable to perform an essential function. A nonessential function is a different matter, because a reasonable accommodation could be to shift such a function to another employee (or not do it at all) since it is not important for the disabled person to perform it.

In the U.S. and many countries, the idea of reasonable accommodation has caught on, and we can often see disabled people in the workplace. However, there is more to hiring the disabled than providing an accommodation.

Reasonable Accommodation Is Not Enough

Hiring and making an accommodation is a start, but companies need to do far more. Disabilities, especially mental ones, can be stigmatizing. People can have biases, often unconscious, about the capabilities of people who have disabilities. Negative stereotypes can make people suspicious and uncomfortable around those who appear different. Companies need to take steps to not only help disabled employees overcome skill deficits, they need to assure that the workplace is accepting so that all employees can thrive. There are challenges to organizations in finding ways to make the workplace a good environment for everyone. In my field of industrial-organizational psychology we have learned a lot about how to create good working environments in general, but little attention has focused on how to fully incorporate disabled employees once the reasonable accommodation has been provided.

  • Leadership: Organization leaders can be unsure of how to handle situations where a disabled employee might be struggling with a skill deficit. The direct supervisor needs to be aware of every employee’s strengths and limitations, and how to make adjustments so that everyone can contribute as much as they are able. This needs to be done in a constructive way that does not make people feel they are being singled out. Specialized training in how to lead individuals with disabilities can be helpful.
  • Redesigning Jobs: The reasonable accommodation approach involves identifying essential functions and figuring out how to make them possible for a person with disabilities to perform them. The job redesign approach is to change the essential functions of a job so the person doesn’t have to do them at all. This is a strategy that has been done with neurodiverse employees, such as removing interpersonal tasks for someone who struggles dealing with others.
  • Supportive Climate: An organizational climate consists of the policies and practices in a specific domain and is reflected by what is encouraged versus discouraged. Such climates are built by first forming polices and then taking positive actions to be sure they are enacted. This begins by top management modeling desired behavior, such as being respectful and welcoming to employees with disabilities.
  • Avoid Unhelpful Help: Sometimes leaders and others can try too hard to be supportive of employees with disabilities, leading them to provide assistance in a way that can be harmful. Unhelpful help (hear Cheryl Gray talk about unhelpful help on the Indigo Podcast) are actions intended to help someone that are done in a way that is not helpful. For example, it can be unhelpful to impose support on someone by assuming they need help with something and doing it for them. Imposing support to an employee with a disability sends a message that you think the person is not capable, which undermines their confidence. A better strategy is to let the person know you are there to help, but let the person choose whether to accept it or not, and what form that help should take.

When dealing with employees who have a disability, there can be a tendency to focus on deficits rather than strengths. The idea of reasonable accommodation has this perspective as employers focus on making it possible for an individual with a particular skill gap to perform a job. Although they are often needed (e.g., wheelchair-friendly spaces), reasonable accommodation is not enough and should not be the main goal. Rather we should focus on the employee’s capabilities (what they can do) rather than disabilities (what they cannot do), so that they can make the most of their talents at work.

Photo by Jakub Pabis from Pexels

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