Reasonable Accommodations Are Not Just for Disabilities

Man with blue overalls opening box of mechanics tools.

During my lifetime I have seen progress in eliminating discrimination in employment, not only in the U.S., but in many countries around the world. In 1990 the United States extended discrimination protection to those with disabilities by passing the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA. The ADA concept of reasonable accommodation says that organizations must be flexible in the job requirements they expect of disabled employees, and they must be willing to make adjustments to enable them to do the job. Although we normally think of reasonable accommodations for the disabled, the concept should be considered more broadly. In other words, reasonable accommodations are not just for disabilities.

Important ADA Concepts

Hiring involves matching the talents of job applicants to the requirements for jobs. A good way to accomplish this is by conducting a job analysis that begins by specifying the tasks for a particular job, such as an automotive technician or a salesclerk. Once we know what employees in a job must do, we can list the knowledge, skill, ability, and other characteristics (the KSAOs) that employees must have to do those tasks. Once we know the KSAOs required in a job, we can figure out how best to assess them in job applicants and base our hiring on the match between the KSAOs required for the job and the KSAOs that applicants have.

There are two important concepts from the ADA that concern the KSAO match between jobs and employees. The first is essential functions that specify which tasks are a must for a given job. For example, removing and replacing parts on an automobile is an essential function for an automotive technician. It is such a large part of the job that it is essential for anyone who takes the job of automotive technician. If a task is not an essential function that must be done, it should be possible to hire someone who is unable to perform it due to a disability. For example, giving speeches is not an essential function for an automotive technician so someone whose disability would prevent them from doing so should not be excluded from hiring, as long as they can perform the essential functions.

Reasonable accommodation is the idea that sometimes small modifications to the job can allow someone with a disability to perform essential functions. One of the most visible accommodations is the wheelchair ramp that you see in public buildings such as schools and stores. Building a ramp is in most cases a reasonable accommodation that allows employees who cannot walk to enter a building via a wheel chair. If the essential functions can be done while seated and the only problem is building access, this problem is easily solved. However, if the essential functions require standing and/or walking, a reasonable accommodation might not be possible.

Reasonable Accommodations Are Not Just for Disabilities

It is easy to see how reasonable accommodations allow people with specific disabilities to perform particular jobs. This is not only a benefit to the individuals who otherwise might have a difficult time finding employment, but it is a benefit to organizations that can expand their talent pool. In these days where many employers are struggling to fill positions, flexibility in accommodating people with limitations can be an advantage. However, it is not just those with documented disabilities that require accommodations. The principles of essential functions and reasonable accommodations can be applied broadly to go beyond the disabled.

The practice of identifying essential functions and matching KSAOs required to perform those functions with those of applicants is a “best practice” approach to employee recruitment. Many organizations do a good job in designing assessment systems that identify applicants who have the KSAOs that are needed. But as the labor market tightens, the application of essential functions and reasonable accommodations introduces flexibility that can broaden the labor pool. For each job we should ask if we are screening out applicants because they lack a KSAO only relevant to a nonessential function. If so, can we shift that function to a different job? For each essential function, we should ask if there are reasonable accommodations that would allow individuals with particular KSAO deficiencies to perform the job. For example, could a platform allow someone who is too short to reach something allow them to perform the job. Furthermore, the O part of KSAO includes people’s motives and preferences. If an employee does not like doing certain tasks or does not like to do them in a particular way, are there feasible accommodations that could be allowed? Although not generally thought of in this way, there are many practices such as flextime, remote work, and job crafting (allowing people to design some aspects of their jobs) that can be considered accommodations.

The ADA concept of reasonable accommodations might seem to be merely a mechanism to allow people with disabilities to enter the workforce, but it is more than just that. It is a tool that expands the talent pool of individuals who organizations can hire. As jobs have become increasingly complex, they require an expanding number of talents, and often those best able to perform essential functions have some limitations that a reasonable accommodation can resolve.

Photo by Artem Podrez from Pexels

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