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The ADA and employment accommodations: what now?

The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) presents a rare opportunity and an immense challenge to the rehabilitation community. The sense of excitement and accomplishment with which the new law has been received is well deserved. The potential for positive change in the lives of individuals with disabilities is perhaps greater than ever before. Yet at the same time, a concerted effort is still needed on several fronts to achieve that potential.

The real power of ADA to transform lives is still to be determined. Key events beyond the enactment of the law lie ahead. In many ways, ADA's success will turn on these events: appropriations for training, technical assistance, enforcement, and monitoring; regulations describing the components of the law in greater detail and clarifying how it will interact with existing laws such as Sections 503 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973; and legal challenges to ADA's provisions, through which the court will interpret its meaning and, over time, set precedents to guide common practice. These events will shape the legal and political environment for disability rights. The other factor which will ultimately determine the impact of ADA is the response of the various constituencies involved--people with disabilities, small businesses and corporations, rehabilitation service providers, state and local governments, etc.

The historical records of social change through civil rights legislation should give us pause. Laws, by themselves, do not bring about widespread societal change. Upon hearing the words of U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare Secretary Joseph Califano in 1977 as he signed his agency's regulations for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, enacted 4 years earlier, who would have thought that advocates would spend the 1980's pressing for comprehensive legislation to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities? What action can be taken now so that ADA produces substantial gains for people with disabilities?

Rehabilitation practitioners help people with disabilities in achieving their goals for independent living, education and employment. This article addresses one component of ADA-reasonable accommodation requirements for workers with disabilities.

Any consideration of accommodations compels one to adopt a rehabilitation approach, namely an emphasis on the interaction of the worker and the work environment. Rehabilitation interventions seek to bring about change not only in the person with a disability, but also in his/her environment. In many ways, rehabilitation specialists are uniquely prepared to develop accommodations in the worksplace.

Employers receiving federal financial assistance have been required to make accommodations for disabled workers under Sections 503 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Many state laws have also imposed accommodation requirements for many years. When its employment provisions take effect, ADA will extend similar requirements to a much larger portion of employers in the private sector. Consequently, many employers and workers with disabilities will need to learn how to implement accommodations in the workplace. The demand for rehabilitation expertise will grow.

Following are recommendations to guide rehabilitation practitioners toward fully achieving the goals of ADA with respect to employment accommodations.

* Learn to speak the language of business. Appreciate the perspective of employers--they are most likely to embrace accommodations that seem to promote good business practices and productivity. Businesses are interested in hiring "qualified workers" not increasing rates of rehabilitation "placements." It is not the goal of business to help you achieve placements. The goal of business is to manage a successful and efficient operation, to the benefit of all consumers of goods and services. Stress your shared mission of a profitable business run by productive employees (with and without disabilities). Some employers will go beyond what is considered "reasonable" accommodation under the law if it is shown to be "cost-effective."

* Become a resource to employers. Testimony of business leaders who opposed ADA reflected anxiety about new mandates. some feared that ADA would require employers to become rehabilitation experts. Many business professionals have never had a basic orientations for disability and workplace accommodations. Information about adaptations in the workplace is not yet part of business school curricula. Fortunately, that's your specialty! Fill the void by offering to stage disability awareness training for employers in your area. Hold a question and answer session about the Americans with Disabilities Act at the next Chamber of Commerce meeting in your local area. Recruit an employer who has successfully accommodated workers with disabilities to join you in the presentation and respond to questions. By developing stronger relationships with employers, your capacity for job development will flourish.

* Stick to the basics: comprehensive job analysis, appropriate job match and ongoing rehabilitation supports. While the development of accommodations allows us to focus on improving the fit between a worker and a job by modifying the workplace, it should not distract us from basic rehabilitation techniques. Good accommodatios will never overcome a bad job match. Similarly, a comprehensive job analysis may reveal that the targeted job does not sufficiently match the preferences of the worker. And ADA will only aid workers who are qualified to perform the essential functions of a job. Training in marketable skills is needed more than ever. Finally, we must not abandon our responsibility for supporting workers with disabilities now that employers have a larger role in promoting job success. Rehabilitation practitioners continue to be responsible for offering long-term supports to workers with disabilities.

* The person most qualified to formulate an accommodation is often the worker him/herself. Given the broad variety of evaluation techniques available to us, rehabilitation practitioners can be tempted to begin the accommodation process with a complex and costly assessment of worker abilities and job demands. In some cases, this may be an unnecessarily complicated path. A Congressional report from the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources remarked that "people with disabilities may have a lifetime of experience identifying ways to accomplish tasks differently in man different circumstances. Frequently, therefore, the person with the disability will know exactly what accommodation he or she will need to perform successfully in a particular job." [1] When developing accommodations, it is wise to start by conferring at length with the worker.

* When the cost of a needed accommodation is not "reasonable," look beyond employer resources. Although studies have consistently shown that most accommodations cost little or nothig, [2, 3, 4] needed accommodations sometimes exceed reasonable expenditures by the employer, particularly small businesses. If this is the only obstacle to employment, look for ways to supplement the employer's contribution. Find out if the state vocational rehabilitation agency can help, and investigate the qapplicability of Social Security work incentives, such as Impairment-Related Work Expenses or a Plan to Achieve Self-Related Work Expenses the Job Accommodation Network, [5] where an experienced human factors consultant may assist you in devisinga less costly but still effective accommodation. You may be the only participant who can contribute knowledge of these social services.

* Envision accommodations as changes to policy and the interpersonal environment, as well as the physical setting. Written materials about accommodations have too often stressed the more visible types of modifications (e.g., installing ramps, raising desks, or widening pathways to assist workers who use wheelchairs) without providing examples of less traditional approaches. [6] Workers with psychiatric disabilities, for example, may require the services of a job coach to help them adapt to the social and/or interpersonal requirements of the work setting. Job re-structuring, part-time and modified work schedules, and re-assignment to a vacant position are specifically mentioned in ADA as examples of employment accommodations.

* Educate every person you meet about ADA and accommodations. Medica coverage of ADA has heightened awareness of disability rights issues. However, that awareness is often quite superficial. Many Americans have heard of ADA but don't understand its implications. Correct false assumptions about people with disabilities when they are expressed and initiate a discussion with your family, friends and business associates on the topic. Someday they may be in a position to hire, accommodate or promote a worker with a disability. What if every reader of American Rehabilitation educated 10 people each month about ADA and workplace accommodations?

* Protest media reporting and advertisements that stigmatize people with disabilities. Negative attidues are the root of discriminatory practices. Those lacking the personal experience of disability may form their opinions from images transmitted through movies, television, radio, and print media. Whey you hear objectionable material, take a few minutes to write a letter to the editor or producer and express your views. Such letters are often so rare that each receives notice.

* Educate people with disabilities about the new law and its implications. Even when it had been in effect for almost a decade, only 31 percent of the adults with disabilities polled by Louis Harris & Associates in their 1986 study were "very familiar" or "somewhat familiar" with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. [7] This means that 69 percent of the people for whose benefit the law was enacted were unaware of some of its basic protections. Needless to say, if a national poll revealed that 69 percent of Americans were unaware of their right to free speech, outrage would ensue. Given their chosen profession, rehabilitation service providers have a particular obligation to inform people with disabilities about their rights and responsibilities under the law. Prepare a written summary of the provisions of ADA and discuss it with every service recipient. Offer to speak to self-help groups and furnish a list of resources for further information and assistance.

* Advocate through your professional association. Dozens of professional associations representing people with disabilities and rehabilitation service providers have representatives in Washington, DC, and in state capitals monitoring the regulatory process and providing information to federal agencies and members of Congress. Their role is especially critical in the next few years when regulations for ADA will take shape. But associations fail without the active participation of their members. Make this the year that your participation expands beyond paying dues, reading newsletters and attending conferences. Volunteer your time at the local, state or national level. At a minimum, record your thoughts and concerns about ADA and its implementation and mail them to your association. Your communication of grassroots concerns is your association's lifeline to the field.

* Make your own office exemplary in non-discriminatory practices. Take this occasion to update job descriptions, clarify performance standards and reward managers that effectively promote the employment of people with disabilities. Overhaul your hiring practices to be sure decisions are based on applicant's qualifications to perform the essential functions of the job. This will help to ensure that your hiring practices conform to legal prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of race, sex, age, religion, and antional origin, as well as disability. If not already in place, develop affirmative action strategies to increase the number of employees with disabilities in your agency. Your knowledge of the issues around accommodations will grow rapidly as the supervisor of workers with disabilities.

* Challenge discriminatory practices on an individual basis (e.g., pre-employment inquiries about physical or mental impairment). Although ADA prohibits pre-employment inquiries about the presence or absence of a disability (unrelated to the performance of the essential functions of a job), some employers will need to be prompted to modify outmoded application forms and hiring practices. When discrimination has clearly occurred and the employer is unwilling to remedy it, request an investigation by the federal agency responsible for enforcement or consider initiating a private suit, as applicable. Public interest law organizations will be seeking cases to test the new law.

* Respond when federal agencies request comments on proposed rules. Although the law was signed last year, the forthcoming regulations will determine its impact to a significant extent. Watch for notices in the Federal Register announcing comment periods. Work together with rehabilitation clients and service providers to formulate a clear, well-organized articulation of your views. Send copies of your letter to your peers and to your professional association. Above all, stay involved in the disability rights movement. The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act is a major victory. However, the work of changing negative attitudes in all sectors of society is only beginning. Many business leaders still harbor substantial fear and anxiety about the implications of ADA. Without forgoing hard-won rights, we can initiate cooperation that will ultimately expand job opportunities for workers with disabilities.


1) United States Senate, Report 101-116.

2) Berkeley Planning Associates. (1982). A Study of Accommodations Provided to Handicapped Employees By Federal Contractors: Final Report. Prepared for the U.S. Department of Labor, Employment Standards Administration. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Planning Associates.

3) Taylor, H., Kagay, M.R. & Leichenko, S. (1987). The ICD Survey II: Employing Disabled Americans. New York: Louis Harris & Associates.

4) Job Accommodation Network. (1987). Evaluation Study. Morgantown, WV: Author.

5) The Job Accommodation Network is a free service funded by the President's Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities and based at West Virginia University. For advice on developing accommodations, call JAN at 1-800-526-7234 (voice or TDD).

6) Mancuso, Laura L. (1990). Reasonable Accommodation for Workers with Psychiatric Disabilities. Psychosocial Rehabilitation Journal, 14 (2), 3-19.

7) Taylor, H., Kagay, M.R. & Leichenko, S. (1986). The ICD Survey of Disabled Americans: Bringing Disabled Americans Into the Mainstream. New York: Louis Harris & Associates.

Ms. Mancuso is Director, Young Adult Project, National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors in Alexandria, Virginia. She also volunteers as a Legislative Liaison with the Association for Persons in Supported Employment, Richmond, Virginia.
COPYRIGHT 1990 U.S. Rehabilitation Services Administration
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Article Details
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Author:Mancuso, Laura L.
Publication:American Rehabilitation
Date:Dec 22, 1990
Previous Article:What ADA has meant and what it can mean for people with mental retardation.
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