Workplace accommodations for the disabled are those practices, policies, and procedures put into place by employers to assist in the integration of and participation by disabled people in the workplace. These accommodations are necessitated by national, state, or provincial legislation, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act in the United States or the federal Human Rights Act in Canada, that require employers to provide employment opportunities to disabled individuals who traditionally have been underrepresented in the workforce. Workplace accommodation is important to industrial-organizational (I/O) psychologists and human resources managers (HRMs) because many aspects of the personnel systems that they develop, implement, and evaluate are affected when an accommodation is made.
What aspects of the personnel system are subject to the accommodation requirement?
All parts of the personnel system can come under scrutiny of courts and regulators who are tasked with enforcing legislation that prohibits employment discrimination against disabled individuals. These individuals can be impaired either physically or mentally. An example of an accommodation for a visually impaired person in the hiring process would be the provision of employment test materials in double-size print. A person in a wheelchair could be provided with a workstation that is suited to wheelchair access. A person with attention deficit disorder might be provided with detailed written instructions, so they do not miss a step in completing their assigned task. The elements of the personnel system that require attention, as well as the subsequent accommodations made, will depend on the nature of the disability, the effect of that disability on worker behavior and performance, and the conditions currently existing in the workplace.
Who decides on what accommodations are required and how they should be implemented?
Workplace accommodation often is a straightforward and intuitively obvious matter that can be resolved quickly, inexpensively, and effectively through discussion between the employer and the disabled individual. For example, a claims adjuster who works most of the day at a computer might be provided with a larger screen as simple job redesign to accommodate a visual impairment. This may be the only workplace accommodation required for that person to succeed on the job. At other times, however, a workplace accommodation is more complex and may require the combined expertise and efforts of a multidisciplinary team, including the disabled person, an I/O psychologist, a health care provider, a human resources manger, and a line supervisor or manager. This is especially true for persons with mental disabilities (e.g., depression, autism, dyslexia) that are invisible but still present formidable obstacles to the disabled person who wishes to enter and succeed in the workplace. In these cases it is not apparent whether it is the disability per se or the lack of ability to perform the job requirements that is at the bottom of the person’s difficulties in adapting to and functioning in the workplace. Disentangling and resolving these issues may take considerable time and effort.
Where a multidisciplinary team undertakes the identification of a workplace accommodation, the team members should bring distinct, but complementary, talents and perspectives to the task. The I/O psychologist will bring skills and experience in identifying the essential job duties through the use of job analysis and, as needed, assessing the job skills of the disabled individual. The health care provider (e.g., psychiatrist, neuropsychologist, clinical psychologist) will bring insight into the etiology of the disorder, its likely effects on behavior and performance in the workplace, and a prognosis for recovery. The human resources manager will bring an in-depth knowledge of the personnel system of the employer, especially organization policies and procedures (related to hiring and promotion, for example) with which the workplace accommodation will have to articulate. The line supervisor or manager will be able to determine whether an individual accommodation is practicable to achieve within the unit under supervision (it is futile to propose an accommodation that realistically cannot be implemented in the office or on the shop floor). The disabled person also should contribute to team discussions and decisions about how the disability should be accommodated. Other technical experts or stakeholders— such as an occupational therapist, a rehabilitation psychologist, or a union representative—might be asked to participate in the multidisciplinary team to identify and recommend the workplace accommodation, depending on the nature of the disability; the prognosis for recovery of the disabled person; or the labor-management climate within the organization.
In complex cases of workplace accommodation, the team members should use a structured decision process to help guide their discussions and decisions. Steven Cronshaw and Brenda Kenyon proposed a model to guide team members through four steps of identifying and implementing an individual accommodation in the workplace. Whatever the workplace accommodations identified and recommended for implementation, management will be responsible for putting the accommodation in place. Prior participation of the line manger or supervisor in identifying the required workplace accommodation will make informed and successful implementation of it much more likely.
How far must an employer go to provide workplace accommodation?
Some employers feel trepidation that workplace accommodation may interfere with organizational productivity or their ability to compete in the global economy. Typically, legislators have considered this possibility and have sought to balance the rights of the disabled worker for gainful employment with the need of the employer for a productive workplace and reasonable control of costs associated with implementing workplace accommodation. The Americans With Disabilities Act, for example, states that a worker must be able to perform the essential duties of the position and that it is not a reasonable accommodation to excuse a disabled worker from the performance of these essential duties. The I/O psychologist can help the employer identify the essential functions of the job through job or task analysis and differentiate them from nonessential duties from which a disabled person might be excused as part of an individual accommodation. As well, workplace accommodations usually are not required beyond the point where financial or other costs would place an undue or unreasonable burden on the employer. What is unreasonable for a given employer will depend on the size of the organization and its ability to absorb the costs associated with the workplace accommodation.
The need for workplace accommodation engendered by disability legislation offers an opportunity for I/O psychologists to bring their science into application for the benefit of disabled workers and their employing organizations. The goal is to make available the workplace affordances that will enable the entry of disabled workers into full workforce participation while ensuring that their success also makes the needed contribution to the efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity of the organization. Social movements in many countries are providing the impetus to greater inclusion of disabled persons in all spheres of life, including employment. As a result, workplace accommodation, and the involvements of I/O psychologists in providing accommodation to disabled individuals, will grow in importance for the foreseeable future.
- Cronshaw, S. F., & Kenyon, B. L. (2002). An application model relating the essential functions of a job to mental disabilities. In J. C. Thomas & M. Hersen (Eds.), Handbook of mental health In the workplace. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.