How to Frame the Accommodations Debate

The concept of accommodations for employees with disabilities is one that exists all over the world. The basic principle of these laws is that an employee with a disability is entitled to changes to accommodate specific needs created by their disability in order to work. These can be changes in policies (changing a policy prohibiting eating at employee desks to allow an employee with diabetes to manage his blood sugar) or procedures (issuing company announcements both orally at staff meetings and by written memo to accommodate an employee with auditory processing difficulties), or even maintaining a scent-free or florescent light-free workplace, providing ergonomic modifications to workspaces, and beyond.

There are a lot of negative attitudes and assumptions surrounding workplace accommodations. It is often assumed that the employee with a disability (EWD for short) and their employer are in an adversarial position – the employee is asking for something they want but that the employer does not want to give. Providing the accommodation is seen almost universally as a loss for the employer, because providing it will cost them, either by purchasing new equipment or in administrative costs and hassle for changing existing policies and procedures. In the United States, it is often made very clear to employees that accommodations are provided solely because the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to cooperate, not because the employer wants to assist with accommodations or believes it will improve the overall workplace in any meaningful way.

The cost of the accommodation, whether direct or indirect, is often seen as offsetting the worth or value of the EWD and limiting the benefit the employer can derive from an individual employee. More broadly, this is seen as discouraging employers from hiring EWDs in order to prevent the need for these accommodations. This means that accommodations are often seen as “special treatment,” for EWDs, requiring a whole set of special procedures by which EWDs can request accommodations and have them evaluated and special staff to learn the ADA and evaluate accommodations and …

Another feature of accommodations for EWDs is that although they are supposed to be individualized and tailored to the specific needs and responsibilities of an individual employee, employers often think of providing specific, pre-determined accommodations based on the type of disability the EWD has. For example, employers often consider themselves to have fulfilled their accommodation duties for people with physical disabilities if the workplace is wheelchair accessible and the parking lot has a handicapped parking space. Any additional requests from accommodation are likely met with bewilderment by the employer – “we already took care of all of the accommodation issues!”

It was with all of that in my mind that I read this recent article from ABCNews, with the headline “Employees Healthier When Boss Is Flexible.” The article discussed the benefits of flexible work schedules for employees without disabilities:

“Flexible working initiatives which equip the worker with more choice or control, such as self-scheduling of work hours or gradual or phased retirement, are likely to have positive effects on health and well being,” Clare Bambra of Durham University in the U.K., told MedPage Today. “Control at work is good for health,” Bambra said. Overall, the researchers found that situations that gave the employee more control over scheduling have positive effects on health and well being, particularly with regard to blood pressure, sleep, and mental health. A third study found significant decreases in systolic blood pressure and heart rate for workers with flexible scheduling, Bambra said. Conversely, Bambra and colleagues found that mandatory overtime and fixed-term contracts had absolutely no positive effects on health outcomes.

Although the article did not analogize these flexible work schedules under employee control to the principle of accommodations and disability was not explicitly mentioned in the article, I couldn’t help but connect the two. The idea of allowing an employee to control their own work schedule based on her own needs is exactly the principle behind accommodations – tailoring the work requirements and environment to the individual and specific needs of the employee, rather than requiring everyone to comply with universal policies set by the employer. It’s also implied that these flexible policies benefit the employer by creating healthier and happier employees who are, in turn, more productive at work.

This made me wonder if it would be helpful to adopt this framing for accommodations arguments, as in “see, assisting employees to accommodate their individualized needs results in better outcomes for both employees and employers!” Framing the argument that way addresses a lot of the negative issues around accommodations discussed above: the employee and the employer are working together rather than against each other; providing this flexibility is seen as a benefit to, not a loss for, the employer; this maximizes the work, worth and value of the employee rather than offsetting it; accommodations are good business practice rather than special treatment imposed by law; the individualized nature of accommodations is emphasized and changes must be dictated by the employee’s view of their own needs.

There is a potential drawback to this framing, however – it does not explicitly mention or focus on PWDs. I see this as potentially harmful given that the need for accommodations for PWDs is created by the historic and continuing othering of and discrimination against PWDs. (See amanda and wiki on the social model of disability for more about this.) Advancing the principle of accommodations for employees without explicitly focusing on PWDs removes a lot of the disability-based stigma from the discussion, but also removes the historical context that has created a need for accommodations. Similarly, framing the issue as a smart business practice than a civil rights issue removes the discussion of “special” rights or treatment, but removes focus from the fact that PWDs deserve these rights to counteract oppression based on their disability status.

This framing technique also dilutes the concept of what an accommodation is and extends it to all employees, whether or not they have disabilities. This could be dangerous, as it would allow employers to think about accommodations in terms of overall economic benefit – this might encourage them to deny specific accommodation requests that would be considered too costly for the company, or insufficiently beneficial to the overall bottom line. While that may be unwise for employers, given studies like this, it would not be illegal and would not be a civil rights issue for employees without disabilities. For EWDs, however, denying accommodations is a civil rights issue, because accommodations are required to allow EWDs equal access to employment benefits in light of the barriers that exist because of historic and continuing oppression and discrimination against PWDs on the basis of their disabilities. Expanding the focus of accommodations to all employees de-emphasizes the rights-based aspect of accommodations for PWDs to the point of invisibility.

I’m not sure whether the benefits or costs of this framing of the accommodations argument are stronger. What do you think? Have I ommitted any advantages of using this framing? Any disadvantages? Which framing – current rights-based arguments or these non-PWD centered business arguments – do you think is best?

9 thoughts on “How to Frame the Accommodations Debate

  1. I’m in the UK, and I believe our DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) is stronger than your ADA. However I think the issues we face are similar (I’m in the process of getting some accommodations put in place in my own workplace.)

    I don’t see this as an either-or issue. I don’t think anything precludes framing this as a civil rights issue which is also part of the wider move towards family-friendly and flexible working.

  2. This is a really good, well-thought-out post. Of course, in an ideal world accommodations would be readily available regardless of how they were framed, but as is, we sadly have to think about these things. And you’re right on when you say that both framings have pros and cons.

    I don’t think we even have an ADA equivalent in Canada (though I really hope I’m wrong). If I’m right, that…really sucks.

  3. @Dogged- i don’t think the framings are mutually exclusive, but i do think you would have to pick one or the other when communicating with a specific audience. for example, if i was speaking to a group of people with newly acquired disabilities, i would choose the civil rights framework. if i were speaking to a group of CEOs, i might choose the benefit-to-the-business framework. what i’m interested in is when we would choose one framework or the other, and what potential costs or benefits that framework choice has.

  4. This current study is analogous to other studies that have shown that parents are more productive when they have on-site daycare, that workers who are given time to nap or shower during the day are more productive, etc. And the bottom line is, the only way to reduce the hostility of management toward the accomodations they perceive as being forced on them is to show that treating people like, well, real people with individual needs and preferences rather than cogs in the machinery always leads to increased production. Because unfortunately increased production and efficiency is the only value driving a capitalist system. So it seems that the goal would be to make this a kind of mainstream cultural knowledge where everyone just sort of accepts the idea that a happy/comfortable/content employee is a more productive employee, and then accomodations for disabled employees would become just one more part of the model that people would accept and take for granted. In theory, anyway…

  5. Awesome post.

    I think the “it is good for buisness” arguement should at least be brought up when legislation is opposed because of the supposed cost.

    I guess that would generally be my approach. Start by making it clear that accomodations are right. And then convince people that following the law/ passing new laws is in everybodys best interest.

    Rights first, allover benefits second, because otherwise there is definitely the danger of the people in power thinking that allover benefits should be the main reason, which might be used as an excuse to cut back on things that are considered to “costly”. Make it clear that the rights themselves are not up for debate, then convince them them that, even if they were, fighting against them would be against their own interests as well.

  6. @Dorian: I know Ontario has the Access for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, so I think it might be a provincial issue. Or it could be another thing that Ontario did that usually happens at the national level. Each Lt. Governor has a particular cause that he or she takes up for the course of their appointment. David Onley, the current Ontario LG and a scooter user, chose accessibility, and that was a factor in the AODA’s passage in 2005.

    (I sound very

  7. Great post.

    I think lauren makes an excellent point with the idea that using the productivity argument could lead to accommodations being considered perks that can be cut. But I think that the utility of convincing business owners that accommodations actually raise their profits and productivity is pretty stunning. So I don’t know. But this is definitely thought-provoking and I appreciate you writing it, abby jean.

  8. I’ve experienced the down-side of the “everybody needs accommodation” strategy, and it’s very frustrating. Because I do believe that humans don’t come in a standard model, and a just society will accept us as we are. In the past decade my access rights have been “balanced” with the rights of non-disabled people to use the spaces created by the ADA.

    In the first case, a store placed a chair in the large, “accessible” stall, supposedly for the benefit of breastfeeding mothers. It certainly made it impossible for me to get my wheelchair in to pee. I contacted the local advocacy group La Leche league and they agreed that a toilet stall is the last place they’d wish to eat lunch. Thus empowered, I contacted the store again and they have since kept the accessible stall cleared. Lesson 1: Make common cause wherever it’s possible.

    In the second case, it’s an ongoing battle for the large spaces at the front of the bus. I can understand why bus drivers are reluctant to roust a parent, stroller, and kid from the space just so I can ride. The law only requires two wheelchair spaces on each bus; there’s certainly an argument to be made that the family riders were there before me. Sometimes I can’t handle the stress of being the “bad guy,” and decline to board. I don’t know how to find the common cause. Fewer seats on the bus makes it harder for lots of folks who don’t have wheelchairs.

    I hate hate hate being in the position of scrambling over pieces of the pie, when the pie should be bigger in the first place.

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