Tuesday, October 7, 2014
Is it becoming easier or more difficult to accommodate persons with disabilities?
I recently spoke to the Healthcare Professionals Conference hosted by WorkSafeBC. My presentation outlined the dramatic demographic factors that are changing –and will continue to change-- our healthcare systems, workplace and communities. Several presentations focused on the issue of mental injuries, stress, and the duty to accommodate. A few years ago, conference planners would have confined these topics to a breakout session under an obscure title in an inconvenient time slot. Not so today! That may be a sign of progress… or desperation.
Accommodation is primary disability prevention. Statutes that codify an employer’s duty to accommodate have been around for years. Employers, disability management professionals and human resource policy makers know the law and what it means. Whether the specific law, rule or regulation is under Human Rights legislation, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), or a workers’ compensation statute, most medium to large organizations are aware of the duty to accommodate. They train their managers and likely have supervisors and union leaders with a common understanding—at least for the more common physical disabilities.
We also have many high-profile examples of persons with disabilities excelling in sports, politics, science, and medicine. These examples are changing perceptions and awareness. Although many workplaces have had to make few accommodations, most workers and managers would see both the legal and moral imperative behind the duty to accommodate. More importantly, they see the value and potential of the individual person rather than the stigma of the impairment. Having role models and seeing more co-workers accommodated will continue to make accommodation easier. There may be no hardship involved in accommodating if the environmental barriers no longer exist. If accommodation is not needed, then the impairment is not likely a workplace disability.
Technology is further enabling that potential. Driverless cars, bionic hearing implants, thought-to-input devices, exoskeletons, and many other technologies are lessening the impact of physical impairments. Our concept of “disability” is changing and our ability to accommodate is being enhanced. Few would argue that the cost of providing technological aids would constitute an undue hardship. Technology is making accommodation easier and, in some cases, costless or productivity enhancing to implement.
Accommodations are not restricted to technological interventions. There continue to be real barriers to accommodation of persons with psychological or mental conditions and impairments. Persons with degenerative (Parkinson’s, certain cancers) and episodic conditions (epilepsy, migraines) are also harder to accommodate. Whether because of fear or ignorance, co-worker or customer attitudes can be significant and continuing barriers. How effectively are we accommodating persons with severe Turret’s ticks, schizophrenia, recurrent depression, post-traumatic stress disorder?
Even industries with low injury rates may find it increasingly more difficult to accommodate workers with certain conditions as the prevalence of those already accommodated becomes significant in a department or organization. Several employers have commented to me that past compliance with mandatory-reinstatement provisions leads to incrementally more difficult accommodation challenges for each new case. These employers perceive the duty to accommodate as becoming more difficult.
It may not have reached the point of “undue hardship” but is clearly a concern.
One employer noted that about half the staff in her operation had one or more accommodations (some temporary because of recent work-related injuries, others permanent because of permanent work and non-work related impairments). She was happy to support each individual but her concern over the increasing costs and declining competitiveness were obvious. As more of the certain job requirements were concentrated on fewer non-accommodated staff members, she was concerned about increased risk of injury and the potential for resentment and increased risk in this group of workers.
Is accommodation become more or less challenging? The answer is both! And that situation is likely to continue for some time. With increasing numbers of older workers, the conditions and co-morbidity associated with ageing will become more prevalent. The demand for certain skills in short supply may drive an increased “desire to accommodate” as the price of attracting or retaining certain expertise. Innovation will also be required, not just to adapt and apply new technologies but also to reorganize the way work itself is performed.
The question itself, however, masks the reality of work environment. The prevalence of persons with impairments that need accommodation is increasing and will continue to increase in our workplaces. The biggest barriers to future accommodation are less likely to be the undue hardship of a technological aid. Attitudes, static organizational structures and persistent prejudices are likely to continue to be the biggest barriers in the coming years.