Disability in the workplace is a form of diversity – yet, it is widely misunderstood and often excluded from diversity consideration. While most organizations have diversity programs, only 4 % of organizations consider disability in their diversity efforts. Workers with disabilities face higher unemployment rates, underemployment, job insecurity, and workplace discrimination.
Employers also widely underestimate the prevalence of disability – while 25% of employees self-identify as having a disability or medical condition that limits a major life activity, most companies report that just 4% to 7% of their employees are people with disabilities. If decision-makers do not understand the true number of people with disabilities, it’s difficult to make a compelling argument for developing support systems that could have significant performance and engagement benefits.
One intervention aimed at addressing these issues is the implementation of workplace accommodations. However, accommodations are often misunderstood. They are also often refused or ineffective.
Accommodations are adjustments to jobs, work environments, processes, or conditions that enable individuals with disabilities to perform their work effectively. They can include flexible schedules, modifications to physical workspaces, or adjustments in responsibilities. While accommodations are mandated by the ADA, they can also benefit employees without disabilities – examples include rooms for lactation or flexible schedules for childcare. While requests for accommodations, types of accommodations, and their costs and benefits are similar for individuals with and without disabilities. Most disability accommodations do not require any expenditure.
Providing accommodations has direct and indirect benefits to organizations and employees. These benefits include retaining qualified employees, improved attendance, cost savings from not hiring new employees, increased diversity, enhanced morale, safer workplaces, and improved coworker interactions.
Despite the potential benefits, employees may face challenges when requesting accommodations. The process itself can be stressful and ineffective, and discrimination from supervisors is not unusual. Even when accommodations are available, they can also make an employee a target of bullying, especially in the case of non-apparent disabilities when accommodations appear desirable or enviable. Without creating more flexible cultures where all individuals are supported, and anti-bullying mechanisms are integrated within organizational systems, it is unlikely that disabled individuals will receive fair and equtable treatment in the workplace.
The complexity of issues surrounding accommodations continues to limit workplace opportunities for disabled talent. Developing effective mechanisms that allow for disability inclusion is crucial both from a justice perspective, which calls for full inclusion of individuals regardless of disability, and from a business perspective, which recognizes the value of talent diversity. Fully including disabled individuals goes beyond individual – level accommodation. It calls for systemic change to make organizations more flexible.
Based on the following panel held at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology Annual Conference:
Benson, A., Praslova, L., Colley., K., Menendez., J. & Nagel, J. (2023). Accessible for Who? A Critical Discussion on the State of Accommodations [Panel]. Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology Annual Conference, Boston, MA, United States. April 21, 2023.