In this blog post, Attorney Matthew Denney explains how adopting new principles of workplace inclusion could transform workplaces for people with disabilities.
One of the newest ideas to emerge in employment law that could have profound effects on workplace integration are Universal Design principles.
Given the far-reaching implications of these ideas for our clients, we wanted to share a little about the promise they hold for helping people with disabilities who are ready, willing, and able to work to become fully integrated into the workforce.
Historically, society has viewed disability through the lens of the medical model. This framework views disability as a “problem” that brings many disadvantages and keeps the focus on the person with a disability doing what s/he can (medical “fixes” or technology) to participate in society.
Historically, society has viewed disability through the lens of the medical model.
But a new model shifts the burden from the individual with a disability to society and the way it chooses to organize itself. The social model, rather than placing the onus on individuals with disabilities, looks at how all of society can remove barriers to enable people with disabilities to participate in all aspects of life.
A New Paradigm
And this new paradigm for understanding disabilities in society has brought forth a new way of looking at workplace inclusion that holds tremendous potential for furthering the civil rights of people with disabilities.
Universal Design began as an architectural movement. It’s the philosophy that brought us curb cuts, automatic doors, and kneeling buses – a way of designing the built environment to accommodate everyone. Applying Universal Design in employment, rather than just the built environment, is a newer concept.
The truth is employers have much to gain by embracing Universal Design regardless of whether they currently employ a person with a disability.
The Americans with Disabilities Act
Under the ADA, matters of workplace inclusion are rooted in reasonable accommodation. The ADA requires a workplace to make accommodations if an individual employee can perform the essential functions of a job with those accommodations in place. This approach, however, places the burden on an individual to request accommodations as a way of overcoming an existing barrier. An employer is not required to grant them if they can argue that doing so would pose an “undue hardship” to their business.
The ADA approach also mimics the medical model in that an employee is expected to simply achieve parity with other employees through the accommodations; the workplace is not required to think about how it could be more inclusive of disabilities overall.
Universal Design takes a slightly different tack. It looks at what the workplace can do to make products, environments, operational systems, and services usable to the most diverse range of people possible on the front end, rather until waiting for an accessibility issue to occur. Job tasks should be designed to allow the maximum potential numbers of workers to perform them without accommodations.
Some examples of Universal Design in the workplace are:
- Environmental – Accessible entrances with power doors; adequate workplace lighting; elimination of barriers in hallways and paths of travel. Having filing cabinets easily reachable when possible.
- Controls and Tools – Accessible elevator controls, light switches, easy-to-grip handles.
- Computers – accessibility features in operating systems used, such as text-to-speech and captioning capabilities.
- Communications – volume controls on telecommunication equipment; accessible, high contrast signage; alternate formats (large print, electronic files).
Preventing ADA Lawsuits
In looking at a handful of ADA reasonable accommodation lawsuits from 1999-2007, it’s clear that Universal Design principles could prevent many ADA lawsuits. We often see employers wait until they employ a person who is deaf, a person who uses a wheelchair, or someone who is blind before considering making their workplace accessible.
Universal Design opens the door to far greater integration of people with disabilities than what’s required to meet minimal ADA standards.
The truth is employers have much to gain by embracing Universal Design regardless of whether they currently employ a person with a disability. Adopting Universal Design principles will make the employer more attractive to applicants who may have a disability. Individuals may not apply for a job if they don’t feel it would be welcoming. Moreover, Universal Design will often benefit employees without disabilities as well. For example, having wide and non-obstructed aisles in an office environment makes it easier for everyone to navigate.
Lastly, planning ahead can reduce the need for employers to make future accommodations. An example here could be found in purchasing office equipment; if newly purchased filing cabinets are low to the ground and easy to open, this could reduce the need to buy new cabinets or modify existing ones when an employee is hired who needs that accommodation.
People with disabilities succeed through opportunity.
Universal Design opens the door to far greater integration of people with disabilities than what’s required to meet minimal ADA standards. People with disabilities succeed through opportunity. And we know that society benefits when everyone is given an opportunity to share their gifts as part of the workforce and build a brighter future for themselves.