Disabilities can present a serious challenge to an employer. The person with the disability also faces a challenge—he may work around his limitations and adapt well, but the employer may not demonstrate much flexibility in work conditions. That condition has to change, not only because of the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but also because people are much more capable than they may appear.
Employers have had to redevelop working conditions since the passage of ADA in 1990. Through the years, we have used many words to describe a person’s limitations: crippled, handicapped, disturbed, disabled. Until the 1970s, people with different types of physical or mental problems were often segregated, kept at home or in group homes, or institutionalized. More recently, persons with disabilities are living longer, functioning more independently, and being trained for a variety of responsibilities for life and work. People are also living for many more years than anyone ever thought possible.
While consulting, I’ve worked with organizations that train and develop people with a wide variety of disabilities. Parents and advocates help young people receive the best possible education to meet their capabilities. Physical rehabilitation and mental capacity-building are helping people to become much more able and useful as workers and residents. Finally, they aren’t seen any longer as disabled, but as differently abled, suggesting that many people have physical and mental challenges, often not obvious to others.
Three ethical issues arise when handling disabilities in the workplace. First, what actually is a disabling factor? In many cases, it’s a physical standard, ie. “What are the requirements for lifting?” In other cases, there may be important and necessary verbal skills to communicate, especially over the telephone. Yet there are often ways to design the work so a job can be adapted to a person who is differently abled.
The second issue involves limitations from disabling factors. Can the person travel to and from work and put in the required time? On the surface, it may seem that lack of ease of mobility creates barriers to a job, but many jobs can be redesigned to accommodate an employee’s limitations, and sometimes a person can work effectively from home if mobility is a problem. Some believe that deafness hampers effective work. Does a person have to hear, or is there some flexibility?
Finally, is there flexibility in job location? Many workplaces allow some degree of work from home for standard employees. What about persons who are differently abled? They may be very effective even though they’re limited to some degree to work at home. Many workplaces can also adapt the conditions to allow wheelchair access, or to enable sound systems for people who are vision-impaired.
So why do managers still struggle with hiring and retaining those who are differently abled? For one thing, sometimes it requires a lot of work to adapt conditions to employees. Managers sometimes have a difficult time rethinking the design of jobs in the office, or worse, they struggle with varying physical and mental standards. They may have a narrow idea of ability and fitness for the job, or simply can’t deal with human weakness.
Granted, there are needs for physical strength in some jobs, or rapid response to different stimuli. Most jobs, however, can be as flexible as managers allow them to be—or are legally required to be. In one recent case, a legally blind person sued and won the right to a job as a forklift operator. In another, a person needing kidney dialysis 12 hours a day, three days a week, won a judgment when refused a promotion in the job. At worst, the employer must demonstrate the basic inability of a person to do the assigned job.
You and I may be given the opportunity (or confronted with a requirement) to allow job applications and fair hiring by people with differing abilities. We need to move beyond seeing a person as incapable of working and consider instead how the person with a challenge can make a positive contribution to the work and the customer. IBI