Employees in today’s workplace face many challenges. Work forces have been cut, and in many cases, workdays have been extended. Older workers are unable to retire, while younger workers are unable to find work. New technology is introduced into the workplace, requiring all to relearn how to perform their jobs. This is difficult for the average worker, but it is extremely difficult if an employee is further hindered by disabilities.

Disabilities of all types affect employees and can pose various mental or physical challenges. In many situations, a disability may impact the amount of time it takes for an employee to complete a task or get from one part of a facility to another. Some disabilities may be known while others remain unknown to an employer. Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employees with disabilities can continue to work without fear of losing their jobs1.

All employees with disabilities deserve the right to support their families. If otherwise qualified for a job, a disability should not take away an individual’s opportunity to work. Existing laws protected those discriminated against for race, sex, national origin and color, but the ADA was the first law to speak for those with disabilities in the workplace.

The ADA disallows discrimination against otherwise qualified individuals in an employment setting because of mental or physical disabilities2. This means that in many situations, the employer has to adjust a work environment to allow an employee to function. In 2009, the ADA was amended to include additional information and coverage. This amendment required the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to make changes to their regulations regarding the term “substantially limits” and how it is defined2. It also broadens the definition of “major life activities” to include many new activities.

Workplace Adaptations

As with any law that changes the workplace, some fight or avoid it while others fully embrace and promote it. One major compliance concern deals with accessibility. Because of this, many workplaces have adjusted or created more accessible entrances and exits to their facilities, allowing more independence for persons in wheelchairs. Other subtle changes may include the height of water fountains, width of bathroom stalls, hand rails inside the stalls and long ramps instead of stairs. The path of travel that employees take should never be obstructed; there should be no barriers to prevent someone from getting to safety in an emergency3.

Making accommodations in the workplace is important, yet one must avoid making a spectacle of employees with disabilities. One concept being utilized in workplaces is universal design, which is best defined as designing products and work spaces to allow use by everyone, regardless of disability4. This eliminates many cases of employees standing out or requiring special assistance to be able to complete their tasks. Better designed work spaces can increase function for all employees, regardless of age4. This still is a relatively new idea and few examples exist in the workplace despite multiple studies proving the effectiveness.

  The goal is to remove all barriers and allow everyone to concentrate on completing job tasks.

Workstations easily can be adapted to follow this universal design. Many companies now use slide-out keyboard trays and monitors on swinging arms to allow employees to adjust to their needs. Desks can accommodate wheelchairs in place of regular chairs, and general work spaces can be lowered to allow easier access. All workplaces eventually will follow the universal design approach3. The main goal is to remove all barriers and allow everyone to concentrate more on completing their tasks.

The biggest challenge with universal design is accommodating the multitude of challenges that different disabilities present. Not all disabilities are the same, and not all will present the same challenges for employees. Some employees may have issues with their right hand while others have issues with their left. For some, it may involve not being able to stand or sit. Some may need low lighting, while others need bright lighting. Designing a facility to accommodate all is always going to be a challenge.

Some disabilities require a service animal to be able to get around or reach materials. ADA protects those that need such animals. This can create another complication for an employer if other employees are allergic to such animals. The employer must work with all parties involved to find a solution.

Companies using older facilities often have the most trouble complying with guidelines of the ADA. Designing a building from the ground up is much easier than attempting to retrofit existing facilities. Some of the complications with retrofitting facilities include adding adequate doorways. Depending on the design of the structure, adding doorways can be complicated and require an extensive amount of remodeling. Other complications include retrofitting areas with stairs and restrooms with stalls that are too narrow. Moving plumbing may require the existing floor to be torn out and require a lot of time.