Integrating Accommodation

Requests by disabled individuals for accommodation can lead to benefits that improve the lives of a wide variety of people

By Elizabeth Emens

Fall 2011

  • Print this article

Consider the following scenario: A speaker at a professional conference projects an exceedingly complicated image on a screen at the front of the room. The audience members squint at the image, trying to make sense of the arrows and circles and tiny print. After a moment, a man in the front row raises his hand and, apparently requesting an accommodation for his vision impairment, asks the speaker to “please describe the diagram.”

The rest of the audience sighs in relief at the prospect of having this inscrutable diagram glossed by its creator.

This moment captures an oft-overlooked feature of disability accommodations: the request for an accommodation by a disabled person often benefits other people. And this simple example also opens the door to a broad conceptual point: Disability accommodations are crucial to the integration of disabled workers under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), not only because they enable disabled workers who need them to work, but because accommodations affect other people in the workplace. In short, integrating disability also means integrating accommodation.

That accommodations often create third-party benefits has been overlooked by various decision makers and academics. Courts have evaluated accommodations by comparing the costs of the accommodation to the employer with the benefits to the disabled employee requesting the accommodation. And both courts and agencies have also considered the potential costs these accommodations might impose on third parties, such as coworkers. But despite this recognition of third-party costs, courts and agencies have largely failed to recognize the possibility of third-party benefits. Accommodations can, however, create a wide variety of benefits for a wide variety of people.

For example, ramps or elevators are useful for anyone on wheels or toting objects on wheels. Less obvious types of third-party benefits range from health and hedonic benefits to experimentation benefits. For instance, ergonomic furniture and office design, air-filtering systems (as for an asthmatic employee), and assistive equipment can benefit all employees, both disabled and nondisabled. Moreover, many new technologies have been developed because of the need created by disability, but have found other uses. Examples include closed-captioning, voice-to-text technologies, scanners, and large-print books and readers. Accommodations may also involve experimenting with new workplace processes and policies, such as telecommuting initiatives or new supervisory techniques.

It makes sense that disability would prompt changes that benefit many workers, because we are all in some sense on a disability continuum. Think, for example, of curb cuts. Curbs require everyone to step up. This creates a cost for anyone with slightly bad knees, and in fact, creates a minimal cost for everyone. But it takes a subset of the population who travels on wheels, who cannot traverse the curb at all, to prompt a change that eliminates the cost of stepping up for everyone.

The design of accommodations may determine whether or how many benefits accommodations create—or even whether they create third-party costs or benefits. Take the example of an employee whose back problem prohibits her from lifting heavy objects. An employer could provide an accommodation that redistributes the heavy lifting, creating costs for coworkers. Or the employer could minimize costs to coworkers by purchasing limited-use equipment that other employees could use when the disabled employee was not using it. Most broadly, the employer could examine the workplace and make changes—such as implementing moving shelves—to minimize lifting for all workers. This last solution would benefit not only the disabled employee, or future disabled employees, but nondisabled coworkers.

Clearly, then, accommodations may create third-party benefits that enhance welfare for many workers. And such improvements in general employee welfare do seem like a good thing. But the statute requiring these accommodations is not, of course, called the Americans Act. It is the Americans with Disabilities Act. And its aim is not to improve everyone’s welfare, but to remove barriers to employment for disabled people.

Third-party benefits can, however, further the ADA’s goals in at least four ways. First, the ADA’s central goal is to integrate people with disabilities into the workplace. Recognizing the fact of third-party benefits, and designing and describing accommodations with these benefits in mind, has an important role to play in furthering the integrative aims of the ADA by improving attitudes to disability and the ADA. Workers whose jobs are made easier, whose work lives are improved, by changes to the workplace due to a disabled colleague, are likely to develop more favorable attitudes.

Second, to see that changing the environment helps both disabled and nondisabled people work more effectively helps us see that disability is not merely an individual medical problem, but is a product of the surrounding social environment. Recognizing that the environment can enhance or diminish everyone’s ability helps us to see why the ADA requires changes to the environment.

Third, taking account of third-party benefits may help secure the ADA’s place in the antidiscrimination scheme. Whether the ADA is perceived to create costs or benefits to coworkers surely has effects on how coworkers, and employers, understand the statute. If the statute continues to be understood as all about costs and redistributive handouts, that will hinder employer compliance and public support.

And, finally, appreciating the third-party benefits of integrating accommodations helps shift the societal lens on disability. It helps us see a range of ways that disability gives back to the larger community, offering insight, perspective, and innovation that can improve the workplace for all workers. Understanding the interaction between accommodations and the broader workplace can help us design and discuss accommodations in a way that will promote both the aims of the statute and the prospects of disabled people.

This essay was reprinted from the Sesquicentennial Essays of the Faculty of Columbia Law School. © 2008 Elizabeth Emens

  • Print this article

Illustration by Dan Page