You are here

Human Resources

Full of Potential

Creating an accommodating work environment for disabled employees
University Business, May 2010

As a successful wood-cut artist, Sheila Pitt taught at the University of Arizona for roughly 20 years when tragedy struck. In February of 2008, the experienced horsewoman became a quadriplegic after breaking her neck in a riding accident.

But her physical condition didn't stop her from doing what she loved best: teaching and creating art. The university provided her with two assistants - one to help her demonstrate art techniques in the classroom and another to work in her home studio so she could continue researching art techniques, producing art, and exhibiting her work.

"If the university didn't do this, I definitely wouldn't be as successful as I am now," says Pitt, noting that one of her pieces is now in a traveling art show while another is being judged in a national competition. "My studio assistant is above and beyond what I expected. [The university] has been incredibly accommodating."

Although the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 provides broad protection for employees with disabilities, it's simply a guideline for many institutions. Their focus has moved away from the disabilities themselves and toward creating an accommodating work environment. They're designing accessible buildings, creating flexible jobs and workspaces, and offering adaptive technologies. Such changes not only enable schools to recruit the best talent, but also help them prevent brain drain and realize a higher return on employee investment.

A central accommodations fund helps avoid supervisors linking hiring the disabled with higher costs.

A good example is a U of A employee who was responsible for binding the library's journals. Due to a brain injury, the multiple-step process became too difficult for the individual, recalls Alan Strauss, assistant director of the school's Disability Resource Center.

After reviewing the employee's job description, Strauss came up with an idea: the employee could perform the process one step at a time for all journals, instead of completing the entire process for one journal, then moving on to another.

"By structuring the job differently, the person was able to do that work," he says. "It was not looking at the person who had a condition that needed an intricate accommodation; it was 'let's look at the workplace and ask why is it we have a complex process for [binding] journals.' "

Over the past decade, the U of A has supported a central accommodations fund to avoid supervisors linking hiring the disabled with higher costs. While departments still make routine purchases, the central fund picks up the difference between a standard office chair, for instance, and a more expensive chair that accommodates an employee's disability.

"We don't view this as an additional expense," Strauss says. "It's part and parcel of doing business to create an accessible campus. The more accessible it is, the more usable it is."

Strauss says it would have been very easy for the university to walk away from Pitt, telling her she was no longer qualified to perform her job. But it's her talent and skills that the school values, he says, not her physical abilities. So the university made some modifications to her office, such as widening the doorway and purchasing a new desk. Add the wages of her two assistants, and her accommodations were still less expensive than a job search for a new tenure track professor.

Approximately 2 percent of the 28,000 employees at The Ohio State University are disabled, yet new construction and renovations exceed state building codes and ADA standards, says L. Scott Lissner, the university's ADA coordinator.

Consider that 5 percent of individual workstations in new buildings must be accessible. Two other buildings, the college of architecture and recreational sports, also have inclined hallways at a 5 percent slope that connect floors. This offers another option besides elevators, provides an alternative emergency route, and saves energy since there's better air flow between floors. Another building was renovated so that its classic main entrance with a palatial staircase - which led to the second floor - now has a ramp that curves underneath the stairs to the new main entrance on ground level.

Employees can also access a baseline of assistive technologies from any campus computer linked to the school's server. Those with visual impairments, for example, can log in and use their tailored copy of Job Access for Windows, voice output software that reads a computer screen.

The laundry list of accommodations goes on. Doors are 36 inches versus 32 inches wide, the height of tables in workstations can be adjusted, and concession stands in its basketball arena are fully accessible. In many cases, Lissner says, the cost is incalculable or insignificant.

"The proportion of professors who are above 65 is getting higher and higher every year," he notes. Without such accommodations, some would resign or retire early because they could no longer perform the job. "We know we're going to have to accommodate those individuals because the older they are, the more likely it is that they have a mobility impairment. Building it in [the design] is cheaper than coming back later and renovating."

It's also more sustainable. As needs for space change, institutions can readily adapt without the need to tear down walls, use more products and energy, and add materials to landfills.

"If you can keep a building in use longer with less renovation, it's greener," says Lissner. "A lot of what we do for access will help us do that. It makes our spaces more flexible."

Texas Women's University is also taking accessibility into account with building design. Its four new buildings since 2004 feature larger entrances, cubicles, and computer stations - and people using wheelchairs are no longer banished to the back of the class or to the last stall in the bathroom, says Lewis Benavides, associate vice president of human resources at TWU, which supports about 2,200 employees. Departments also have walk-through spaces, since dead ends can be difficult for people in wheelchairs who must turn around to go the other way.

Using a University of Iowa program, deans help prioritize buildings that need modification.

Older buildings have been retrofitted with additional elevators and larger spaces. Every year, Benavides says the university spends up to $25,000 - mostly for faculty - on everything from sign language interpreters to large computer screens.

But sometimes, accommodation requests are unrealistic. He tells an old story about a professor who requested a full-time assistant, to cut her teaching time in half and double her research time. In the end, he says she received a part-time assistant, a 15 percent increase in research time, and 30 percent decrease in class time.

"If [we] can get a better quality candidate, faculty, or staff member, why would we not do this?" he says, adding that nine years later, this professor still works at the university. "The costs are not that great."

Approximately 150 disabled people out of 22,000 total employees at The University of Iowa telecommute because the institution provides them with computers, adaptive software, and other needed technologies. Otherwise, at least half would probably quit because their disability prevents them from working onsite, according to Jan Gorman, the school's director of faculty and staff disability services.

Facilities operations at the school recently introduced a program called MAPS - measuring accessibility points, plans and standards - which deans and administrators use to determine the accessibility level of buildings and prioritize those that need modification. She says it encourages people to think in more user-friendly terms before construction starts.

In January, its new Work Support Program began providing accommodations to employees with mental illness. One professor, for example, received help from an employment specialist and an organizational effectiveness expert to develop a system that helps her stay organized.

"We've put effort into our employees," Gorman says. "There is a commitment to them. Many are very bright and probably at the high end of the intelligence scale. If we lose them, we lose their skill."

Last November, another university invited two disability experts to examine its ADA services. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University was shifting from a medical model, which focuses on people's disabilities, to a social justice model, where disabilities are simply a matter of diversity, explains Virginia Reilly, director of university ADA services.

Several changes resulted from that visit. The ADA office was moved out of HR to the office of equity and inclusion. A new halftime position helps coordinate employee accommodations. An ADA executive committee at the vice president level was formed to further integrate universal design into the school's culture and ensure that school communications were reaching all employees through closed caption and other delivery formats.

Meanwhile, a universal design and construction committee continues to generate awareness of assistive technologies among staff and introduce assessment forms that can be accessed by all employees and contain politically correct language that puts people, not their disability, first. For instance, one should refer to the groundskeeper with a disability as such, rather than "the disabled groundskeeper."

Other schools have similar efforts. But they all share these kinds of objectives: respecting all employees, offering them independence, restoring their dignity, and building a campus culture that values everyone's contributions. Can your institution say the same?

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer specializing in HR issues.