Workplace accommodations used by people with disabilities vary greatly based on functional limitations and work tasks. Understanding the experiences and opinions of people who use workplace accommodations is important to recognizing the usefulness and limits of currently available accommodations. Three separate group interviews were conducted with people who have communication, vision, and mobility impairments. The interviews addressed the consumers’ perspective on tools, equipment, and technology used at work. Investigators also explored consumers’ views on the process of finding and procuring the right workplace accommodation. With this knowledge we can inform the development of new workplace accommodations to better meet the needs of consumers.
Accommodation, vision, communication, mobility, employment
Accommodations are used to mitigate functional impairments and enable qualified people with disabilities to work. Assistive devices, equipment, and technology are some types of accommodations used to facilitate successful work performance. However, the way that assistive technology is provided at work varies greatly based on the employees’ functional limitations. The goal of this research is to seek a better understanding of employees’ perspectives on workplace accommodations and procedures for obtaining them. A group interview methodology was selected because people with disabilities who have participated in gainful employment are an essential source of information about their employment experiences .
This article reports the findings of a series of focus groups designed to examine the process of acquiring workplace accommodations from the point of view of individual workers. These focus groups investigated how people with disabilities conceptualize the tools, equipment, and technology they use in the workplace, as well as their experiences with discovering appropriate accommodations and successful processes for obtaining accommodations in the workplace.
Group interview participants were selected based on their responses to a previous survey indicating that they were currently working and with either a communication, mobility, or vision impairment. Each group interview consisted of people with the same general category of disability (communication n = 5; vision n = 7; mobility n = 7).
Three group interviews were conducted as a component of ongoing research into the user needs and experiences related to working with disabilities. The vision and mobility group interviews were conducted in person; the communication group interview was conducted on-line. A semi-structured group interview format was used, beginning with a brief warm-up period of introduction and a general questions concerning participants’ current work status. During the group interview one researcher led the discussion while two assistants took notes. After each participant introduced themselves, the discussion leader began and directed the discussion to answer the following questions:
For the most part, the accommodations used by participants varied widely across groups. This is not surprising given that the groups had different functional limitations. However, computer equipment was an important workplace accommodation pointed to by all groups. While computers and their use were the most common category of assistive technology, the manner in which computers were involved in accommodations varied across groups. Every participant in the communication group indicated that they used personal computers with word prediction software, changes to key placement, and voice input to meet their workplace needs. More than half (four) of the participants in the vision group used computers on a daily basis to scan work-related documents to be read, and two participants needed accommodations to use workplace specific software. Participants in the mobility limitation group reported that their most important accommodations improved physical access to their computer, such as rearranging their computer set up, purchasing new equipment such as a laptop, or using alternative input devices such as a trackball.
Though the bulk of workplace accommodations varied greatly between groups, the tools, equipment, and technology used within groups did not vary substantially. This is informative because each of the three groups consisted of people with differing functional limitations.
Judging by the responses to our questions, respondents with visual impairments pointed to accessing work specific documents or software as the most important workplace issue that required an accommodation. Participants with visual impairments scanned documents or used Braille, specialized lighting, Zoom text, and CC TV to access documents, with two participants claiming that Braille works better than zoom text or CC TV. To provide access to work specific software, participants used individualized software or received individual software training. In addition, two participants used personal computers such as a Pac Mate, two used notes and labels, two used JAWS, and two used voice equipment as general workplace assistive technology.
The type and number of workplace accommodations needed for people with vision limitations depends upon the severity of their vision impairment. Two participants had low, but functional vision; they used accommodations that were not specialized devices such as enhanced lighting and voice activated electronics. Two participants had minimal vision but could not see enough to read; they tended to use a larger number of accommodations which were mostly high tech and specialized, such as Zoom Text, CC TV, stickers, labels, slate, and digital recorders. Two participants were totally blind; they depended upon Braille and also scanned documents into a computer to be read by a screen reader.
Aside from using a computer to accommodate their functional limitations, participants with communication deficits used pen and paper strategies, phone relay, finger spelling, and a trackball with head pointer to meet their workplace needs. The principal factors participants used in choosing their communication devices were flexibility, word prediction, vocabulary size, portability, voice quality, ease of use, and ability to integrate with other work software. This group also suggested improvements to their workplace accommodations. They would like assistive technology that has enhanced voice quality including expressiveness and volume, greater equipment portability, hands free equipment, easier input modalities such as handwriting, and an improvement in the speed and accuracy of device assisted communication. Participants also discussed improving their devices with waterproofing, ability to adjust volume, longer battery life, more memory and computing power, faster response time during conversations, privacy, and foreign language translation.
Participants with mobility limitations felt that their most important accommodations were to improve their personal workspace. Aside from improving access to their computer, participants adjusted their desk by removing drawers, building a bigger desk, and getting adjustable cube furniture. Other common accommodations for people with a mobility limitation involved more general workspace issues. Community equipment such as computers in a lab, filing cabinets, or photocopy machines was moved (most often lowered) so that people in a wheel chair can reach it. Inaccessible parking decks were often a problem; reserve parking spaces and a remote controlled parking gate were provided. Ramps and power door openers were also provided for entrances. Clutter was removed from the office and bigger bathroom spaces were provided to allow a person in a wheelchair to get around.
Participants in all three focus groups indicated that self-advocacy and seeking professional help was critically important to get the accommodations they needed. Consumers in both the vision and mobility impairment groups emphasized taking the initiative to figure out on their own what they need, and making these needs clear to an employer. The respondents took responsibility for identifying both workplace limitations and accommodations. In addition, respondents in the vision group stated that they had to ask the employer directly for accommodations and those in the mobility group agreed that persistence in asking for accommodations is imperative or they will not be provided. All participants in the mobility group participated in vocational rehabilitation services at sometime and had assistance in paying for equipment and accommodations such as modifying a van, a lift, or modifications to work stations. However, two participants stated that relying on vocational rehabilitation services was not a “successful” experience because they were already employed or because insurance was better. Participants in the communication group were comfortable with asking the employer for accommodations and said “I would just tell the employer what I need, be honest, and provide help for coming up with solutions”. However, people with communication impairments agreed that they would not recommend requesting accommodations until already hired; moreover, they would not disclose their disability until necessary, which is usually at the interview.
Interestingly, people with all types of functional limitations go about discovering what works in the same ways. People who are seeking accommodations at work find the right accommodation through keeping up to date on the development of new accommodation techniques and products by reading the appropriate internet web sites, list serves, news papers, and magazines. People in all groups also used formal or professional assistance. Some examples included a rehabilitation center for mobility impairments, community center for the vision impaired, or conferences on communication technologies. In addition, all groups indicated that they learn informally through discussions with friends who have similar functional limitations.
Accommodations to mitigate functional impairments and enable qualified people with disabilities to work. The provision of assistive tools, equipment, and technology as accommodations facilitate successful work performance and is of importance to people with a disabling condition, professionals who help find accommodations, and employers who wish to accommodate employees. It is interesting to note that even when considering similar categories of accommodations (e.g., computer equipment) the exact type of accommodation varies greatly across groups, but little within groups. Moreover, the process for researching and procuring workplace accommodations does not differ based on the type of disability addressed. However, the assistive technology that is provided at work does vary greatly based on the employees’ functional limitations. In summary, it appears that the consumer perception is that document access is most important for people with vision limitations, naturalistic communication is important to consumers with communication limitations, and accommodations to personal workspaces are most important to consumers with mobility limitations. The goal of this research is to seek a better understanding employee’s perspectives on the workplace accommodation procedure.
The findings of this study suggest that computer equipment is a very common workplace accommodation, regardless of the varying types of disabilities. However, it is important to understand how the computer will be used in a specific context for it to be a useful accommodation. For instance, a person working in an office with low vision might be able to access work documents by using a large font size on their computer, but a blind person would typically need a screen reader that is compatible with scanned documents. In addition, waterproofing might be necessary for someone who uses computer equipment to communicate while working at a coffee shop. Therefore, it is important to involve the consumer in decisions made about the general type and specific features of any accommodation provided to them.
The need for consumer involvement is recognized by consumers who, regardless of functional limitation, believe that they are the most important piece in finding and requesting accommodations. Even more than being involved, the consumer feels the need to be up to date, educated, and responsible for both finding the accommodation and procuring it. The consumers’ interest in finding and requesting accommodations further stresses the importance of involving the consumer as a participant in the accommodation process.
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