RESNA 27th International Annual Confence

Technology & Disability: Research, Design, Practice & Policy

June 18 to June 22, 2004
Orlando, Florida

Retrospective Analysis of User Needs for Workplace Accommodations

Tina Butterfield, OTR,
J. Hunter Ramseur, M.Ed., LPC, CDMS,
Sarah Endicott, OTR/L, & Glenn Moscoso
RERC on Workplace Accommodations - Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access
Georgia Institute of Technology; Atlanta, GA 30318


People with disabilities encounter barriers in the workplace that impact their ability to obtain and sustain employment. Providing workplace accommodations to reduce these barriers is one means to promote access to worksites for individuals with disabilities. Currently, there is no comprehensive record of barriers in the workplace, accommodations implemented to overcome these barriers, and how accommodations have been useful for workers. Within the past decade, projects looking at job accommodations have been conducted by centers providing services to individual workers and thus have focused on the development of innovative products. This project objectively identifies the needs of workers with disabilities and the accommodations used in the workplace to address these needs.


Assistive technology, Workplace, Job accommodation, Disability


Currently, 18.5 million working age adults have difficulty finding employment, remaining employed, or being limited to type of work that can be done due to the presence of a disability (1). Individuals with disabilities who are employed work in a wide array of professions including management, administration, technology, design, and industry settings (2,3). Participating in employment activities represents a means to provide purpose in life through increased independence and productivity (4).

The presence of a disability impacts productivity in the workplace. As a result, environmental features often need to be altered to enable people with disabilities to gain employment or remain employed. Common barriers in the workplace include the structural layout of workspaces, ability to use equipment and furniture properly, and access to parking areas (5). In addition, the negative perceptions of employers and coworkers concerning disability can lead to discrimination on the job, further impacting employability (6,7).

Creating supportive environments can be achieved through workplace accommodations. The purpose of providing workplace accommodations is to give employees the necessary tools to meet demands in the work environment. Currently, information relating to appropriate workplace accommodations is provided on a case-by-case basis (8). Although this provides a plethora of detailed information for each specific case, it does not enable others to reliably apply the information to alternative cases and workplace accommodations in general. As a result, in vocational rehabilitation service provision, reinventing the wheel is a common phenomenon. Rumrill, Schulyer, and Longden (9) completed a series of vocational rehabilitation cases of individual with visual impairments to develop themes in workplace accommodations, but this effort still relies on a case-by-case focus. Only a few studies evaluating the workplace on a large scale exist and examine accommodations on a general level, without identifying accommodations for specific occupations and job tasks (1, 10).


The specific aims of this research are to identify: 1) barriers that impede successful outcomes for individuals with disabilities who are attempting job placement and 2) factors (facilitators) that contribute to successful outcomes. Consumer needs can be identified and studied by using a retrospective analysis of case files of actual workplace accommodations. Utilizing case studies of individual workplace accommodations is an effective way to determine the most meaningful information related to the prevalence of the most common barriers and facilitators that exist in the workplace accommodation process. The stated project aims will identify links between the functional barriers people with disabilities experience in the workplace and environmental solutions to accommodation these barriers.


The Center for Assitive Technology and Environmental Access (CATEA) at the Georgia Institute of Technology has over 300 onsite, archived case files of job accommodations that were made, under contract, for Georgia's Department of Vocational and Rehabilitation Services between 1989-1999. Participants in this project were between the ages of 18-75, currently employed or actively seeking employment, experienced a work related limitation, and received accommodation services from CATEA. This project is exempt from informed consent requirements as no personal identifiable information was collected.

Trained researchers completed a user needs form, developed as part of this project, for each individual case study. To ensure that the user needs form was a reliable collection tool, two independent researchers completed a form for each individual case study. Data from each of the two forms was compared for inter-rater reliability and discrepancies were discussed between the researchers until a consensus was reached. Data collected from these user needs forms included demographical information, year of service provision, type of employment, information about the functional limitations of the individual (e.g., weight lifting limitations, visual acuity), statements of the job accommodation issues being addressed (e.g., data entry speed, physical access to an office, using a telephone) and the recommendations provided by the job accommodation specialist.

Data was analyzed using frequency counts to identify the functional limitations and environmental barriers impacting work; accommodations recommended to address these barriers; and the number of vocational rehabilitation clients who work from home. In addition, frequency counts were performed to establish correlations between type of employment and accommodation recommendations as well as functional limitation and accommodation recommendations.


Preliminary data analysis indicates that vocational rehabilitation clients work in a variety of settings including management, administration, construction, and engineering fields. Individuals who experienced work related limitations had difficulty reaching with arms, handling and fingering, using a mobility device, or seeing. In addition, the most prevalent types of accommodations used by vocational rehabilitation clients included provisions for computer technologies, new or alternative workstation design, communication devices, as well as the inclusion of adaptive strategies and environmental set up on the job.


People with disabilities worked in a variety of occupations suggesting that universal accommodations would better provide access to the workplace. One such universal technology which was identified in this project was the use of a computer system on the job. Many accommodations were implemented using a personal computer ranging from communication systems, voice recognition technology, and alternative user interfaces such as trackballs and ergonomic keyboards. In addition, the layout of the worksite was identified as a common accommodation recommended by rehabilitation professionals. Providing clear knee space under desks and workstations, access to documents and files and, a clear path to move through the worksite were recommended.

Analysis suggests that individuals who have decreased upper body strength and dexterity need accommodations to reduce environmental demands associated with reaching and fine motor control. For example, voice recognition technologies and other alternative user interfaces were implemented to decrease fine motor requirements necessary for data entry and word processing tasks. Worksites were arranged such that persons could reach all tools needed for the job. Persons who have lower extremity limitations sought accommodations which provided access for the maneuvering of their mobility aid. Recommendations included providing clear knee space at desks, access to restrooms and other amenities, accessible paths of travel, and wider doorways. In addition, for individuals who did not use mobility devices, seating accommodations to enable individuals to conserve energy and stamina were recommended.

The results of the project also show limitations in the current state of workplace accommodations. Analysis of user needs suggests that further follow-up services need to be provided to vocational rehabilitation clients. Most cases included in the study do not document whether recommendations were implemented, making it difficult to establish the usefulness of accommodations for people with disabilities. To address this issue, results of this study will be validated by a consumer advisory network through focus group discussions.


  1. McNeil, J. “Americans with disabilities: Household economics studies.” US Department of Commerce Economic and Statistics Administration, US Census Bureau, 1997.
  2. McNeal, DR, Somerville, BS, & Wilson, DJ. “Work problems and accommodations reported by persons who are postpolio or have a spinal cord injury.” Assistive Technology, 11(1): 137-57. (1999).
  3. L. Trupin, L & Yelin, E. “The employment experience of persons with limitations in physical functioning: An analysis of the 1996 California work and health survey.” University of California, Disability Statistics Rehabilitation Research and Training Center, San Francisco, CA, 1999.
  4. Schalock, RL, McGaughey, MJ, & Kiernan, WE. “Placement into nonsheltered employment: Findings from national employment facilities.” American journal of mental retardation, 94(1): 80-7. (1989).
  5. McCray, PM. “The Job Accommodation Handbook” (3 rd Ed), RPM Press, Inc., Tucson, AZ, 1992.
  6. Bishop ML & Allen, C. “Employment concerns of people with epilepsy and the question of disclosure: Report of a survey of the epilepsy foundation.” Epilepsy and Behavior, 2(5): 490-5 (2001).
  7. Braddock, D. & Bachelder, L. “The Glass Ceiling and Persons with Disabilities.” The Glass Ceiling Commission: U. S. Department of Labor, Washington, D.C., 1994.
  8. Moulton, G, Huyler, L, Hertz, J. & Levenson, M. “Assistive Technology in today's business: Case studies for success.” Microsoft Press, Redmond, WA, 2002.
  9. Rumrill, PD, Schuyler, BR & Longden, JC. “Profiles of on-the-job accommodations needed by professional employees who are blind.” Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 91(1): 66-77 (1997).
  10. Dowler, DL, Hirsh, AE, Kittle, RD, & Hendricks, DJ. “Outcomes of reasonable accommodations in the workplace, Technology and Disability.” 5(3-4): 345-54 (1996).


This study was funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research of the U.S. Department of Education grant # H133E020720

Author Contact Information:

Tina M. Butterfield
Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access:
Georgia Institute of Technology
490 10 th Street
Atlanta, GA 30318
Office Phone (404)385-0480

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