29th Annual RESNA Conference Proceedings

A Survey of Workplace Accommodation Needs of Older Workers and Persons with Disabilities

Michael Williams, Ph.D.
Dory Sabata, OTD, OTR
Jesse Zolna


Older adults can experience health related changes with aging, and many live with chronic functional limitations, which can affect their ability to continue working. Few studies have addressed the functional difficulties of older workers and workplace accommodations used by them. In general, the number of older adults continues to rise. However evidence suggests that some older adults want to continue working in retirement (1). Researchers were interested in better understanding the prevalence of functional difficulties of those who were currently employed or employed since acquiring a disability. The study also was designed to identify the frequency of types of workplace accommodations Three age groups were compared; working age (18-54), pre-retirement (55-64), and retirement age (over 64). Surprisingly, the frequency of functional difficulties and types of workplace accommodations were fairly similar across all three age groups.


Workplace accommodations, aging workers, functional limitations


People with disabilities often face challenges to participation in the workplace. Currently the "baby boomer" population, those born between 1946 and 1964, comprises a large portion of working adults today. Studies indicate that older adults want to continue working in retirement or beyond typical retirement age. As the baby boomers age and live with chronic health conditions, what types of accommodations will be needed to help them continue to participate in work activities?

In 2000, the U.S. had 34.9 million adults ages 65 and older, and nearly 14 million of them have a disability (2). Even if people want to be employed, disabling conditions present challenges to participating in the workforce. In general, people with disabilities have lower employment rates and income than that of the general population. Among those ages 16-64, 11.9% reported having employment disability (3). Compared to those with other types of disabilities, people with physical disabilities experience greater loss of days at work. People with mental disabilities are more likely to work, even though they require more assistance to function (4) People with sensory disabilities have higher rates of employment and higher income levels than people with other types of disabilities (5,6).


A survey was conducted with people who self-identified as having one or more functional difficulty with hearing, seeing, mobility, and/or mental functioning and who were currently employed or had worked in the past with limitations and accommodations. Participants were recruited through mailings and email from organizations that provide services for people with disabilities. Of the 510 participants, 320 were working age, 123 were pre retirement age, and 49 were retirement age. The survey was available in three formats with the majority of people taking the online version (79%). Upon request the survey was made offered by mail (20%) and by telephone (1%).

The survey took about 30-45 minutes for each respondent to complete and included demographic information and questions about work history, prevalence of functional limits of work tasks, types of accommodations used, and factors related to the acquisition of workplace accommodations. Descriptive statistics were calculated using SPSS v13.


Functional Limitations

Four categories were used to organize the types of functional limitations: motor functioning (including descriptions such as changing positions , manipulating objects , and moving across spaces ); communication (including descriptions such as producing communication , receiving communication , and conversing ); sensation and perception ( hearing, sensing variations in touch and texture , and mental functioning (e.g., 'attending to task', 'remembering').

Each of the three age groups showed similar trends in the prevalence of motor, sensory/perception and mental difficulties. Motor limitations were indicated by 87.6% of respondents with 53% noting more than one motor limitation. Changing position was difficult for 39% followed by 36 % who indicated difficulty with moving around. Also manipulating objects (26%), and coordinating movements (23%) were commonly difficult. With sensory and perception limitations the data indicate similar proportions across age groups with 28.8% of the working age group, 23.6% of the retirement age group, 22.4% of the retired age group reporting difficulty with hearing and/or vision. Unlike those with motor impairments, those with sensory/perceptions limits were less likely to report more than one of these difficulties. About ¾ of those in the working age group and nearly half of the pre-retirement and retirement groups indicated mental limitations and were likely to report two or more of those types of difficulties.

Workplace Accommodations

A noticeable amount of people did not receive any workplace accommodations for a particular identified functional limitation including 14% of those with visual impairments, over 18% of those with hearing loss, and 39% of those with difficulty changing body positions. However many people did utilize workplace accommodations. The most frequently reported accommodations for vision were screen reading software (12%), electronic formatted documents (9%), scanner / OCR (9%), screen magnification (8%), enlarged print materials (7%), Braille formatted materials (6%) and CCTVs (5%). Unfortunately among the retirement group, 50% reported no accommodations for their visual difficulties. For hearing limitations, hearing aid were most common (33%) followed by use of written communication (17%), communication devices (14%), use of sign language (9%) and use of ear protection (4%)

For motor limitations, specifically changing body position, respondents had modified workstations (30%) and used ergonomic/ custom chairs (19%). Other workplace accommodations used for mobility difficulties included: accessible transportation (14%), accessible parking (10%), restroom modifications (10%), flexible schedule (9%), use of elevators (9%), ramps (8%), and numerous other accommodations.

For mental limitations "nothing" was reported most frequently as the accommodation, a few respondents did identify using talking clocks, checklists, reminder devices, computer technology and alarms.


The prevalence of the four types of functional difficulties were similarly prevalent across the three age groups. Also the types of accommodations were used with similar frequencies across the age groups. e groups. A disappointing result was the number of people who received no accommodations for needed functional limitations.


  1. AARP (2000) Work Link Team Program Development Services, American Business and Older Employees , AARP Washington DC.
  2. McNeil, J. (2001). American's with Disabilities: Household economic studies. U.S. Census Bureau.
  3. Waldrop, J., and Stern, S. M. (2003). Disability Status: 2000, US Census Bureau, Washington DC.
  4. Dewa, C. S., and Lin, E. (2000) Chronic physical illness, psychiatric disorder and disability in the workplace, Social Science & Medicine, 51.
  5. Weathers, R. (2005). A Use r Guide to Disability Statistics from the American Community Survey . Ithaca NY: Rehabilitation Research and Training Center for Disability and Demographic and Statistics, Cornell University.
  6. Ho, P. (2002). Disability and Employment Status Among Older Workers , Center for Health and Disability Research, Washington D.C.


This project was funded through the RERC on Workplace Accommodations, which is supported by Grant H133E020720 of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research of the U.S. Department of Education.

Michael Williams, Ph.D.
Georgia Institute of Technology
490 10 th St.
Atlanta, GA 30318


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