Workplace Accommodations for Educators with Disabilities

Karen Milchus, MS, ATP
Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access, Georgia Tech.


Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) educators with a disability may need accommodations in order to teach.  This paper reports on a survey of STEM educators with a disability on the accommodations that they use and the process for receiving these accommodations.  Findings show that teachers are mostly using environmental accommodations and equipment that may be already in place (e.g., ramps, LCD projector).  They are less likely to be using specialized assistive technology as an accommodation, particularly for STEM-specific tasks.  This may be tied to another finding that many educators are determining and paying for their own accommodations, with less input from their employer than would be expected, and with minimal input from rehabilitation professionals.


job accommodation, educators with a disability, accommodation process, employment


There is a shortage of educators in subjects related to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).  This need could be addressed by seeking out more educators from traditionally underrepresented groups, such as people with disabilities.  According to the National Science Foundation, the proportion of STEM educators with disabilities is only 8.8% (55,500 educators with disabilities). (1)  If educators with disabilities were equally represented, their proportions should approach the 18.6% of the U.S. workforce-age population that is disabled. (2)

To support people with disabilities who want to enter or remain in the field, accommodations may be needed.  Workplace accommodations are mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as a way to provide equal opportunities for employees with disabilities. (3)  They are strategies, environmental modifications or assistive technology that help a person perform a job task that he or she might otherwise not be able to perform or not perform as effectively.  Examples of accommodations for a STEM educator may include the provision of large print job application forms, wheelchair accessible lab furnishings, electronic spell checkers, or the provision of a sign language interpreter during faculty meetings.

It is unclear what accommodations educators with disabilities are actually using and are finding helpful.  It is also unclear how the processes of requesting and providing accommodations actually occur.  To investigate these questions, a national survey of K-12 and postsecondary STEM educators with a disability was conducted.


An online survey was advertised via K-12 science and math coordinators, college ADA coordinators, professional organizations (e.g., National Science Teachers Assoc.), and groups working with students with disabilities (e.g., Association for Higher Education and Disability).  The survey took about twenty minutes to complete and included 41 questions on demographics, the subject and grades taught, barriers encountered, workplace accommodations used, and the process for receiving accommodations. (4)  In addition, focus group interviews were conducted to gain more detailed information.  Only results from several questions on accommodation use and provision are included in this paper.

Eighty STEM educators with disabilities from 29 states or provinces completed the survey.  They had an average of sixteen years teaching experience (standard deviation nine years).  Sixty-one percent of the respondents taught science, 34% taught math, 23% taught technology or engineering, and 11% taught other related subjects such as medicine or economics.  Fifty-four percent taught grades 7-12, 29% taught college, 18% taught technical / community college, and 18% taught grades K-6.  Respondents could list more than one option for these questions. 

Half of the respondents became disabled before establishing a teaching career; half became disabled later in life.  The majority (65%) had a physical disability, but other limitations were also reported, including cognitive (e.g., LD, ADHD - 30%), hearing (17%), vision (10%), health issues (e.g., diabetes, kidney failure) (10%), and speech (5%).  Respondents could list more than one limitation.  Interestingly, 10% had not told their employer that they have a disability (and yet were still willing to complete the survey).


Accommodations Used

Participants were asked what types of accommodations they used to perform their job.  Most of the accommodations reported were not unique to teaching, and not unique to science and math.  In fact, many of the laboratory accommodations (e.g., accessible fume hood (20%), accessible calculators (20%), and talking (11%) or tactile measurement devices (10%)) were among the least frequently used.

Many more educators reported using accommodations related to environmental barriers.  These included accessible parking (63%), ramps (51%), accessible restroom (51%), hand rails (49%), automatic outer doors (48%), and elevator (48%).  The high use of these particular accommodations may be related to the high proportion of respondents with physical disabilities.

The most frequently used accommodations fit into the category of “universal design.”  They are equipment and strategies that are designed to be usable by anyone, even if a person has a functional limitation.  Thus, a few of the respondents may have reported using these products, but not specifically because they had a disability that required that accommodation.  Some of these accommodations included an accessible fire extinguisher (76%), general computer use (71%), emergency call system (66%), use of an LCD projector (63%) or overhead projector (61%) for lectures, strobe fire alarm (53%), and rearranged furniture for better accessibility (50%).

Participants in the Accommodation Process

The survey included questions about who had been involved in the process of determining what accommodations would be used by the educator, and who had paid for the accommodations.  The findings are shown in Table 1, excluding the thirteen respondents (17%) who did not use accommodations.

Table 1: Involvement in Accommodation Decisions and Payment
  Involved in Decisions Paid for Accommodations
Employer / School Administration
Medical Professional (e.g., MD, OT, PT)
Vocational Rehabilitation Services
Family / Friends / Community
Private Insurance
Workers Compensation Insurance
Assistive Technology Service Agency

Fortunately, the educators are having a say in their accommodations, with 94% of those using accommodations reporting they were involved in the decision making process.  However, the employers, who are supposed to have the final decision in making reasonable accommodations, were involved with only 54% of the cases.  Rehabilitation providers (e.g., vocational rehabilitation, therapists, assistive technology specialists) played a limited role in the accommodation process.  For 31% of the teachers, accommodations were solely self-determined. 

Also surprising was the finding that 69% of the educators had paid for at least part of their own accommodations; 29% paid for all of their accommodations.  Employers paid for all or part of the accommodations 53% of the time, and vocational rehabilitation paid 13% of the time. 


Most of the accommodations that STEM teachers reported using were those which might already be in place or which are readily available “off-the-shelf.”  That is, while accommodations related to environmental barriers were frequently reported, it is important to point out that most of these environmental modifications are required under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act.  Similarly, the use of equipment such as a computer, overhead projector, or emergency call system may already be commonplace within a classroom setting, and not require a special request for a workplace accommodation.  In contrast, the use of specialized AT was less common, and laboratory accommodations were among the least frequently used.  It was not clear from the study whether this was because the educators did not need to perform these tasks or whether they were not aware of these accommodation options.

Educators with disabilities often manage on their own, without accommodation support of others.  We do not yet know whether the trend of educators determining and providing their own accommodations is unique to teachers (who often are also forced to purchase their own classroom supplies).  The RERC on Workplace Accommodations’ study of employees in a cross-section of occupations found lower but still significant results -- 15% of employees paid for all of their accommodation expenses.  However, professionals such as educators may feel that paying for accommodations that they can afford is preferable to drawing attention to their disability by negotiating for accommodations.  The results of a recent survey conducted by the RRTC on Blindness and Low Vision on employees with disabilities found that among those respondents who needed accommodations but did not request them, 30% felt it was too much trouble to ask for an accommodation. (5)   Thirteen percent each felt that they would not receive their requested accommodation, did not feel comfortable making a request, or were concerned about retaliation.  Many of these concerns were echoed by our focus group participants.

According to the ADA, the process for determining accommodations should be interactive, and involve both the employee and the employer.  Our findings do not follow this model.  For almost a third of the educators, accommodations were solely self-determined, and the employer was involved in only half of the cases.  It is clear that employers and educators do not understand their rights and responsibilities for accommodation under Title I of the ADA.  In addition, educators may not be aware of all of their accommodation options.  To address these needs, this project is completing the development of a web-based course and a series of fact sheets for educators and administrators on workplace accommodations.


  1. National Science Foundation, Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. 2002: Arlington, VA.
  2. U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (2004). Occupational Outlook Handbook: Teachers - Postsecondary.  Washington, DC.
  3. Americans with Disabilities Act, in 42 U.S.C. § 12111 (10)(A). 1999.
  4. Milchus, K. (2007).  Work Experience of Educators: Policy Implications for Accommodating Professionals.  Proceedings of the 2007 Technology & Persons with Disability Conference, Los Angeles, CA.
  5. Frank, J. J.  (2006).  A Survey of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Accommodation Request Experience of Persons Who are Blind or Who Have a Severe Visual Impairment.  Rehabilitation Research & Training Center on Blindness & Low Vision, Mississippi State.


This study was funded by grant #0435675 from the Research in Disabilities Education (RDE) program of the National Science Foundation, in partnership with the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Workplace Accommodations (grant #H133E020720, NIDRR, U.S. Department of Education).


Karen Milchus
CATEA, 490 Tenth St. NW, Atlanta, GA  30318
Phone: 404-894-0393


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