Center for Assistive Technology & Environmental Access, Georgia Tech.
While workplace accommodations can be essential for people with disabilities to gain and maintain employment, many employees are assessed for accommodations by human resource departments that have inadequate knowledge about what types of solutions are available. This paper will introduce a new expert system that helps employers determine what accommodations to try with their employees in office-based jobs. The system asks a series of questions about a person’s abilities, tasks, and barriers to those tasks. Solutions are then presented, with considerations for different environmental factors. The system is currently being evaluated, however it is hoped that it will lead to more appropriate accommodations being used.
Workplace accommodations are defined as “any change in the work environment or in the way things are customarily done that enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities” (EEOC, 1992). Workplace accommodations include not just assistive technology (AT), but also architectural modifications and strategies. Access to accommodations can influence whether or not an person is able to gain and maintain employment. In a national survey conducted by the Work RERC, 75% of the respondents stated that they could not perform all of their job duties without workplace accommodations. Fifteen percent said that they had been fired or laid off in the past because they could not get the accommodations needed to do the work (Williams, Sabata & Zolna, 2006).
Proper assessment for workplace accommodations is therefore critical. A T professionals, including RESNA members, sometimes assist businesses to determine what accommodations are needed by their employees. However, the research suggests that a large number of workplace assessments are made instead by an organization’s own internal system such as the human resources department (HR). A survey conducted by the Work RERC found that 46% of employees were provided with accommodations through an employer-supported program rather than vocational counseling or assistive technology agencies. Unfortunately, HR departments often have an inadequate understanding of ADA requirements, disability, and accommodations (Unger & Kregel, 2003), suggesting that a more structured assessment process is necessary.
HR personnel find little guidance in the literature to help them determine what to assess or how to use assessment information to provide accommodations. In addition, existing assessment tools do not evaluate the specific needs of employees and do not enable HR personnel to develop individualized accommodations. For example, the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) has developed the Searchable Online Accommodation Resource (SOAR) (http://www.jan.wvu.edu/soar/) which provides users with accommodation ideas based on categories of health conditions and functional limitations. Accommodation suggestions in SOAR are non-specific to an individual, his/her job tasks, or work environment. In contrast, AbleLink Technologies’ VRXpert software program (http://www.vrxpert.com) goes one step further in combining an individual’s functional limitations and a standard set of job tasks from the O*NET (http://online.onetcenter.org) job categories to identify potential accommodations. However, currently, VRXpert is limited by its inability to include job tasks that are not part of O*NET’s standard job descriptions. It also does not consider environmental influences on job performance. Finally, the Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program (CAP) and the Technology Accessible Resources Gives Employment Today (TARGET) Center provide assessment services for government agencies. However, both programs focus primarily on computer, electronic, and ergonomic adaptations. As a result, they do not provide assessments that cover the full range of accommodation possibilities (e.g., environmental modifications and adaptive strategies).
Therefore, this project sought to fill this gap by developing a tool to help employers conduct a broad-based workplace assessment and determine individualized accommodations. An expert system for accommodations for office-related jobs was developed under a NIDRR field-initiated grant. A module for production / distribution jobs is being developed as part of the Work RERC.
The Workplace Accommodation Wizard is a web-based system that steps employers and their employees through a series of questions about their functional limitations, job tasks, and problems that the employee is having with the job tasks. It then presents a list of possible solutions, including aspects to consider when choosing between the solutions.
A previous study of assessment instruments helped guide the development of the assessment tool (Bruce & Sanford, 2006). One of the findings of that survey was that although many standardized instruments have some application to a workplace setting, few are directly related to workplace accommodations. Some tools simply provide a framework for collecting information about the problem. Only a few provide the guidance on accommodation recommendations that was our goal for the project.
For our assessment protocol, we wanted to include questions that collect information on the person, activity, and environment. The system starts by asking about the employee’s functional limitations. Each of the general functional limitation categories (e.g., mobility, seeing, mental function) are broken down into three to six more specific levels (e.g., uses a manual wheelchair, sensitive to light, difficulty with memory).
The next step begins to address the issue of activity. To facilitate development and evaluation, the initial system focused only on office-based jobs, including office and administrative support, computer, legal, business, and financial operation occupations. According to the U.S. Census (2007), these occupations represent about a third of the employed population. The focus on office-based jobs dictated the types of job activities that were included in the assessment. In the end, over fifty tasks were included, covering aspects of traveling around the workplace, using the workspace, using the restroom, communicating, using a computer, accessing documents, etc.
Next, employers and employees are asked to indicate which aspects of the tasks pose a problem from a set list of choices. For example, a person who is hard of hearing who is trying to use a phone might select “Ring tone not audible.” The access problems are then mapped to a set of accommodation solutions. For the phone example, a set of solutions might include:
- Change the ring frequency: Try a different ring tone
- Increase the ring volume: 1) Increase the volume of the ring or use a phone with a louder ring; 2) Use a hearing aid; or 3) Use an assistive listening device.
- Provide a visual alert: Indicate the ring with flashing lights
- Provide a tactile alert: Use the vibration setting on a cell phone or pager
The solutions note situations where other personal or environmental factors may impact the selection of a particular accommodation. For example, certain accommodations may only be appropriate for an individual with a particular skill (e.g., Braille display), or may not be appropriate for all environments (e.g., if it is a shared workstation). The solutions also note situations where an expert should be involved. That is, while an employer might successfully implement the use of a speaker phone and a trackball, he or she will need assistance for an employee who needs custom screen reading macros. Finally, when appropriate, the solutions include links to further information on Assistivetech.net, a national public Internet site on assistive technology.
Testing of the Wizard is currently underway. Criterion validity testing will determine if the problems and the proposed solutions identified by the Accommodation Wizard match those from a typical on-site assessment. During usability and accessibility testing, participants conduct a mock assessment from case study scenarios, note problems that they encounter with completion of the tasks, and report on aspects of the site that they like/dislike.
The current tool only covers employees in office-based settings. However, it is being expanded to include tasks associated with production and distribution jobs, such as the use of tools and the handling of materials. The final tool will enable employers to select appropriate accommodations for their employees, or know when additional expertise needs to be involved. It is our hope that this will lead to more appropriate accommodations being used and to reduce the amount of unmet accommodation needs.
Bruce, C. and Sanford, J.A. (2006). Development of an evidence-based conceptual framework for workplace assessment. Work, 27(4): 381-390.
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (1992). Employment Provisions (Title I) Technical Assistance Manual.
Unger, D. and Kregel, J. (2003). Employers' knowledge and utilization of accommodations. Work, 21(1), 5-15.
U.S. Census Bureau (2007). Census 2000 Summary File 3 - Sample Data.
Williams, M., D. Sabata, and Zolna, J. (2006). User Needs Evaluation of Workplace Accommodations. Work, 27(4), 355-362.
This project was conducted under grants H133E070026 and H133G070063 from the U.S. Dept. of Education, National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR).