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Disability in the Workplace: Effective and Cost-effective Accommodation Planning

Copyright © Alan Cantor 1998. All rights reserved.
This article was published in the NATCON Conference Proceedings, 1998.


Treating people equally does not always mean treating them the same. In some situations, equal treatment for employees with disabilities may require different treatment. Human rights legislation in Canada requires employers, unions and co-workers to accommodate the accessibility needs of people with disabilities, provided that doing so does not cause "undue hardship." Undue hardship does not mean experiencing an inconvenience. The criteria for assessing undue hardship are cost (i.e., the cost of accommodating an employee affects the financial viability of the company) and health and safety risks (i.e., the risks caused by accommodating an individual outweighs the benefits of enhancing equality).

This article examines the costs and benefits of accommodating employees with injuries and disabilities, and describes a creative and practical approach to accommodation planning. Arguing against the commonly-held view that accommodations are always expensive, it will be shown that most accommodations cost little or nothing to acquire, have reasonable costs to implement, and add value to the workplace. The bottom line is that accommodating employees makes good business sense.

The cost of accommodations

The cost of meeting the legal duty to accommodate is surprising low. In 1994 the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) published data demonstrating that the majority of workplace accommodations cost less than US $500. See Figure 1.

Figure 1: Percentage of workplace accommodations vs. Cost
Cost (US $) Percentage
0 - 500 68%
501 - 5000 27%
5001 or more 5%

The cost of accommodating

JAN reports the median cost of accommodating an employee is about US $250. In some companies, accommodation costs are lower. The National Council on Disability (NCD) Bulletin of April 1996 notes that the average cost to accommodate a worker at Sears, Roebuck and Company is $45.

Despite the fact that job accommodations, in general, are reasonably priced, many employers overestimate the cost, assuming that people with disabilities depend on expensive and exotic technical aids. I met an administrator who vehemently opposed providing text-enlargement software to an employee with low-vision because it would cost "at least $8000!" In reality, state-of-the-art text-enlargement software costs about Cdn $625, and less expensive alternatives are available. Furthermore, modern computer operating systems have basic accessibility features (including text enhancement) built in.

Many people with disabilities do benefit from high-tech adaptive devices — speech synthesizers, reading machines, speech recognition systems, modified keyboards, and the like. Expensive when first brought to the market, adaptive technologies are becoming affordable. A voice recognition system for a PC (personal computer) that cost $20,000 in the late 1980s can be bought in 1998 for $90. High-tech accessibility aids rarely require special computers. Low set-up costs are assured because any recent-vintage IBM-compatible PC or Apple Macintosh can house, with little or no modification, virtually any adaptive technology.

The reasonable cost of accessibility aids is also attributable to the fact that many — perhaps most — do not involve high technology at all. Low-tech and no-tech accommodation solutions abound, and the combined cost of materials and implementation is trivial. For example:

Problem: A park ranger develops a medical condition. His hands can no longer tolerate the cold.
Solution: Purchase a pair of battery-powered, heated gloves — the kind used by hunters.
Cost: $5.

Problem: A laboratory technician who is deaf cannot hear the buzz of a timer that signals the end of an experiment.
Solution: Connect an indicator light to the timer.
Cost: $30

Problem: An employee who is blind has trouble using the elevator.
Solution: Apply adhesive-backed Brailled labels on all elevator control panels.
Cost: $10

Problem: Because of repetitive strain injuries, an articling student lacks the strength to hold open books and journals.
Solution: Buy an adjustable, wire-frame book holder at an office supply store.
Cost: $7

Problem: An administrator broke her arm in a bicycle accident. While in a cast, she types with one hand. Capitalizing letters is awkward because the shift and letter keys must be pressed simultaneously.
Solution: Install a freeware "sticky-key" program to enable her to enter combination keystrokes sequentially.
Cost: $0

Problem: A factory worker's shoulder injury makes it hard to reach items on high shelves.
Solution: Reorganize the shelves so that all items that the worker regularly uses are within easy reach.
Cost: $0

(Many of these examples have been adapted from Successful Job Accommodation Strategies. June 1996. Volume 2, Issue 2. p. 11).

Managing the cost of accommodations

As noted above, the cost of meeting one's legal duty to accommodate usually is modest. However, accommodating some individuals is expensive. Statistics from JAN indicate that 5% of accommodations cost $5000 or more — a significant sum for a small firm. Fortunately, expenditures are controllable through such strategies as cost recovery, cost sharing, cost containment and efficient assessment and implementation:

  • Apply for a tax exemption. Most assistive devices used by persons with disabilities are GST exempt. For more information, contact your local Excise/GST office, or Revenue Canada.
  • Speak to your provincial Workers' Compensation Board, and the Ministries of Labour, Health and Social Services to find out what grants and subsidies are available to offset the cost of accessibility aids.
  • Contact Human Resources Development Canada about wage subsidy programs to help defer the cost of on-the-job training for people with disabilities.
  • Establish partnerships among benefit-providers to assist an employee with disabilities to overcome his or her functional limitations. Find out which organizations in your jurisdiction have legislative and contractual obligations to the employee. Partners in funding may include your Ministry of Health, Vocational Rehabilitation Services, Assistive Device Programs, Workers' Compensation Board, insurance companies, and so on. Also, where appropriate, involve charitable non-profit social service and health organizations in your benefit coordination plans. Three valuable sources of information on funding are your local Human Resources and Development Canada Employment and Insurance office, the Canadian Clearing House on Disability Issues (1-800-665-9017), and the Integrated Network of Disability Information.
  • Count an employee's accommodations as tax-deductible business expenses.
  • Amortize the cost of depreciable technical aids.
  • Get help when planning and implementing complex accommodations. An inadequate assessment can lead to inappropriately chosen and improperly used accessibility aids. Seek the services of knowledgeable and experienced professionals.
  • Act quickly after an employee discloses a disability. Every day a person remains unaccommodated results in reduced output, wasted time, lowered staff morale and frazzled nerves. The costs of not accommodating accumulate rapidly. One of my clients was a Human Resource manager with an injury. Her request for accommodation floated in bureaucratic limbo for six months, during which time she could not perform her essential job duties. The cost of the delay, as measured in lost productivity alone, was $30,000. The accommodation process, once begun, took one week, and cost $2000.

The benefits of accommodating

Companies that accommodate employees enjoy substantial benefits. First, accommodations save money. According to JAN, a company reduces its insurance premiums; cuts its rehabilitation expenses; avoids costs associated with hiring new workers — recruiting, interviewing, selection and training; and eliminates the need to settle civil litigation, human rights complaints and union grievances.

As well as saving money, accommodations add value to the workplace. By accommodating employees a company preserves its pool of talent and experience. Accommodated employees can participate fully in the culture of the workplace and take advantage of opportunities for personal and career development — activities that benefit the company. JAN reports that nearly half (49%) of the companies surveyed said that accommodations allowed them to retain a qualified worker and increase the worker's productivity.

Accommodations are investments that facilitate business activity and boost productivity. Like desks, computers and telephones, accommodations give a qualified person the means to succeed. An accommodated employee is a productive employee. Long-term productivity gains can easily offset the initial cost of an accommodation.

This raises an important question: Are accommodated employees as productive as non-disabled co-workers? Research suggests that people with disabilities are more effective in their jobs than their non-disabled colleagues. Du Pont surveyed staff in 1958, 1973, 1981 and 1990. It compared employees with and without disabilities in terms of Safety, Attendance and Job performance. In Safety, 97% of employees with disabilities were rated average or above average. In Attendance, 86% were rated average or above. In Performance of Job Duties, 90% were rated average or above.

When JAN asked companies to assign a dollar value to the savings resulting from accommodating, 38% reported saving between $1 and $5000. One-third of the companies saved $5000 to $20,000, and another one-quarter saved $20,000 to $200,000. Only 3% of companies surveyed said that there was no discernible value to the benefits gained. See Figure 2.

Figure 2: Cost savings as a result of accommodations.
Savings (US $) Percentage
1 - 5000 38%
5001 - 20,000 34%
20,001 - 200,000 23%
200,001 or more 5%

Savings that result from accommodating employees

Among the companies surveyed, the median benefit value was $7250 — a benefit to cost ratio of 29:1. For every dollar a company spent to accommodate an employee, they received $29 in benefits.

An unexpected dividend of accommodating is that non-disabled employees benefit too. Accommodations are a source of improved work practices. An accommodation package usually consists of two things: better tools to do the job, and smarter ways to work. For an individual with typing injuries, for example, an $8 copy-holder that clips to the side of a computer monitor lessens the biomechanical stress of transcribing documents. Through collaborating with an accommodation consultant, the employee may discover that leaning ones' hands on a wrist-rest increases, not decreases, typing strain. When an injured worker receives appropriate equipment and good advice, co-workers are likely to notice and adopt the improved measures as well. The result is a safer, more productive workplace for everybody.

By accommodating its employees a company saves money and cultivates a competent, effective, diverse and healthy workforce. The interests of a company are served best by retaining people with injuries and disabilities. Retaining them means knowing how to plan and implement workplace accommodations.

The ADAPTABLE approach

ADAPTABLE is a creative and practical approach to accommodation planning that enhances the productivity, comfort and occupational safety of employees with injuries and disabilities without compromising their privacy, autonomy or dignity.

When developing an accommodation plan, I work closely with the individual to generate as many accommodation options as possible. To spark our imaginations I present the client with twelve distinct accommodation strategies. The first letters of these strategies form the acronym The ADaptables:

Training and retraining
Human resource strategies
Employment policy changes

Assistive Devices
Alternative formats
Personal support
Transportation services
Adapted furniture
Building modifications
Low-tech devices
Environmental adaptations
Spatial reorganization

Training and retraining: Provide educational opportunities for the employee, such as adaptive technology training.

Human resource strategies: Rewrite a job description so that non-essential duties are performed by other people. Assign part-time work. Temporarily reassign job duties.

Employment policy modifications: Change a work rule. For example, create a flexible work schedule, or agree to disregard a safety rule that prevents a qualified worker with a disability from doing the job.

Alternative formats: Present print-materials on cassette or computer disk, in Braille or in large-print. Provide real-time captioning at meetings, or captioned videocassettes at training sessions.

Personal support: Arrange for support services such as readers, personal care attendants, sign language and oral interpreters.

Transportation services: Find alternative ways to bring a person to the workplace, meetings, company picnics, etc.

Adapted furniture: Modify a work station by providing adjustable office furniture such as height-adjustable desks and chairs, articulating monitor arms, keyboard trays and other computer accessories.

Building modifications: Install wheelchair ramps, lowered elevator control panels, automatic doors, grab-bars in washrooms, high-visibility signage and visual notification systems.

Low-tech devices: Provide book holders, magnifying glass, tape recorders, ladders, talking calculators, easy-to-grip pens, etc.

Environmental adaptations: Install special lighting and air purifiers. Create quiet zones, and climate controlled areas.

Spatial reorganization: Rearrange the work area to accommodate an employee's special needs: place frequently used items within easy reach, clear paths in storage areas for wheelchair users.

A seven-stage model of employment accommodation planning

The employment accommodation process generally progresses through seven stages:

  1. Disclosure
  2. Assessment/Needs identification
  3. Research/Equipment trials
  4. Recommendations
  5. Undue hardship test
  6. Implementation
  7. Follow-up, review and adjustment

Disclosure: The first stage in the employment accommodation process is "disclosure." The act of disclosing a disability creates the need for the accommodation.

Although it is the employee's responsibility to disclose their disability, the employer is required to foster an environment that encourages disclosure. Ways to create a receptive environment include:

  • Establishing policies that streamline the process of accommodating employees.
  • Informing job applicants and employees that accommodations are available.
  • Discussing work demands with employees, individually and in small groups.

Assessment/Needs identification: Crucial to the success of any accommodation is a thorough, on-site assessment. Elements of the assessment include:

  • Meeting the employee to discuss job duties, functional abilities and current accommodations.
  • Meeting the supervisor to determine performance expectations for the employee.
  • Reviewing the employee's job description.
  • Assessing the employee's work habits, work station set-up, and work environment, attending to factors such as the demands of the job, the pace of work and the culture of the workplace.

Research/Equipment trials: During this phase various accommodation options are considered. Using the ADAPTABLE categories as a guide, collaborate with the employee to generate a list of possible accommodations. Evaluate the usefulness of special equipment, assistive devices, and work stations under actual working conditions.

Recommendations: The employer and employee agree on an accommodation plan.

Undue hardship test: Federal, provincial and territorial Human Right laws have established the test of undue hardship to guarantee that essential job duties are accommodated. The test of undue hardship specifies the extent to which various parties are responsible for ensuring that employees are accommodated. The main criteria for assessing "undue hardship" are cost, including outside sources of funding; and health and safety factors.

Anticipation of undue hardship must never preclude accommodation planning. A company must demonstrate due diligence when accommodating an employee, and be prepared to defend decisions made on the grounds of undue hardship due to cost or risk.

Implementation: The accommodation plan is set in motion. Although management is legally responsible for providing the accommodations, implementing the plan may require the cooperation of others. For example, if the plan calls for job sharing, include the union and co-workers in the negotiations. If the plan includes computer-based assistive devices, consult systems personnel. If the plan calls for new equipment, confer with purchasing staff.

Follow-up, review and adjustment: The last stage is regular review of the accommodations. Follow-up ensures that the employee's needs are being met and that any problems that arise out of the accommodations are addressed. Review and adjustment may lead back to the Assessment stage or Equipment trials. If new accommodation needs are identified, it may be necessary to revise the original plan.


ADAPTABLE is an effective, cost-effective, creative, and sensible approach to accommodation planning. The most important rule is to multiply accommodation options for an employee with an injury or disability. The ADAPTABLE approach acknowledges twelve unique accommodation strategies; undoubtedly there are others. By selecting a broad spectrum of accommodations, and supporting the employee throughout the accommodation process, both the individual and the company benefit.