picture of person supported by colleagues

It’s More Than Curb Cuts and Ramps: Support at Work Is Key to a Successful Re-entry for People with Disabilities

Written By:

Susan Chandler


When the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed more than 30 years ago, some critics worried that the cost of making “reasonable accommodations” for employees with disabilities would place a heavy financial burden on U.S. companies. They were thinking mainly of the expense of infrastructure changes such as widening doorways, building ramps or installing elevators. But new research shows that it’s not so much a company’s “hard assets” that determine whether an employee who acquires a disability remains employed or can return to work but its “soft assets,” the attitudes of supervisors and co-workers.

“It’s less about the work itself or the workers’ education level. It’s more about the social environment at work,” said Allen Heinemann, PhD, Director of the Center for Rehabilitation Outcomes Research (CROR) at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. “It’s the soft human factor. It’s not about having the Department of Labor write more rules.”

To find out why employment levels among people with disabilities have remained stuck at less than 40% in recent decades and identify best practices among employers, Heinemann and a team of researchers conducted an online cross-sectional survey of almost 350 people with disabilities in the Chicago area. The vast majority of them, 270, were employed.

People who were working reported they had more social support at work and at home. Those who were no longer working cited negative attitudes among supervisors and co-workers as a major reason. “What mattered most was not things that get purchased but whether people are treated with courtesy and respect,” Heinemann added.

Eighty percent cited support from their supervisor as a factor that allowed them to keep working after an injury or illness. Almost the same percentage said that positive reviews of their work performance helped as did acceptance from co-workers. The group of people who were no longer working reported that the thing that had helped them most was acceptance from coworkers (72%) and help with life tasks outside of work (68%).

What mattered most was not things that get purchased but whether people are treated with courtesy and respect.

Allen Heinemann, PhD


Both groups said they faced barriers to maintaining employment, including job demands, workload and negative attitudes at work. While negative social factors ranked highest, other obstacles included inaccessible workplaces and inflexible work schedules. The people who were no longer working were more likely to cite those factors as barriers.

The survey also explored people’s motivation for maintaining employment. Topping the list was the desire for financial security, the need to pay bills and maintain employment benefits, including health insurance. Feelings of self-esteem and self-worth were also important: Nearly 80% called out the desire to be confident in their job skills and 66% cited the feeling that they played “a critical role in my work organization.” Almost half reported that they cared about the prospect of job advancement.

A second survey was devised to get employers’ perspectives on issues surrounding people with disabilities. Participants were recruited from Midwestern employers who had hired people with disabilities in the past or had made efforts to create an inclusive workplace. The researchers contacted every Chamber of Commerce in Illinois multiple times and asked them to distribute the survey to their members. They also reached out to companies that had worked with the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab’s Vocational Rehabilitation Department.

About one third of the companies responding were from the healthcare or social services sector of the economy. Roughly a quarter were small firms with fewer than 50 employees and 30% were large employers with more than 1,000 workers.

The questionnaire asked whether companies had a hiring process, provided disability-related supports and policies, or had previously made job accommodations to retain employees who had acquired disabilities. While three-quarters of firms surveyed said they employed people with disabilities, only 60% had informed their employees that they could request a job accommodation and less than half said they had a process for those employees to disclose a disability.

Employers want to do the right thing in terms of having a diverse workforce that includes people with disabilities.

Allen Heinemann, PhD


But there was also good news. Almost 90% of companies said they had modified policies or workplace rules to adapt to an employee with a disability and more than 80% said they had modified work schedules. Nearly 80% had provided employees with special equipment or devices to enable them to work. “That’s pretty good,” Heinemann said. “We hoped it would be 100% but that’s probably unrealistic.”

The survey also asked companies to list perceived challenges to employing people with disabilities. The most frequently reported barriers were lack of knowledge about how to address the needs of employees with disabilities (51%); cost of accommodations (41%) and concerns about compliance (44%). Small employers were more concerned about cost than large employers.

The research team’s conclusion: “Employers want to do the right thing in terms of having a diverse workforce that includes people with disabilities. And smaller employers know there are things they don’t know. It makes them cautious,” Heinemann said. “They don’t want to incur legal costs or challenges to how they run their businesses.”

The results reinforce the idea that ongoing educational efforts about the ADA and reasonable accommodations are necessary. “Many small and medium-size employers have limited experience providing accommodations to workers with disabilities, and few employers have dedicated human resource staff members with expertise in providing accommodations,” said Heinemann. “Each employee presents them with unique needs and circumstances that may challenge their ability to apply the principles of accommodations in an individual case. While most solutions have no or minimal cost, they don't know that initially.”

Both regional surveys were pilot projects. The researchers are revising the surveys’ questions and shortening them before they are distributed nationally. The number of open-ended questions has been reduced to cut the time for respondents to between 10-15 minutes. The work is part of a $4.3 million grant CROR received in 2018 from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) to research barriers that hold back people with disabilities from maintaining employment. The study on employment barriers and facilitators is in the beginning of its fourth year, and the researchers are currently writing articles about the results of the first phase with the goal of getting them published later this year.

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