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Research

Disability Accommodations Help Workers

This big number may surprise you: one out of every four adults feels they need some type of accommodation by an employer for a medical condition or disability.

This finding comes from a study in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management that established a very inclusive standard for determining the need for employer accommodations. The researchers concluded, after following individuals 18 and older in their study for four years, that their employment rate was higher when they received support.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires employers to provide workers and job applicants with a “reasonable accommodation.” But disabling conditions aren’t always visible, and many people never ask employers for assistance. In addition, some employers – particularly small firms – may see accommodations as too costly.

In their 2014 supplement to a periodic RAND survey, the researchers found that 23 percent of workers and unemployed individuals said “yes” to a broad question designed to get a more accurate estimate of need than standard surveys: Does, or would, a special accommodation for your health “make it easier for you to work?”

This group was made up of workers who were already receiving an accommodation, as well as employed and unemployed individuals who felt they could use such support.

Workplace accommodations range from small things like buying a standing desk for an office worker with acute sciatica to reassigning a warehouse worker to a less physical task after he develops back problems. About half of the people who said an accommodation would help them received one – and the benefits were clear.

Between 2015 and 2018, their employment rate held steady at around 85 percent. But the rate for the people who weren’t being accommodated fell sharply, from 92 percent to 72 percent, according to the study funded by the Social Security Administration.

If employers gauge employees’ unmet needs – perhaps by asking outright what they could do to support them – the employers might retain more of the people the researchers described as “on the margin of working or not working.”

To read this study, authored by Nicole Maestas, Kathleen Mullen, and Stephanie Rennane, see “Unmet Need for Workplace Accommodation.” 

The research reported herein was derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.  The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College.  Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report.  Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.  

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