J. L. Mueller, Inc. Universal Design at Work      
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Universal Design at Work

Why Universal Design?

Photo of a male wheelchair user wearing a red sweater working in an office."What do you do for a living?" is one of the first questions asked when people meet. Especially in the United States, one's personal identity depends heavily on what he or she does for a living.

Two-thirds of Americans with disabilities have no answer to this question, creating a heavy burden for themselves, for their families, for business, and for the nation. Government and industry experience show that job and workplace design that accommodates diverse ages and abilities can save money and help prevent disability among their coworkers as well.

Why Universal Design :: The Changing Work Force

Increasingly common occupational injuries such as repetitive upper-extremity stress and back pain and the steadily aging workforce assure that disability will continue to be a common concern among American workers and their employers.

As the workforce ages and the cost of work disability rises, demographic and economic trends have combined with legislation promoting employment of people with disabilities to make Universal Design at Work a powerful issue. Workplace design that considers age-related changes in vision, hearing, posture, and mobility will be critical to a work force expected to extend their careers longer than previous generations.

Seventy per cent of all people with disabilities are not born with them, but develop them during the course of their lives (Louis Harris and Associates, 1994). As more people live longer lives, the likelihood of experiencing a disability during one's lifetime increases. The workplace is the site of millions of injuries per year. But not all disabilities are caused at work.

More than 3 million Americans each year survive severe auto accidents, sports injuries, strokes, and heart attacks (Lowery, 1994). Medical progress has had a profound effect on treatment of illness and accidents which a short time ago were fatal. From 1970 to 1997, the survival rate from strokes more than doubled, and the survival rate from traumatic brain injury improved from 10% to 90% (Jones and Sanford, 1996).

Why Universal Design :: Legislation and Workers with Disabilities

Federal action toward the rights of people with disabilities dates back to efforts of disabled veterans immediately following World War II, including the late Harold Russell, first Chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped.

Significant legislation on behalf of people with disabilities later followed the civil rights movement of the 1960's. Along with laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability came requirements for access to employment, education, public accommodations, telecommunications, and transportation (Story, Mueller, and Mace, 1998):

Section 503 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires federal contractors and subcontractors with Government contracts in excess of $10,000 to take affirmative action to employ and advance in employment qualified individuals with disabilities.

Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits job discrimination by employers, with 15 or more employees, against qualified individuals with disabilities. The ADA requires "reasonable accommodation" of qualified persons with disabilities by employers, which may include physical job and workplace modifications.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 requires that electronic and information technology purchased by the federal government is usable by workers with disabilities. This law applies to software applications and operating systems, web-based internet and intranet systems, telecommunications products, video and multimedia products, desktop and portable computers, and self-contained free-standing products such as fax machines and copiers.

Why Universal Design :: Costs of Disability Benefits

Both The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and its predecessor, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, prohibit employers from discriminating against individuals with disabilities who are qualified and able to perform the essential duties of an available job, with or without reasonable accommodation. These laws have boosted the employment rights of people with disabilities, but they have had little effect on the level of unemployment among people with disabilities.

Unemployment among Americans with disabilities is an enormous burden on them and on their families. Hundreds of thousands of employees become disabled each year and leave the workplace permanently. Their former employers must bear the burden of replacing them while also paying disability benefits. These costs average more than $150,000 per disabled employee (Farrell et al, 1989). At the same time, taxpayers must help fund public benefit programs for them such as Social Security Disability Income (SSDI).

The Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) program is the primary source of income for millions of Americans considered too disabled to work. Between 1985 and 1994, SSDI payments doubled from $19 billion to $38 billion (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1995). Realizing that continuing increases like this could destroy the Administration's budget, Congress passed the Ticket to Work and Self-Sufficiency Act of 1999 to provide greater vocational rehabilitation services and financial incentives to enable more Americans with disabilities to work (Social Security Administration, 2000). This law, combined with the Americans with Disabilities Act, makes job and workplace design that considers the needs of workers with disabilities more important than ever.

Why Universal Design :: Getting Back to Work

Historically, both government and business have been much more willing to pay cash benefits than to provide assistance to help disabled workers return to productive employment. For every $100 in cash benefits paid to disabled persons, the Social Security Administration spends only about a dime for rehabilitation services (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1995). Among private businesses, the total of insurance costs, replacement expenses, and workers' compensation and other disability benefit payments due to work disability was expected to reach $200 billion per year by the turn of the century (Farrell, 1989).

Compared with the enormous cost of paying disabled employees not to work, making accommodations to bring them back to the job are cheap. According to the Job Accommodation Network, 71 per cent of accommodations cost $500 or less. For every $1 spent on job accommodation, the employer gets back $26 in savings (Job Accommodation Network, 1999). Yet, about one-quarter of the ADA Title I complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) allege failure to provide reasonable accommodation. And it's no secret that litigation is expensive. The average cost to defend employee related lawsuits such as ADA violations is estimated at $30,000 (NHC Insurance Services, Inc., 1998).

"Disabled" no longer means "unable to work". This attitude has been rendered obsolete by law, as well as by population demographics and the economic realities of disability in business. Accommodation of workers with disabilities through job and workplace design is here to stay. By instilling a universal design approach among those responsible for the development of work environments and products, the incidence of work disabilities can be reduced. And those accommodations that are required for workers with disabilities will be much more likely to be reasonable accommodations.

Disability Accommodation and Prevention

Job accommodations usually benefit coworkers without disabilities as well as the worker requesting accommodation. It is rare that on-site job accommodation needs analysis does not reveal risks of re-injury to the returning disabled worker that are also hazards to other employees. Accommodations developed with this in mind bring employers the double benefit of accommodating as well as preventing disability.

At the very least, job accommodations for workers with disabilities should be transparent, or have no effect at all on coworkers or customers. This is not as difficult as it may sound. For employers with little experience with disabilities, it can be very difficult to imagine how an employee with very different abilities from his or her coworkers might share similar needs. But the same barriers to productive and safe work faced by an employee with a significant disability are usually barriers to non-disabled coworkers as well, though to a lesser degree.

Mueller, J. (2001). "Office and Workplace Design". In W.F.E.Preiser and E. Ostroff, (Eds.) Universal Design Handbook. McGraw-Hill, New York.


"Office and Workplace Design",
James Mueller
Universal Design Handbook

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The Changing Work Force
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Legislation & Workers with Disabilities
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Costs of Disability Benefits
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Getting Back To Work