Skip to Main Content
Welcome to the Yang-Tan Institute at Cornell University's ILR School Link to Cornell University homepage

Disability & HR: Tips for Human Resource Professionals

Providing tools to help HR professionals build inclusive workplaces
Home About Contact
Articles    Checklists    Glossary    Resources

View other articles:

View Article

Article Group: Article Title:   Resources | Disclaimer
Management and HR Practice

Diversity and the ADA

Revised Date: 2010
Original Date: 1996
Authorship History: It has been updated by Laura Herzog, Director, EEO/Diversity & Inclusion Programs, Cornell University ILR School, from the origi nal, which was written in 1996 by Susanne M. Bruyère.
Article Outline:
Click heading to view text. |  View Entire Article

What is Diversity in the Workplace?

Broadly defined, workplace diversity is the understanding, valuing, and effective management of the ethnic, socio-economic, and gender variety or diversity with­in an organization’s workforce and among its customers. Many companies have recognized the importance of addressing the issue of diversity and are moving forward to establish and develop successful diversity initiatives. A primary cata­lyst causing workplace diversity is the demographic shift of the U.S. population and, therefore, of the U.S. workforce.

Demographic studies show that the composition of the population in the U.S. is more diverse than it has ever been, and it continues to diversify. According to the Census Bureau, the nonwhite population, which comprised less than one-third of the U.S. population at the turn of the century, is expected to increase to nearly half of the U.S. population by the year 2050. As the number of persons with disabilities grows, so too does the number of persons of color living with a disability. According to the 2000 census, 16.8 million people with disabilities are also minorities. Minority persons with disabilities are disproportionately repre­sented among the unemployed, and the employment outlook for them is bleak.

Given these changes in the population and in the labor market, there is an in­creased reliance on non-traditional workers and the opportunity for organiza­tions and individuals to capitalize on the array of ideas, creativity, and potential contributions inherent in a diverse workforce. Attracting, recruiting, developing, and retain­ing a qualified workforce from diverse popu­lations is, and will continue to be, critical for business survival and organizational success.

What Is the Americans with Disabilities Act?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, is legislation that is intended to “establish a clear and comprehensive prohi­bition of discrimination on the basis of dis­ability” and to ensure access and participation in society for persons with disabilities. The statute is specifically directed at employment, public accommodations, public services (i.e., services delivered by state and local govern­ments), transportation, and telecommunica­tions. Title I of the ADA prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from discriminat­ing against qualified persons with disabilities in all terms, conditions, and privileges of em­ployment, including recruitment, pre-employ­ment screening, hiring, benefits, promotions, layoff, and termination. The ADA also applies to labor organizations, employment agencies, and joint-management committees.

The ADA requires employers to provide rea­sonable accommodations to qualified per­sons with disabilities that will enable them to perform the essential functions of jobs held or desired. An employer may not deny an em­ployment opportunity to a qualified applicant or employee with a disability because of a request or need for a reasonable accommoda­tion. An employer does not have to provide an accommodation if it can demonstrate that it would impose an undue hardship on its busi­ness.

Addressing Diversity and the ADA

The term diversity can encompass several di­mensions, such as race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, and disability. Di­versity, disability, and human resource profes­sionals need to be aware of these dimensions when helping their companies recruit and retain employees, sell in the marketplace, and define diversity within their organizations. Persons with disabilities, including minority persons with disabilities, have the ability to make positive contributions in the workplace and to the success of organizations.

Today, diversity initiatives are less “affirma­tive action”-oriented in that they now reflect both valuing diversity and managing diversity. Valuing diversity involves recognizing and appreciating the differences of individuals. Managing diversity emphasizes developing company policies, goals, and a culture that optimizes the productivity of all employees, by understanding their unique needs, motiva­tions, and contributions. Also, model initia­tives have revealed that diversity initiatives require the visible support of and commitment from senior management.

Successful diversity initiatives can include an array of programs. Generally included is some form of training, as well as efforts to change the communication norms of the organization. Specifically, employee surveys, employee networks, diversity management training, mentoring programs, and the use of company intranets are frequently put in place to assess and broaden the attitudes of employ­ees and management. Many corporations also examine their reward systems to ensure that employees are not being evaluated on their personal style, but rather on the merits of their work. As a part of the initiative, flexibility is sometimes incorporated into the work sched­ule.

Employers are also making strides in assuring compliance with ADA employment provisions in their work environments. This may mean training staff on the following topics relating to ADA implementation:

• Employment pre-screening and applicant interviewing under the ADA

• The interplay of the ADA with other state and federal employment and non-discrim­ination laws

• Writing job descriptions that clearly iden­tify essential job functions

• The reasonable accommodation process

• Career equity/promotional considerations for persons with disabilities

• Non-discriminatory performance apprais­als

• Employee relations with employees with disabilities (minority and non-minority)

• Customer relations with customers with disabilities

• Negotiation/conflict management in the reasonable accommodation process

In summary, the implications for employers of addressing and understanding diversity and disability as related considerations include:

• Enhanced recruitment and retention ef­forts

• Improved productivity

• Expanded training programs that include both diversity (ethnicity, gender, and reli­gion) and disabilities

• Expanded policies and programs

• Improved morale

What Is Reasonable Accommodation?

Reasonable accommodation is any modifica­tion of or adjustment to a job, an employment practice, or the work environment that makes it possible for a qualified individual with a dis­ability to apply for and perform the essential functions of a job.

Reasonable accommodation includes, but is not limited to, modification or adjustment of the application process to enable individu­als with disabilities to apply for work, mak­ing facilities readily accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities, modifying work schedules, reallocation of non-essential job functions, acquisition or modification of equipment or devices, and reassignment to a vacant position. An employer is not required to reallocate essential job functions or to create “light-duty” positions.

An employer is not required to provide a rea­sonable accommodation if it can demonstrate that it would be an undue hardship to do so. Whether a reasonable accommodation creates an undue hardship is a factual issue depend­ing on factors such as the nature and net cost of the accommodation and the size and nature of the business. The duty of reasonable ac­commodation is situation-specific.

What Is The Reasonable Accommodation Process?

To identify a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, the employer and employee may wish to engage in a flexible interactive discussion. Generally, if an individual with a disability wants a reasonable accommodation, he or she must request one. If the employer has already not done so, it should then deter­mine the essential functions of the affected job and consult with the applicant or employee to determine the job-related limitations imposed by his or her disability. The parties should evaluate possible accommodations and select one that allows the employee to overcome the identified job limitations. While the em­ployee's preference is given consideration, the employer has the discretion to choose between equally effective reasonable accommodations.

It is important that the concepts of non-dis­crimination and equal access for all persons with disabilities be part of an ongoing discus­sion in the workplace. Making an accommoda­tion that meets an individual's specific needs is less difficult when organizations foster a climate that supports ADA compliance. For example, when a person has difficulty per­forming a nonessential job function and the employer accommodates that employee by reallocating the task, such a reallocation is usually easier when employees are prepared through prior training and ongoing group dialogue on accommodation issues.

The ADA contains strict confidentiality re­quirements pertaining to medical information obtained during a medical examination or inquiry. Medical information must be collect­ed and maintained on separate forms and in separate medical files and be kept confidential. There are certain narrow circumstances when such information may be disclosed, including informing supervisors and managers about necessary work restrictions or accommoda­tions.

What are some suggested strategies for heightening awareness of workplace diversity considerations, multicultural persons with disabilities, and the ADA?

Successful implementation of both diversity and ADA initiatives require efforts to change corporate culture and attitudes. Both suggest the need for staff training on non-discrimina­tion practices, diversity awareness, diversity skills, flexibility in work schedules, and inves­tigation of employee evaluation and reward structures. The parallel nature of these strate­gies suggests that the combination of disability and diversity initiatives is possible and would likely be advantageous to the success of both efforts.

Selected strategies that may both further di­versity initiatives and implementation of the ADA include:

• Diversity initiatives that include active recruitment and retention of individuals of all backgrounds with disabilities in the workplace through collaborative agree­ments with state Vocational Rehabilitation agencies or local job placement services for individuals with disabilities.

• Development of targeted job programs for minorities with disabilities

• Development of a mentoring program for people with disabilities

• Making training, development, and pro­motional opportunities available to all minorities seeking job advancement. For individuals of all backgrounds with dis­abilities, this may include supplying needed supports to enable them to access training, considering new positions, or acquiring needed retraining when a dis­ability occurs that prevents a return to the original job position.

• Integration of the nondiscrimination requirements of the ADA and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act for persons with dis­abilities in all facets of staff training and human resources practices.

• Making an organizational commitment to diversity by designating an organizational official to serve as a disability and diver­sity specialist.

These are only a few of many proactive ini­tiatives that employers can take to recruit and retain individuals with disabilities in the workplace, thereby expanding their potential labor pool and maximizing human resources to enhance workplace outcomes.

Top | Back

Home | About | Contact

Articles | Checklists | Glossary | Resources