Research on Employment Supports for People with Disabilities: Summary of the Focus Group Findings. Employers

Focus group participants reported a wide range of experiences with employers in seeking accommodations for their disabilities, including modifications to elevators, doors, entrances and exits and other features of the building; receipt of additional training time; receipt of flexible job hours; ability to work from home; or changes in job duties. Employers provided some accommodations through formal disability integration policies, and other employers provided supports more informally. In all cases, participants regarded the accommodations as important, or even essential.

Among building modifications, the installation of ramps and other features to accommodate wheelchairs were most often cited:

  • "We have handicapped parking, we have elevators, we have ramps."

  • "When I got there, they'd been in three different buildings and when I moved to the second building, one of the problems I had was getting into the restroom, and they put an automatic door opener [installed in the] restroom, which was wonderful. They tied it into a remote they gave me. [I also have a remote for the] front lobby doors. The receptionist saw how easy it was and asked if she could have one as well to let people through the lobby doors."

  • "They moved our mail slots down lower for us where we were at, so we could reach them. I think because we work at a rehabilitation facility a lot of things are already adapted down for us so it's not like specific things that we had to ask for, maybe except for a computer and phone, but for me, not that much that had to be done over."

  • "One thing they did do for me personally, because the way the bathroom door swung in, so they fixed it so that it swings out. And that is one thing that they did do for me before I started working."

  • "Oh, another thing, they did put a little ramp in front of the door, so that anybody could push me in. Before it was the steps, only the boss could do it, but now anybody can push me in."

  • "They did lower the desks down to make sure they fit you exactly."

A number of participants said that flexible work schedules were a particularly important accommodation. Flexible scheduling allows them to work efficiently, keep doctor appointments and stay healthy:

  • "The real obstacle was going to be finding a company that would be considerate if I had to take some time off for myself, for my health. Having that built-in flexibility was the real obstacle."

  • "[My] work schedule is pretty flexible because I travel so far to get to work. I'm never really sure what time I'm going to be there. Sometimes I leave early when I want to get home [early]. My employer is pretty reasonable about my schedule."

  • "They've always been willing to accommodate me…One time I was always late because of ACCESS [public transportation], and I had to talk to [my boss] about it and explain it to him. He was nice about it and is always telling me, ‘If you need anything, tell me.'"

  • "If I needed anything like [flex-time] they made it clear that they'd be willing to do it."

  • "[Before,] I would report every time I'd have a doctor's appointment and say, ‘I'm going to have a doctor's appointment. I need to be gone for two hours,' and she finally said to me, ‘Stop telling me and just go. Do what you need to do.'"

  • "As long as I tell my boss that I have doctor's appointments, like, two weeks in advance, they work around me."

  • "I have flexible work hours, time off for appointments, and the ability to work at home when I am feeling stressed out."

Participants, particularly those with hearing or vision impairments, also commonly reported access to assistive devices and technologies. Such technologies typically included computers with Braille and speech access, optical character recognition software, Opticon (to convert text to large print), JAWS software (converts computer screen output into speech), TTYs (teletypewriters), electronic schedulers, and others.

  • "[I work for] a non-profit organization that provides services for deaf and hard of hearing people, [s]o we have access to interpreters. [W]e have TTY, e-mail. I don't use a lot of accommodations myself because the environment itself is very deaf-friendly, it's very easy for me to come in and feel comfortable. In the past, where I worked, I struggled, but here, it's different."

  • "I do have a computer with Braille and speech access. I have an optical character recognition scanner and can scan stuff in. I'm great with the Internet."

  • "They provided me with a stretch-belt [that] was way better than the one I went to the store and bought…It helps a lot to have that [because] it's much more firmer and helps in the lower back part. It's a really big difference when your back is killing you. It helps me out to have my stretch-belt on because it helps me stay more focused. Not everybody knows that, but I know it and it does help me feel more focused."

  • "I have a computerized calendar that will come up and remind me that I'm supposed to go places, and also we have a phone system that will call up and remind me to be some place."

  • "I have a lot of accommodations. I have a special display that I use to read computers and I use a Refreshable Braille Display…And then on the telephone, I use a headset with an amplifier so that I can have my hands free. I'm mainly at the computer."

  • "I have had a computer with adaptive equipment…I use a CCTV to help me, so that's helped me on my job. [Also,] recording devices, such as a tape recorder. I have a talking calculator. [Support] has definitely been there for me; those types of accommodations help me do my job."

  • "My employer has provided me with all of my adaptive technology, closed-circuit TV, and so on."

Below is a list of the accommodations most frequently provided by employers as reported by participants:

  • Flexible job hours;
  • Flexibility with job description/duties ability to work from home;
  • Graduated hours during job startup;
  • Time off for medical appointments;
  • Installation of TTY;
  • Installation of modified computer mouse;
  • Installation of optical character recognition software;
  • Installation of speech-to-text software;
  • Access to electronic schedulers;
  • Installation of software to increase size/definition of computer screen text;
  • Bathroom modification to fixtures and walls to enlarge space;
  • Provision of interpreters at meetings;
  • Relocation of office during elevator repairs;
  • Adjustment of desk height;
  • Installation of automatic door opener;
  • Wheelchair modification; and
  • Installation of ramps.

Nearly universally, participants said that the behavior of immediate supervisors played a major role in job entry and career development. Having a supportive supervisor aided in securing accommodations, educating co-workers about accommodations and disability, protecting confidentiality, and ensuring that co-workers provide tools and information necessary for the individual to complete tasks:

  • "The job I got now is the best one I got, ‘cause they are supportive and they know how to treat people with disabilities. What they did on another job is that they would fire you. Here they just sit you down and talk to you."

  • "And one thing I will give my supervisor, he'll fight for your rights, like if he feels like this piece of equipment will help you be more productive, he will go to his director, which is the vice president, and somewhere they're going to have to come up with the money."

  • "My supervisor sat down with me and said, ‘I think you should be transferred because the work that you're currently doing is too easy for you,' which I agreed with…They arranged for my transfer to Dallas. [But I decided] I am not going to [go] out to Dallas, I am going to go with this other position [here] because I have somebody who understands deafness, who understands me, understands my needs and this is where I'm going to go."

  • "My first boss at Nabisco was a great guy as far as making accommodations for me. He made them knock out this whole wall. I had this nice place with no walls. It was wonderful."

  • "I just lost an employer who was wonderful. This man came in six months after I had become totally deaf and he could communicate with me perfectly well. I finally got to a comfort level where I was able to tell him that, 'These people in the building and in our office will not let me do my job. They're going to everybody else to ask their questions.' He took a hold of the situation and he redirected everybody. Everybody who called him on the phone with a question that was mine to answer, he said, 'Call Christine, or email her or walk into her office.' Everybody who walked in his office with a budget report, he said, 'You go see Christine.' He just pushed in that direction. That helped a lot. He also implemented site visits for me to go out into every one of the buildings every month, so I meet face to face with principals and bookkeepers in every building, and we can improve communication and they'd stop being afraid of me."

  • "The young lady that is now my supervisor for over a year, she gives me great support. She really goes in. She listens to what I say and the problems that I have…I can advocate for myself, but she can do it on the supervisor level, and that makes me proud that there is somebody in my corner who will listen to me and will help."

A number of participants cited substantial difficulties in gaining access to needed accommodations. In some cases, they were able to prevail, and in other cases they worked around the lack of accommodations:

  • "I had an office in the administration building…I used to go in once or twice a week…because I'd have to interview people when I hired them. But the building is not easy for me to get in. I mean there's a ramp, I'm in a wheelchair so I really have to huff to get up there. It's like a ramp like this, I can't get into the bathrooms, and it's hard for me to get around within the building because everything is very narrow. But now I don't even have an office because since I was never there they sort of reallocated my space and didn't even ask me. All of a sudden I had no place, so I can't even get to my files. It hurts my feelings I think more than anything because I don't have a space there, but it gives me a good excuse to not go in. So now I do 90 percent of my job at home whereas I used to do 70 percent."

  • "I wish I could receive permission to telecommute. I'm fighting for that now. They're denying me. They said that telecommuting is not a reasonable accommodation, that telecommuting has to do with the distance that you live from [work] and not from your disability. They did allow me [to work out of another] office on the days that I was supposed to wait to see if I was called for jury duty. But I don't think that is a reasonable accommodation. I think I was accommodating them, frankly."

  • "Where I work now is a steel warehouse. There are no accommodations. They're actually putting in a ramp now so people can come through the front door. But, inside the building there's steps and different levels all over the place."

  • "I've gotten a lot of help from being able to have my own ‘techie,' my own technical assistants, a guy that I call because I do most of my work on the computer. I'm also linked to the network, but I can call him and he can come out and set up my computer and modem and do all that for me…It makes a big difference because when things aren't going right, I'm just cut off…The district isn't thrilled about me having him…They kick and scream and don't want to spend money to have the tech guy come in and spend it just for me. That's not given to me [as an accommodation]. It's just that I said, ‘I need to do this job, and school is starting in two days and the computer doesn't work, and if somebody else is going to staff the subs, that's fine…But it makes a big difference."

  • "Neither [my employer or VR] wants to pay [for] Dragon Dictate [computer software], and it's been a constant runaround for the five years that I've been [with VR]…It's relatively cheap now, [but] we don't know who's going to pay for it. Instead of fighting this tooth and nail, which I still do on occasion, I concentrate on the parts of the job that I can do, but it's getting to the point where it's ridiculous."

Participants also described various experiences negotiating with employers for needed accommodations. For some, providing information and technical assistance to an employer was sufficient, for others, accommodations were substantially delayed or never received due to differences between employees and employers regarding priorities, or lack of access to information:

  • "I needed a raised desk and everybody [said], ‘Oh, gosh! They're so expensive,' because they were thinking in terms of electronic up/down. And I'm going, ‘Huh? I need four wooden blocks under my desk legs. Make a hole so the leg fits in so it's safe.' And there you go. And it was like, ‘Oh!' It must have cost them all of $3 to find some scrap lumber. They were thinking in terms of several thousand dollars for a very expensive desk. No, no, no, no, no that's not what I want."

  • "I have a very similar [situation with my keyboard] where I actually went out to the trash, found a couple of cardboard boxes, put the keyboard on top, and said, ‘Right! I'm accommodated.'"

  • "[At] the very same meeting they announce they're not going to get automatic door openers, they [say they're] providing automatic flushers for all the toilets in the facility. We're not going to get the door openers because they said that the doors that we currently have meet ADA requirements and we [have to spend] the money on the automatic flushers."

  • "We didn't have a Zoom Text. We didn't have the equipment that I needed to perform the job that I wanted to do. All I had was a computer. I did not have a CCTV [either, but] I was able to acquire a CCTV loan through the Braille Institute."

  • "I had to come in with a CCTV and large-print software. Right before I left my job they were speaking of purchasing a computer that had large print in it [because] they thought it would be accommodating to me."

  • "[Large-print software] wasn't put into my computer until very shortly before I left, also."

  • "It isn't because [my employer] isn't willing to buy me equipment and offer me training if I could just tell them where I wanted to go to get the training."

Several participants cited co-worker or supervisor attitudes that made gaining access to needed accommodations very difficult:

  • "I found that some people, especially old timers, still have an attitude about it. I mean old, '70s, late-'60s. ‘You know it costs money to build ramps.' They've got that mind-set, back when they were a kid, cripples stayed home and ‘I'm paying taxes to put curb cuts in for you.'"

  • "As far as accommodations at my workplace, they have built a cubicle a little large to accommodate the chair, but it took three years to get electronic doors in the front entrance of the building. After vigorous complaining from me and other employees and the clients that come into the center, it took a while for the landlord of the building to make changes that needed to be made.…The doors are still really heavy in the building, but by and large, physical accommodation is not a problem. It's the attitudinal accommodations that get me in trouble."

Participants also said that supervisors need to understand the nature of the disability and the required accommodations, and when they do not, employment situations often fail. Newark participants were more likely to have stories about an employer failing or refusing to accommodate a disability and to report concerns about divulging the presence of a disability to an employer or potential employer.

  • "…I asked for accommodations,…for 32 hours instead of 30 and I had a doctor's certificate about it. They said they wouldn't compromise the security of the building, and [I] was not granted any accommodations. So I quit, basically because their approach was, ‘Now you created us an ADA case,' although they knew I was disabled before they hired me. It was not a very good situation."

  • "I was asked to become competent on the computer and I [told them] I couldn't as it is currently constituted, I simply can't read the screen without burying into it, which then precludes my using the keyboard. There are all kinds of devices…that [would make using it] very easy. When I asked for it, I was ignored. Reasonable accommodation would seem to apply that it would be forthcoming, but it hasn't been."

  • "The other thing that is supportive is if my employer or anybody acknowledges that a mental illness is a disability. Because the job I had before the one I have now, I was actually fired. And there was nothing I could do about it because I didn't have an advocate."

  • "I was provided with a Teletype device. You know, a phone for deaf people? And that was great. I didn't even have to tell them about it, they just knew that it would be a support that I would need. The only thing that I had to tell them was that they can't call last minute meetings because I need an interpreter, and at first they weren't even sure what an interpreter would do…They were a bit awkward about how to get one, so I said let me do the work, and I did. But after that I really felt like it was the manager's job since they were the ones planning the meetings, to also plan for an interpreter."

  • "We moved offices, and right before [my supervisor] signed the lease agreement she sent me over there to make sure it was going to be accessible for me, and told me to go into the bathrooms and try the doors. And if anything was too heavy or I felt it was non-accessible, to speak with the managers of that building right there and then and let them know and see what they are willing to do before we sign the lease ‘cause we could have still backed out. And they were great, I mean, they went in and they worked with the spring of the door and loosened it, so that it wasn't so heavy to pull open and it would stay open a little bit without slamming right shut. And did the same thing down in our offices with the back door, so that I could pull the back door open and come in and go out that way."

  • "[If] supervisors and co-workers…understand job accessibility and job accommodation, then they don't feel they have to take on more of your share."

  • "If [employers] just understand that people with disabilities can get the job done and do a good job, that we're conscientious, then they're a lot better off than with those people who maybe aren't conscientious in doing a job…We're not quitters."

  • "I was trying to become a cashier there and I guess I lost my focus one day and I gave the person back the wrong amount of change and I blew it. I blew it so bad. I only did it that one time…The guy gave me a $10 bill and it was for $1.38, and I gave the person back $1.38. I don't know why I did that. I just lost my focus. It just felt so bad because it's just right there on the register itself, it tells you how much to give him back. You don't even have to think about it yourself…It's just a matter of me getting used to it. I have a lot of confidence that if I was given the opportunity to do it again, I think I would do much better and I would be able to do it but they haven't given me another opportunity to do it. I asked several times."

Many participants said that lack of understanding about disability sometimes led to anxiety and fear among their co-workers:

  • "I was working in a hearing environment, and many of the people had known me for 12 years. Suddenly I was totally deaf, and people stopped talking to me. One of my biggest experiences was the absolute vanishing of support when that change happened, in a place that I had been for years. People were afraid of me because they didn't know what to do."

  • "[Sometimes] your co-workers just simply don't understand or don't have any knowledge of disabilities and they're scared because you have a disability -- like it's catching."

  • "There's another underlying reason why society generally seems to put lots of us in whatever boxes they can. That's the real fear of anything that's different, either physically or whatever else you don't understand. I've been a blind guy for 47 years and I am absolutely both amazed and appalled at how very afraid most people are about blindness…I try to appreciate it, but I really don't understand it. It's because of what peoples' individual and congregate misconceptions are. And it doesn't matter whether you're blind or you have a hearing impairment or dealing with an illness or what it is. It's the same old kind of stuff of fearing disability. There are lots of people out there who because of their experiences really have a hard time accepting just people as people. I think that's the problem that lots of governmental entities have…But it's an underlying thing, when we have a chance to relate one with another, we really come to recognize that most of us probably have a whole lot in common no matter what our [differences]. Disability doesn't have to separate us at all. It can help us to be able to support and encourage each other...I don't think that's gotten through to some of the governmental strata… People with disabilities don't need handouts, just support."

Participants also reported that the willingness of co-workers to learn about the nature of the disability was also important for ensuring a comfortable and productive work environment:

  • "The only time I really feel disabled is when I go in the office. Being that I'm a client and I work there also I get to see both sides of how people really feel and act around the worksite. The language sometimes is straight out of the 1920's as far as describing disabilities. People come up to me [and say,] ‘We don't know how to deal with you. We've never had a person on a caseload working here before.' I've had to tell people while I'm on the job; you treat me as an employee. Once I get off the job and you have to deal with me, deal with as [a person]. And if you're my case manager, then you should have a good working relationship with me anywhere. So it's that three-pronged attack that I feel when I go into the office."

  • "When I work around a lot of people, they make me uncomfortable. [There] might be one or two people that I'll open up to, [but] other than that it's like everybody else I'm uncomfortable with. I'd rather be outside or I'd rather be just by myself, basically, instead of with people…[At the job I was in before,] I couldn't keep up with the conversation…I would get confused [and] I'd feel left out of the conversation or like I'm not really involved in the group."

  • "My first job was one of the most horrible experiences of my life and I actually haven't spent a lot of time thinking about it for a number of years and I'm finding that I'm getting upset sitting and thinking about it. It was awful. I was a medical transcriptionist. They hired me and I was shocked but then it went down from there because nobody would talk to me and the most painful thing I remember is the whole office planned a party right around me and didn't invite me. That was really hard but from that I learned that I really did, as a blind person, have to make some extra social efforts, whether I wanted to or not. Whether I wanted to go out for a beer after work with somebody or have lunch with somebody, I had to do it."

Some individuals advocated increased disability education in the workplace as a way to lower barriers to employment for people with disabilities.

  • "[The important thing is] just educating people [about] the fact that just because your legs don't work doesn't mean your brain doesn't work."

  • "Sometimes people don't know because they're not educated…They need to offer it [disability awareness training] every so often for new employees."

  • "[Policymakers should] implement diversity training directed at disabilities the way they do sexual harassment training everywhere. Don't wait until a disabled person walks in the door to figure out what to do with them. Teach them what it's about before we get there…just make it a universal part of orientation in any job. Every time there's a new person and new employee orientation, throw some diversity training directed at disabilities, not at race and sex. We've already got the race and sex issues covered with the training that's required."

  • "I teach health education to high school kids just down the street. I think I'm doing a two-fold thing -- I'm teaching what I'm teaching in my subject area, and also teaching [students] that you can be disabled and still work. You can contribute to society and not have to take away from society."

One person stressed the need for training about hidden disabilities:

  • "So if you look at me and I can see you…and you know I can talk, you wouldn't know that I was legally blind or you wouldn't know I was hard of hearing if you were just looking. So if I go to my employer and I say I'm disabled and I have the medical records to prove it, they don't believe it. I think a lot of employers need disability training…I thought that was what the ADA was for. To have [disability awareness training] mandated. But everyone doesn't get trained. The [employer] can say they can have disability awareness but until [they] actually get a person like me [with a hidden disability] -- that'll show you if the company has it."

A number of participants said that even relatively small efforts at education can be effective. One person described how employer knowledge of the ADA helped ensure access to employment:

  • "I'm in a job thanks to the ADA. I might have lost my last job and the person who was in charge of our unit did not want to hire me…They said, ‘You're going to hire him, and she hired me kicking and screaming and she's no longer there. They don't want to get sued."

A number of participants said that helping potential employers, co-workers and others become comfortable and develop an understanding of a disability may be best accomplished by the person with the disability.

  • "People are…not necessarily stupid, they're just not educated in that area and it's up to us to educate them. We're the ones that know about us. If we don't educate them, they're still not going to know."

  • "I got one job through an employment agency, which they were very disturbed. I walked in with a guide dog but I dealt with it very [directly] -- I said, ‘Look, I know you're nervous about placing me. Let's talk about being blind so I can get you over it so you can get them over it so I can get a job!'"

  • "When you go in with a very visible disability, there's sort of a perception there to start with, so you need to convince them, yes, I can do the job and it's not going to cost big bucks for me to do the job."

Another participant said she believes people take their cues on how to assess disability limitations and how to interact with an individual with a disability by observing the behavior of that individual. Individuals who behave comfortably with others are likely to help others feel at ease. One participant, who agreed with this statement, was nevertheless uncomfortable with it:

  • "It just bothers me [that] you have to break that ice and put them at ease so they would be at ease with you…You have to be that one that makes that first step."

  • Another said: "It stinks, but when you go into an employer your responsibility is to prove that you can do a good job and until you come to an agreement with the employer, disability is really irrelevant. Nobody ever got hired for what they can't do, so I guess the short answer here is to focus on your abilities, to be very confident about saying what you can do, [and] convince the recruiter that you could do the job… A lot of employers have paranoia that you can't hire a person with a disability because if it turns out that they can't do the job, they can't fire them."

A number of participants, especially those with mental illness, discussed a reluctance to disclose their disabilities to employers and potential employers because of concerns regarding employer reaction, fears about being treated differently by co-workers, and consequences for employment.

  • "Half the time, to be honest, I don't want to even disclose my disability when I go for a job because I feel that can work against me so many times."

  • "I don't like to tell them that I have a mental illness because -- it's just that people don't treat you right."

  • "One thing about my disability is that it's not really apparent.…My employer doesn't know I'm disabled and I don't want him to know. See, my illness doesn't prevent me from doing my job. I take medication [so] there's no symptoms…I do my job fine and I don't want them to think I'm disabled because they'll think that I need help."

  • "My supervisor and my co-workers kind of know [about my disability], but I'm not sure how supportive the entire culture would be. It's not very diverse and I would sort of be breaking new ground in terms of that, and I feel threatened by that."

Other participants reported experiencing workplace discrimination, including termination, and other difficulties after disclosing their disabilities. For example, one woman said she disclosed her disability, in confidence, to her supervisor, who violated her trust by sharing the information with co-workers.

Others said that lack of understanding on the part of employers, and potential employers, had led to lost promotions and lost employment opportunities. One hearing-impaired participant said that she had tried repeatedly to work as a paralegal, but that no company was willing to risk taking her on because of her disability. She said that she could not find a good job in her field because people will not hire her because of her disability. As she put it, "They won't say it to your face, but you can tell." She said that it was the attitudes of employers that hurt people with disabilities most: "Attitudinal barriers are the biggest deterrent to getting work."

One hearing-impaired participant said she believes she has been passed over for promotion due to her disability, while co-workers have been advanced. A participant with multiple sclerosis reported being passed over for promotion more than once.

Others said:

  • "When I started falling, I told my immediate supervisor and my superintendent about my MS. I had not disclosed that [before]…Now I have parents taking kids out of my class because they know. It doesn't make a difference whether it's intentional or not."

  • "I never check that on the application when it says, ‘Do you have a motor or sensory disability, or mental disability?' I never check it, because I'm afraid that they will discriminate against me."

  • "I did postpone starting the medication just because I was fairly new at the job [and did not want to disclose my disability by applying for health insurance coverage]. Now I feel more secure being in my position so I felt that I could start that treatment."

A number of participants, particularly those with mental impairments, said they struggled at work without needed accommodations because they feared revealing the nature of their impairments:

  • "When you have a mental illness, I think flexible working arrangements will help you more. For me, I have to see my psychiatrist once a month so that I can stay on my meds, and it's kind of hard right now, because my new employer doesn't know about [my] mental illness and I don't think he would understand if I every month had to go out [for] doctor's appointments."

Among those who had disclosed their impairments, the most satisfied were those whose employers promised, and maintained, confidentiality:

  • "[When I started working for the county,]…they were never to disclose the disability. [That's important because] I needed to be protected by the employer and the management in order to feel free…They told me, ‘This is between you and me. You don't tell anybody about this. You don't need to tell anybody about this. If anybody asks us, it's none of their business.' What they did is they maintained [file information on my disability] separately so that it wasn't accessible to other people."

Participants with hidden disabilities talked about the difficulties they encountered because even after disclosure, some employers, co-workers, or others did not believe they had disabilities:

  • "They don't always know how I'm feeling and I may look fine but I might be having a hard time. But I let people know that I do have a disability. It's hard because they really don't believe it."

  • "The other people that worked there were kind of resentful that I was getting the special accommodations…I just think that they think I'm spoiled or something. It's not necessarily my supervisors that are the problem, it's the co-workers. I don't necessarily look like I'm disabled. So if I ask for something and everybody jumps to get it then they think that's a problem."

One participant with multiple sclerosis said that living with a non-apparent disability is both harder and easier than living with an apparent disability. She said that she must spend time explaining the nature of her disability to others because people do not usually have such knowledge. At the same time, she said that she can be treated with a degree of normalcy that people with apparent disabilities do not typically experience.