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Accommodation and Compliance Series:
Employees Who Use Wheelchairs

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Introduction

JAN’s Accommodation and Compliance Series is designed to help employers determine effective accommodations and comply with Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Each publication in the series addresses a specific medical condition and provides information about the condition, ADA information, accommodation ideas, and resources for additional information.

The Accommodation and Compliance Series is a starting point in the accommodation process and may not address every situation. Accommodations should be made on a case by case basis, considering each employee’s individual limitations and accommodation needs. Employers are encouraged to contact JAN to discuss specific situations in more detail.

For information on assistive technology and other accommodation ideas, visit JAN's Searchable Online Accommodation Resource (SOAR) at http://AskJAN.org/soar.

Information about Wheelchair Users

How many people use wheelchairs?

There are an estimated 1.4 million wheelchair users in the United States (Kraus, 1996). People use wheelchairs for a variety of reasons, the most common reason being paralysis from spinal cord injuries. Current estimates indicate there are between 183,000 and 230,000 persons alive today in the United States with spinal cord injuries. The mean age of injury is 38 (Spinal Cord Injury Information Network, 2008). Other reasons people use wheelchairs include: fatigue from multiple sclerosis, muscle weakness from muscular dystrophy, lower limb spasticity from cerebral palsy, and missing limbs due to amputation.

What types of wheelchairs are available?

There are a variety of wheelchairs on the market, including manual, motorized, stand-up, elevating, reclining, sports, beach, and stair-climbing. Individuals, working with medical professionals, choose a wheelchair to meet their specific needs, depending on their limitations and activities.

Wheelchairs Users and the Americans with Disabilities Act

Do people who use wheelchairs have disabilities under the ADA?

The ADA does not contain a list of medical conditions that constitute disabilities. Instead, the ADA has a general definition of disability that each person must meet (EEOC Regulations . . ., 2011). Therefore, some people who use wheelchairs will have a disability under the ADA and some will not.

A person has a disability if he/she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having an impairment (EEOC Regulations . . . , 2011). For more information about how to determine whether a person has a disability under the ADA, visit http://AskJAN.org/corner/vol05iss04.htm.

To what extent do employers have to modify existing work-sites to make them accessible for employees who use wheelchairs?

Under Title I of the ADA, employers are not required to make existing facilities accessible until a particular applicant or employee with a disability needs an accommodation, and then the modifications should meet that individual’s work needs. Employers do not have to make changes to provide access in places or facilities that will not be used by that individual for employment related activities or benefits (EEOC, 1992).

Do employers have to pay for personal attendant care in the workplace?

Wheelchairs are usually considered personal need items and therefore employers are generally not responsible for providing them. However, where personal need items are specifically designed or required to meet job-related rather than personal needs, employers must consider providing them (EEOC, 1992). For example, if an employee with multiple sclerosis is able to walk the distances required to carry out her day to day activities, but gets fatigued if required to walk great distances, her employer might be responsible for providing a mobility aid (such as a wheelchair or scooter) if her job requires her to walk great distances.

Accommodating Employees Who Use Wheelchairs

Note: People who use wheelchairs may develop some of the limitations discussed below, but seldom develop all of them. Also, the degree of limitation will vary among individuals. Be aware that not all people who use wheelchairs will need accommodations to perform their jobs and many others may only need a few accommodations. The following is only a sample of the possibilities available. Numerous other accommodation solutions may exist.

Questions to Consider:

  1. What limitations is the employee who uses a wheelchair experiencing?
  2. How do these limitations affect the employee and the employee’s job performance?
  3. What specific job tasks are problematic as a result of these limitations?
  4. What accommodations are available to reduce or eliminate these problems? Are all possible resources being used to determine possible accommodations?
  5. Has the employee who uses a wheelchair been consulted regarding possible accommodations?
  6. Once accommodations are in place, would it be useful to meet with the employee who uses a wheelchair to evaluate the effectiveness of the accommodations and to determine whether additional accommodations are needed?
  7. Do supervisory personnel and employees need training regarding employees who use wheelchairs?

Accommodation Ideas:

Activities of Daily Living:

People who use wheelchairs may need assistance with personal care while at work. Although an employer is not responsible for providing the personal care, an employer may be responsible for certain accommodations to enable an employee who uses a wheelchair to meet his/her personal care needs. The following are examples of some of these personal care needs and possible accommodations:

Workstation Access:

People who use wheelchairs may encounter a variety of obstacles at their workstations depending on their limitations. The following are examples of these obstacles and possible accommodations:

Work-site Access:

People who use wheelchairs may encounter obstacles before reaching their workstations. The following are examples of these obstacles and possible accommodations:

Travel for Work:

People who use wheelchairs may encounter obstacles before reaching their work-site. The following are examples of possible accommodations:

Wheelchair Etiquette:

Wheelchair Ergonomics:

Ergonomics is an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely (About.com, 2005). Essentially, ergonomics is the relationship between the worker and the job with a focus on designing a system to meet certain productivity goals without injury. Without an effective relationship, a worker can become injured or incur a permanent disability from work-related stressors. With insurance cost sky rocking and the cost of litigation soaring, many employers are voluntarily implementing ergonomic programs. Even without federal ergonomic standards, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued citations for ergonomic hazards in the workplace using its General Duty Clause, which is Section 5(a)1 of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970). Section 5(a)1 states that “a place of employment must be free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to [ ] employees” (OSHA, n.d.a). Though OSHA has been citing employers for ergonomic hazards and has published ergonomic guidelines for meatpacking plants, poultry processing, retail grocery stores, and nursing homes, curbing the number of cumulative trauma disorders in the workplace remains an increasing concern for employers (OSHA, n.d.b).

Although OSHA has proposed a national ergonomics standard, there are currently no specific federal requirements regarding ergonomics for office workers. However, there has been some effort to address the problem of ergonomic hazards in the workplace. For example, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has sought to control work-related cumulative trauma disorders by developing voluntary guidelines. In addition, some states are implementing state regulations. For example, California and Washington have adopted ergonomic standards, and even though not currently mandated in most states, ergonomics can benefit employers by enhancing workplace safety, decreasing workers’ compensation costs, and increasing productivity (OSHA, n.d.c). The benefits of implementing an ergonomic program apply to all office workers, but can be particularly important in order to prevent secondary injuries when accommodating employees with disabilities. Because the ADA mandates employers to accommodate employees with disabilities, ergonomics can be a useful tool to help employers implement effective accommodations and therefore comply with the ADA (EEOC, 1992).

Before determining what accommodations might be effective, an employer must know the essential job functions. Though not required by the ADA, a job analysis can aid in determining the essential functions and is an important precursor to an ergonomic analysis.

The following information provides tips for assessing the individual’s workstation. For more detailed information on how to perform an ergonomic analysis with a special emphasis on accommodating officer workers who use wheelchairs, contact JAN. In particular, the more detailed information outlines the steps to completing a job analysis; proper ergonomic spacing, flooring, doors, and storage areas; and administrative controls.

General Guidelines for Completing an Ergonomic Analysis

The following information gives examples of general questions to ask when designing workstations for individuals who use wheelchairs in an office setting. When implementing ergonomics for an individual who uses a mobility aid, the wheelchair and its user must be considered one unit. The type of mobility aid, whether an electric or a manual wheelchair, may change what is “ergonomic.” When dealing with accommodation issues in the workplace, special attention should be given to the location and set-up of assistive technology to ensure good ergonomics.


Worker:

Workstation:

Situations and Solutions:

A medical transcriptionist was injured and became paraplegic. Her employer modified the transcription machine with hand control (instead of foot control) so the transcriptionist could continue working.

An employee who was paraplegic was working for a small employer who could not afford to purchase new office furniture. The employer accommodated the employee by placing blocks under the legs of an existing desk.

A prep cook with paraplegia was hired to work in a large kitchen with standup workstations. The employer purchased a standup wheelchair so the cook could work at a standing height.

A person who used a wheelchair was hired to work as a marketing analyst. Her workstation was on the second floor of an inaccessible building. The employer installed an automatic door opener, an elevator to the second floor, and remodeled a restroom and workstation.

A university chemistry teacher used a wheelchair. The existing chemistry lab was designed to accommodate students at a standing height and the college could not remodel the entire lab so opted for an elevating wheelchair instead.

A CAD/CAM drafting specialist became quadriplegic and had limited use of his upper extremities. The employer purchased speech-activated software for CAD.

An artist became quadriplegic and had to use a mouth stick paintbrush. He could not adjust his work surface, so he had a battery powered, adjustable easel custom designed.

An accounting technician with post-polio syndrome started using a wheelchair, but was concerned about emergency evacuation in the event of a fire. As a result, the employer developed an emergency evacuation plan for all employees.

A social services supervisor with severe arthritis used a wheelchair. Her job required her to drive the agency van to several locations. The employer modified the van by adding hand controls and a lift.

A resource nurse with multiple sclerosis needed changes to her workstation and schedule. The employer made the workstation wider and added an adjustable keyboard tray. The employer also allowed periodic rest breaks and moved the employee closer to the restroom and break room to help reduce fatigue.

Products:

There are numerous products that can be used to accommodate people with limitations. JAN's Searchable Online Accommodation Resource (SOAR) at http://AskJAN.org/soar is designed to let users explore various accommodation options. Many product vendor lists are accessible through this system; however, upon request JAN provides these lists and many more that are not available on the Web site. Contact JAN directly if you have specific accommodation situations, are looking for products, need vendor information, or are seeking a referral.

Accommodation Process for Office Workers Who Use Wheelchairs

Resources

References

About.com. (2005). Dictionary for common terms [Electronic database]. Retrieved September 3, 2008, from http://about.com

EEOC Regulations To Implement the Equal Employment Provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act, as Amended, 29 C.F.R. § 1630 (2011).

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (1992). A technical assistance manual on the employment provisions (title I) of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Retrieved September 3, 2008, from http://askjan.org/links/ADAtam1.html

Kraus, L., Stoddard, S., & Gilmartin, D. (1996). Chartbook on disability in the United States, An InfoUse Report. Washington, DC: U.S. National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.  Retrieved September 3, 2008, from http://www.infouse.com/disabilitydata/disability/

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (n.d.a). OSH Act of 1970 SEC. 5. duties . Retrieved September 3, 2008, from http://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=OSHACT&p_id=3359

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (n.d.b). Safety and health topics:  Ergonomics: Guidelines. Retrieved September 3, 2008, from http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/ergonomics/guidelines.html

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (n.d.c). State occupational safety and health programs and ergonomics. Retrieved September 3, 2008, from http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/ergonomics/state_plan.html

Spinal Cord Injury Information Network (2008).  Frequently asked questions. Retrieved September 3, 2008, from http://www.spinalcord.uab.edu/show.asp?durki=20183&site=1021&return=19775 (no longer available)

Updated 03/20/13

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