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The Evolution of Human Resources Management and Disability

Learn more about the history of disability

From the desk of Beth Loy, Ph.D., Principal Consultant


The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other employment laws were born from as far back as colonization. As the country became filled with settlers who left England as prisoners, servants, slaves, and those seeking religious freedom, the foundations of the United States were built on the embers of artisanship. Artisans were those who came with trade expertise, but many also had disabilities. If you were an expert artisan and could work with your own accommodations, you were in high demand. If you couldn’t, you struggled to find employment. Agriculture, construction, and iron work were just a few. Most everyone was an independent worker, and once guilds took hold it became clear that when a group of individuals worked together to find common ground, changes would be made.

Merchant and craft guilds, at this time, were created to fight for fair compensation and trade. However, they were also charged with touting issues of social importance. They were there to take care of people with disabilities and workers who were injured or sick. Although antiquated from our perspective, this was the foundation for our current human resources (HR) system. We pushed through to the 1900s with terrible conditions as the Industrial Revolution created more people with severe injuries and seemed to leave those with disabilities behind even further.

By the late 20th century, a paradigm change was afloat. The birth of the personnel department took hold. Working conditions were improving because of the popularity of unionization. As unions pushed for better benefits and working conditions, it became clear that employers were faced with making changes to keep skilled workers. These changes included accommodations for individuals with disabilities and culminated with the passage of the ADA. Personnel departments were managing another piece of legislation and trying to balance productivity with compliance. The goal was to keep productive workers, and workplace accommodations did just that.

The beginning of the 21st century brought about a workplace that was global in nature. New technologies forced employers to demand a new skillset of workers, find ways to motivate their creativity, and use unique benefits to retain them. Its human resources were now the most important piece of a workplace, and workplace accommodations began to come in all shapes and sizes:

  • A mechanic, who used hearing aids, was having problems communicating with his co-workers and during trainings because of hearing loss.  As a reasonable accommodation, the employee requested TTY software and a mini-iPad, which the employer provided. The employee was very happy with the accommodation, stating that it improved his ability to communicate. The employer stated that it improved interactions with co-workers and the public. Total cost was $300.
  • A quality control manager had trouble sitting for long periods of time due to chronic pain. As a reasonable accommodation, the employer purchased a sit/stand workstation. The employer stated that the accommodation allowed the employee to increase her productivity. Total cost was $500.

Stay in tune with JAN to learn more about what works and doesn’t for you and your workplace, how workplace accommodation improve productivity, how to retain experienced workers, and how to return workers after injury. It’s just another step in the evolution of what we now know as HR.

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