In 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 17.5% of individuals with disabilities were employed, a small increase from 2014. This percentage may increase in the following years as computer and telephone applications become more common in the workplace. Through technological advancements, and an increase in the capabilities of phone and computer applications, employers are being presented with more and more ways to provide reasonable accommodations to workers with disabilities at little cost.
An application is a program that is designed to perform a specific function for its user. The abilities of these programs range from playing solitaire to video-chatting someone on the other side of the world. While most people see “apps” as fun ways to pass time, they also can provide essential services, such as typing up documents and organizing files.
Specialized apps have also been created in order to assist people with disabilities to perform the same tasks as those without a disability. Dictation applications have enabled people with mobility or hearing impairments to draft documents, write emails, and “read” real-time phone conversations, while narration programs assist individuals with vision impairments by speaking the text on any screen. Allowing applications such as these to enter the workplace could help save employers time and thousands of dollars, since many different apps are able to replace cumbersome equipment that would need to be purchased and installed.
The ADA and Reasonable Accommodations
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified employees with disabilities, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer. Although many individuals with disabilities are able to perform job functions without any reasonable accommodations, there are workplace barriers that keep others from performing jobs that they would otherwise be able to perform if they had reasonable accommodations. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), reasonable accommodations can fall into three different categories:
- Modifications or adjustments to a job application process that enable a qualified applicant with a disability to be considered for the position such . . . applicant desires;
- Modifications or adjustments to the work environment, or to the manner or circumstances under which the position held or desired is customarily performed, that enable a qualified individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of that position; or
- Modifications or adjustments that enable a covered entity’s employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment as are enjoyed by its other similarly situated employees without disabilities.
Reasonable accommodations may include hiring a reader or interpreter, modifying equipment, obtaining devices, job restructuring, and adjusting training materials or policies.
The duty to provide reasonable accommodations does have limits. If the accommodation imposes an undue hardship on the employer, then the employer is not obligated to provide one. In order to determine whether an undue hardship exists, courts have looked towards the nature and cost of the accommodation, the employer’s financial resources, and the impact of the accommodation on the employer’s operations.
Previously, employers would spend thousands of dollars to hire interpreters or acquire machines that ease communication and provide employees with disabilities greater access to technology. Now, with various and more complex capabilities, employers may be able to replace the interpreters and equipment with cost-efficient applications. Furthermore, because installation of an application is generally done with the click of a button and will only involve the device that the application is installed on, the use of applications will take much less time and have a negligible impact on workplace facilities.
Types of Applications
Some of the most common applications use computing technology in order to help users read and write documents, communicate with others, and search for information on the Internet. While anyone is able to use these applications, a portion is designed in order to mitigate specific access issues faced by individuals with disabilities. These tailored applications provide users with “fundamental” capabilities, allowing them to type, “hear” colors, speak using a human voice, and create and use custom keyboards. Additionally, applications can be used to determine pronunciation, read transcripts of real-time phone calls, interpret labels and signs, amplify sounds, and navigate computer and telephone screens without the use of touch.
Unfortunately, the use of applications will not be a simple one-click solution to all reasonable accommodation concerns. Depending on the severity of the individual’s disability, the application may need to be customized or used in conjunction with additional applications. Furthermore, the applications may be prone to glitches or server crashes, which would temporarily render the application useless, preventing the user from performing necessary job functions.
The use of applications, instead of people or machines, has the potential to greatly increase an employer’s ability to provide reasonable accommodations. Workers with disabilities may be able to obtain jobs that would have otherwise been unavailable because the reasonable accommodation imposed an undue hardship on the employer. This also means that employers can expect to see an increase in the amount of requests they receive under the ADA for reasonable accommodations. Implementing workplace applications presents positive challenges to employers, while also providing much needed, less costly approaches for enabling individuals with disabilities to become part of the nation’s workforce.