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For the most part, equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws in the United States seek to redress workplace inequalities for disadvantaged groups by requiring only that employers apply the same work principles to all employees, regardless of any personal characteristic. In effect, this EEO ideology is predicated on the assumption that organizations are neutral work environments in which the same rules applied to everyone will yield equitable rewards of pay, prestige, and upward mobility. The idea of neutral organizations has been repeatedly challenged in recent years by scholars who argue that gender, race, and class must be understood not as characteristics of individual workers, but as integral parts of organizational culture. The implication of a cultural interpretation of inequality is that remedies for the economic disadvantage of minority groups cannot succeed if the organization itself is left undisturbed. Rather, accomplishing equity requires changing the way organizations do things, including the everyday world of decision making, interpersonal interactions, production processes, and reward allocations.
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) (1990) is a civil rights law that protects an estimated 15% of the population with disabilities from social and economic discrimination.(1) In scope and significance for employment, it is comparable to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, religion, and national origin. The ADA is noteworthy because it acknowledges the existence of systemic employment barriers to a minority group whose difficulties were once attributed to individual problems. Beyond that, however, perhaps the most striking element of the law is that it represents a pivotal departure from the dominant EEO ideology.
Rather than mandating the same treatment for people with disabilities, the ADA directs employers to alter workplace conditions to enable members of a particular minority group to participate on an equal basis with the nonminority. This principle, known as reasonable accommodation, is a truly remarkable legislative accomplishment. Of great significance is its implicit rejection of the notion that organizations are neutral work environments in which the terms and conditions of employment are natural outcomes of technological and economic forces beyond the control of employers. Whether the framers of the ADA legislation intended it, reasonable accommodation acknowledges that work environments are the result of choices about how work is accomplished and that employers can make different choices that lead to greater flexibility and tolerance in the workplace.
We know from experience with other civil rights laws that there is a great difference between passing a law and the social process that leads to actualization of the intended reform. This article is based on a study of the ADA's implementation; that is, how work organizations handle the new federal mandate of reasonable accommodation. Our purpose here is to examine how the process of social reform unfolds. Specifically, we ask how and why organizations resist making reasonable accommodations for employees. We analyze this process using data on requests for and responses to reasonable accommodation, in which workers with disabilities asked their managers to make modifications or adjustments to their jobs or work environments to enable them to perform on a par with others.
In our analysis, we join two emerging theoretical perspectives that speak to similar issues but which have been connected to each other only tangentially. First, numerous scholars have contributed to a social theory of disability, articulating the idea that disability is an outcome of social attitudes, institutions, and social structures (e.g., Abberley, 1987; Albrecht, 1992; Hahn, 1988, 1991; Oliver, 1990; Wendell, 1989). Sometimes referred to as the "minority group model of disability" (Deegan, 1985), it highlights the similarities between people with disabilities and other minority groups who also experience discrimination. Although the analytical task of the theory is to understand the interaction of this new minority group with institutions of the dominant culture, the exploration of this notion in the literature on work and organizations is entirely lacking.
Second, we draw on the theory of the social construction of gender, race, and class in organizations (e.g., Acker, 1990, 1992; Cockburn, 1991; Gherardi, 1995; Mills & Tancred, 1992; Nkomo, 1992), which has produced valuable insights into how work is structured to reflect and reproduce the hegemonic power of elite White, able-bodied males. We combine the knowledge gained from disability theory and organizational theory to generate new ideas about the social construction of disability in the workplace. Our study of employers' treatment of disability has similarities with the findings of other research on gender, race, and class in organizations.
In the following sections, we briefly review the theory of inequality in organizations, and then explain how disability in organizations emerges historically from the structure of work. We sketch the ambiguities inherent in the principle of reasonable accommodation that open the door for controversy over work arrangements. This is followed by a description of our methodology, findings, and an interpretation and discussion of the findings.
ORGANIZATIONS AS WORK ENVIRONMENTS: ENACTING THE DOMINANT CULTURE
Social constructionist theory argues that organizations create an environment for work that reflects and reproduces the culture of the larger society (Morgan, 1986). Whether making choices about the implementation and uses of new technology (Zuboff, 1988), or designating appropriate gender roles for employees (Kanter, 1977), the form and practice of work in large organizations are the result of choices based on the dominant ideas and relationships of the societies that these institutions represent. On the relationship between culture and organizations, Morgan (1986) writes
that we must root our understanding of organization in the processes that
produce systems of shared meaning. ... The enactment view of culture leads
us to see that organizations are, in essence, socially constructed realities
that rest as much in the heads and minds of their members as they do in
concrete sets of rules and relations. (p. 131)
The systems of shared meaning in contemporary work organizations are expressed in the rules, regulations, policies, and procedures that define the employment relationship. These are the unremarkable aspects of bureaucracy in which we participate daily: hierarchy, authority, routinization, skill, job descriptions, pay policy, work schedules, and time and attendance rules.
These seemingly ordinary arrangements that structure our work days and work lives are not the inevitable form of organizations, but rather are deeply rooted in historical divisions of labor between classes, genders, racial groups, and people with and without disabilities (Acker, 1990; Cockburn, 1991; Mills, 1996; Nkomo, 1992; Oliver, 1990). These divisions are created by dominant social groups and sustained by their power to dictate the meanings that embody organizational culture. In actuality, the "logic" (Acker, 1990) of organizational work environments is an outcome of the self interest of dominant groups triumphing over the interests of less powerful subordinate groups.
Acker (1990) argues, for example, that gender inequality is "reproduced daily in practical work activities" (p. 147) through the creation of divisions based on gender, the construction of cultural images about gender, and the interaction patterns between women and men in organizations. Others have examined bureaucratic politics (Bridges & Nelson, 1989), and patriarchy (Anderson & Tomaskovic-Devey, 1995) as contextual explanations for inequality generating processes. Among the indicators of power differentials in organizations are the absence of women in high-level positions, the identification of valued skills and knowledge as male attributes, and the use of gender-typed metaphors to signal male dominance and female subordination (Mills, 1996).(2) Power relations are formalized in systems of job segregation and job evaluation systems that reward only certain kinds of skills that are likely to be assigned to jobs held by college-educated White males. The manual, interpersonal, or intellectual skills required in jobs held predominantly by women, racial minorities, or working class people place those jobs much lower in the hierarchy of pay, status, and worth to the organization (Acker, 1989; Edwards, 1979; Steinberg & Haignere, 1987).
Assumptions about gender, race, and class that are created in the general culture and within the workplace reinforce and legitimate each other. They create the basis for defining the qualities perceived as being necessary for maximally productive workers and the qualities that are associated with inferior workers. As we discuss in detail below, assumptions about disability in organizations are similarly reproduced and sustained in this two-directional interaction between society and organizations.
CULTURE AND DISABILITY IN ORGANIZATIONS
Tracing the cultural origins of attitudes toward disability in Western society (Blackwell-Stratton, Breslin, Mayerson, & Bailey, 1988; Cockburn, 1991; Hahn, 1987; Oliver, 1990; Stone, 1984), one finds that disability is assigned different meanings in particular cultural contexts and time periods (Albrecht, 1992; Freidson, 1965; Murphy, Scheer, Murphy, & Mack, 1988). Oliver argues that both the dominant pattern of intellectual thought as well as the type of economic system are central in forming the situational or cultural meaning of disability in history. In preindustrial society, dominated by religion and superstition, disability was equated with sin and, therefore, persecuted. On one level, the perception of disability as deviance has persisted, leading nondisabled people to distance themselves from people with disabilities out of fear (Becker, 1963; Cockburn, 1991). On another level, the growth of scientific knowledge and the rise of industrial capitalism supplied the ideological and material conditions that transformed disability into an individual medical problem that evokes pity and a societal obligation to fix the condition (Albrecht, 1992; Oliver, 1990).
Industrialization required the separation of home and workplace, leading to the segregation of persons with disabilities from members of the family who entered the wage earning labor force. Thus, the methods of work under industrial capitalism, such as production quotas, rigid time schedules, new technologies, and standardization of tasks, developed in ways that only able-bodied people could perform cost effectively (Oliver, 1990). Work organizations were built on the premise of "ableness," by definition excluding those who are perceived as not able and, therefore, presumably incompetent. The "competitive individualism" at the core of the contemporary American workplace (Morgan, 1986) is in essence the distinction between the capable and the incapable.
The concept of ableness has come to be defined in organizations as managers'and coworkers' perceptions of what it takes to get the job done, based on how jobs are accomplished by traditional incumbents (Weston, 1990). Over time, the jobs themselves are infused with qualities of particular groups of people that are believed to be intrinsic requirements of job tasks. Employers ignore the actual skills, accomplishments, and capabilities of individuals whose culturally defined traits do not match those assigned to particular jobs (Stover, 1996). Recent national surveys of managers' attitudes toward hiring people with disabilities show that they have absorbed the belief that people with disabilities are less capable of meeting their organizational demands (McFarlin, Song, & Sonntag, 1991). A national survey of working age people with disabilities supports the evidence that employers' attitudes prevent people with disabilities from gaining access to employment and promotion to higher-level jobs (Harris & Associates, 1986).
Although certain forces in industrial capitalism operated to exclude "disabled" workers from organizations, the need to maintain an adequate labor supply for rising industry pressed to expand the labor force. To separate those who have authentic impairments from those who might take undeserved advantage of public aid for the purpose of avoiding work, the state began to call on physicians to certify the legitimacy of disabilities (Freidson, 1970; Stone, 1984). The twin legacies of these two seemingly opposite forces are the social construction of disability as an individual medical problem, and the growth of a rehabilitation industry dedicated to making people with disabilities able and willing to assimilate into work organizations (Albrecht, 1992; Oliver, 1990). As Cockburn (1991) discovered, employers today completely ignore the possibilities for changing the social organization of the workplace. They
do not calculate "A person with this disability will have these abilities
and capacities. How can we best enable them? ... Which jobs could we
restructure--by team working, maybe--to make it feasible for a person with
this or that disability to do them?" (p. 206)
Only recently have theory and legislation moved beyond a singular focus on individual limitations to consider an alternative paradigm focused on restrictive environments that make it difficult or impossible for some people to perform activities. The inaccessibility of physical or built environments has been explored in depth by architects and geographers (see Imrie, 1996), and certainly architectural and communication barriers are a great challenge for people with mobility and sensory impairments. However, the negative effects of the social environment have been less studied, and are potentially even more debilitating to a greater number of people with all types of disabilities, excluding them from full participation in work and other parts of society. Imrie (1996) believes that changing the configuration of physical environments "will do little or nothing to eradicate the underlying, disablist, values of society or of the institutional structures within which most disabled people have to live their lives" (p. 49).
REASONABLE ACCOMMODATION: UNDOING ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE
In its key formulations, the ADA's approach to defining and remedying discrimination requires employers to examine the possibility that disability is located in the work environment and to provide alternatives for individualized opportunity. In defining disability, the ADA does not enumerate conditions or diseases that constitute impairments, but rather takes into account the factors that must be considered in determining a disability. A disability is
(a) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or
more of the major life activities (walking, speaking, breathing,
seeing, hearing, learning working, performing manual tasks, or
caring for oneself); (b) a record of such an impairment; or (c) being
regarded as having such an impairment. (ADA, 1990)
Thus, the law allows for the possibility that the same impairment may or may not be disabling depending on circumstances. It acknowledges that perceptions and attitudes may cause disabilities, as in the case of someone who is denied employment or promotion because of prejudice or unsubstantiated beliefs about the alleged effects of an impairment on job performance.(3)
The mandate of reasonable accommodation,(4) which is the heart of the ADA's employment protection, requires employers to
make a modification or adjustment to a job, the work environment, or
the way things usually are done that enables a qualified individual
with a disability to enjoy an equal opportunity to attain …