How Unions Can Use Universal Design to Better Serve Workers with Disabilities

July 26, 2023

As Disability Pride Month draws to a close, today, July 26th marks the 33rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The landmark civil rights legislation set out to prohibit disability-based employment discrimination and to ensure that people with disabilities enjoyed equal access to opportunities and services. While the passage of the ADA represented a serious step forward, people with disabilities continue to face significant barriers to economic justice, including within the realm of employment.

This July has also seen an uptick in visibility and militancy among organized labor, including active strikes by the writers’ and actors’ guilds and a historic Teamsters contract win that narrowly averted a strike at UPS. While it is unfortunate to see the breakdown in negotiations and their negative effects on working people, organized labor’s willingness to flex its muscle to secure a contract that gives workers what they need is admirable. This tenacity is also a welcome sign as the labor movement looks to rebuild after decades of decline.

While these topics may not seem connected, the fate of the labor movement has broad implications for other movements, including and especially disability justice. In addition to advocating for improvements to the ADA itself, organized labor can play a role in increasing economic justice for people with disabilities by improving their conditions at work. Union representation already produces sizable benefits for disabled workers. Though union membership shares are roughly similar for employees with and without disabilities, there is an especially high union wage premium for workers with disabilities compared to other groups. Labor unions are also an additional source of accountability for employers. In practice, the protections guaranteed by the ADA are regularly flouted; unions offer workers an additional mechanism to uphold their hard-won rights.

One way that organized labor can better represent comrades with disabilities is through the adoption of universal design principles. Originally an architectural concept, universal design ensures that a space is fully and equally usable by a diverse range of people. In the context of disability and the workplace, a universal design approach means that unions should strive to reframe what the ADA calls “reasonable accommodations” as universal benefits for all staff. 

The current accommodations framework is a reactive process that places the onus on the disabled person to request what they need to access an otherwise inaccessible environment. A universal design approach, by contrast, places the onus on the employer to make the workplace equally accessible to all by default. The latter ultimately makes for a more inclusive workplace that meets more workers’ needs, reducing stigma for disabled employees. This practice comes with the added benefit of addressing a previous source of strife between unions and disability rights advocates, mitigating the potential for conflicts between seniority systems in collective bargaining agreements and an individual employee’s accommodation needs.

Moreover, as many of so-called “accommodations” are actually things that improve working conditions for workers with and without disabilities, reframing them as universal benefits reduces resentment by making the workplace better for everyone. The COVID-19 pandemic has given us some notable examples of this. Flexible and remote work arrangements can be essential to a worker with a disability, determining whether they are able to do their job at all. However, such arrangements are also appreciated by many workers without disabilities, and giving employees the choice to adopt them is associated with bumps in productivity and job satisfaction

Indoor air quality is another pandemic-era safety issue that unions should be pushing to address within the universal design framework. It would be a mistake to allow employers to classify optimized ventilation and air filtration as an accommodation available only when requested by “qualified workers” with allergies or compromised immune systems. Improvements to indoor air quality benefit everyone, both by reducing transmission of airborne pathogens and by generally improving workplace productivity. To their credit, the National Education Association has set an excellent example in its comprehensive approach to this issue so far.

Effective use of universal design principles will require unions to proactively center the needs of disabled people when establishing bargaining priorities and when navigating representational issues. This includes enshrining and enforcing contract language that goes above and beyond the ADA’s standard. Strengthening the links between unions and groups that support individuals with disabilities can help unions improve responsiveness to the needs of disabled workers. To that end, unions would also do well to recognize the expertise of their disabled rank-and-file. Disabled and chronically ill workers have a long history of on-the-job organizing, and their stories can and should help shape the labor movement’s future.

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