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  Quality Through Equality: Working With Total Quality Management Programs to Improve Job Accommodations for People with Disabilities

By Dale Susan Brown


Copyright © 1993 Dale S. Brown


Many corporations and public agencies are restructuring or "reinventing themselves" to become more productive and competitive. Total Quality Management, a customer-oriented approach to improving quality, is frequently the program of choice. When companies are involved in changing and improving themselves, it can be a good time to assure that issues important to people with disabilities are part of the process.  

Accommodations for people with disabilities, often perceived as an expense, can provide benefits beyond the person with a disability and can add to the bottom line of company profits. Job accommodation can create value within a business through improvement of at least three areas: efficiency, innovation, and safety. Let's take each of these in turn:

Efficiency . Frequently, accommodations made for one person assist everyone. For example, a man with one arm worked in a company that produced micro-fiche. A paper cutter was designed especially for him. When he was absent, others used the paper cutter because it was easier for them. To assist a person with quadriplegia, a government agency bought software which allows an individual to use his or her voice to talk to a computer. This made this person's productivity higher than his co-workers. The agency bought voice-activated computers for everyone.  

Innovation. Numerous inventions have begun as accommodations for people with disabilities. The telephone's development, for example, was the result of an effort of Alexander Graham Bell to communicate with his niece who was deaf. The Jacuzzi was invented by the father of a boy who had arthritis who needed warm baths.  

Safety . Universal design, a concept which is gaining interest, refers to design which allows everyone, tall or short, fat or thin, coordinated or clumsy, disabled or able-bodied, to maneuver with ease through the environment and use products as intended. An accommodation which makes it possible for a person with a disability to move through the environment often makes it easier and safer for non-disabled, mildly disabled, or temporarily disabled people to move. For example, ramps are not as dangerous as stairs, since when people fall, their center of gravity falls a shorter distance than if they fell on stairs. Marking hazards and level changes with flush contrasting visual and tactile marking strips helps people with visual impairments and other individuals to notice dangerous parts of the environment. Improved safety for all has been a welcome by-product of accommodation and accessibility changes.  

The linkage of improvements for people with disabilities and improvements for people without disabilities creates a positive argument for including accommodation and disability issues into Total Quality Management programs. When companies improve their procedures, it is a good time to assure that disability issues become part of the process. 

Total Quality Management, an integrated system of improving processes, has been the change tool of choice in the majority of private and public entities that have chosen systematic change. Almost every U.S. manager is aware of the process and is somewhat familiar with its terminology. Following are three points that Total Quality Management programs have in common and that give advocates for people with disabilities their best point of entry:  

(1) Quality is defined by customers, not the organization.  

(2) Total Quality Management programs pay careful attention to every link in the production process and continuously study and improve the entire system.  

(3) Continuous improvement requires taking full advantage of the knowledge and skills of all employees.  

Each of these points will be covered in turn.  


People with disabilities are your customers. As accessibility improves, more people with disabilities are becoming mainstream customers -- with potential to profit the companies that serve them. June Isaacson Kailes, a disability consultant in California, explains that over 10 percent of the population currently requires barrier free design. She explains, "If your average customer sale is $10.00 and if you average 100 customers a day, you may be losing $100.00 in sales, or $365,000 a year if your business establishment is not barrier free. Can you afford this lost revenue?"

Companies involved in quality efforts carefully study customer requirements. People with disabilities should be systematically included in these efforts. Two telephone companies give examples of how this can be done. One has a committee of consumers representing various disabilities which reviews the company's products and proposes new products. Another is testing a value-added voice mailbox. The trial of 200 people has 12 people with visual impairments.  

Frequently, customers with disabilities are inadvertently screened out of customer surveys. For example, written surveys do not reach those who cannot read due to visual impairments or dyslexia. A major survey of people with disabilities underrepresented people who were deaf by not including TDD's. Surveys of current customers may miss potential customers. Details of serving people with disabilities should be part of staff training. When staff does not understand the reason for accommodations, the best-meaning results can go awry.  

For example, Frank Bowe, a well-known advocate for people with disabilities, was staying in a hotel and he requested a TDD because he is deaf. When he returned to the room, he found a note: “We don't know where you want us to put the TDD. Please call the engineering staff at….”

Total Quality Management programs go beyond customer "satisfaction" to customer "delight." The company that delights people with disabilities and gains this customer segment today positions itself for profits tomorrow. Many companies go beyond the law to serve their customers with disabilities. Service ideas range from Braille on the top of the cups in fast food restaurants to free wheelchairs provided in a major national amusement park.

Sensitivity to people with disabilities often improves service to all customers. A historic site developed a map, with larger print, better contrast, and simpler language, for people with mental retardation. It was placed unlabeled next to the ordinary maps. Several weeks later, the staff noticed that the maps developed for people with mental retardation were gone. The box of "normal" maps was full. The map originally designed by people with mental retardation is used for all.  


When companies study their production processes, it is excellent timing to define essential job functions and to assure that new machinery, new procedures, and educational programs are easy to use for people with disabilities. Several companies have formed focus groups of employees with disabilities to address these issues. One Japanese automobile manufacturing representative explained, 'We have no job de­scriptions, only process descrip­tions. We work in teams where we match jobs to people's abilities. The person isn't tied to a process. Instead, the process is tied to the person." People with disabilities and people knowledgeable about disabilities should work with engineers and designers in the beginning stages so that there is less need for individual accommodation.  

Individual accommodations can be planned using the PDCA Cycle. The PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act) Cycle is frequently used to effec­tively change organizations, processes and procedures. It is conceptualized as a continuous cycle, rather than something that ends. Here is how it can be ap­plied to an individual’s accommodation needs:  

Plan . The individual with a disability and his or her supervisor locate the problem, choose alter­native solutions, and pick the one that appears the best. Both worker and manager participate as team members. They often request assistance from other experts. The Job Accommodation Network (­800-526-7234) is available to assist in any part of the accommodation process.  

For example, a data analyst who was blind started the cycle when his office was computerized. His boss asked him to develop a plan to assure that he had access to the system that his office was using. He studied the products of various vendors and wrote a proposal for a particular voice synthesizer.

Do . Implement the accommoda­tion. The data analyst who was blind was trained on his voice synthesizer, which used the same software as his co-workers.  

Check . Assure that the accommodation works. In this, the talking computer was faster than the Perkins brailler and typewriter he had used before. However, some co-workers found the computer voice, which was used in open space, distracting. So, the company bought him a headphone.

Act . If the accommodation is successful, take steps to assure that the employee does not risk loss of accommodation if he or she is transferred or changes supervi­sors. If further improvements can be made on the accommodation, start the cycle over. Also, assess if this accommodation can improve the productivity of other employ­ees. One large company, which won the U.S. Department of Commerce's Baldridge award (the top national citation for quality in management), provides backrests and footrests to any employee who asks, to prevent health problems and to improve productivity.  

Employees with disabilities, like all employees, are always looking for ways to improve their produc­tivity. Accommodation should be positioned as part of the company's continuous improve­ment program.


In Total Quality Management companies, improvement is seen as a process rather than a sudden and swift leap. Each process is studied, often by the employee who is responsible for doing it, to see how it can be made better. Teams are formed to study specific production problems and propose solutions. The stress on empowerment of the individual worker can assist the individual with a disability to obtain what he or she needs to achieve quality.

Individuals with human resource responsibilities or who represent people with disabilities can work closely with the quality programs of their companies. Employees with disabilities should be included in problem-solving work teams. Accommodation must be built in to the various changes as they happen.

For example, a manufacturing plant changed its assembly line jobs to include statistical process control. Reading and writing became essential job functions. Numerous workers with learning disabilities who had hidden their problems successfully were suddenly forced out of the closet. Fortunately, the company had an active internal education system which hired several tutors to work with these employees, who formed a mutual support group. All of the plant supervisors were trained in accommodation techniques. The results were a plant-wide improvement in quality.  

For example, supervisors went through a simulation of an "auditory figure ground problem" by trying to follow directions being given near a noisy machine. As a result of that exercise, they decided to only give directions to all employees in quiet areas of the plant.  

In short, Total Quality Management is an opportunity for people with disabilities and their advocates. Companies in the United States are changing to become more competitive. People with disabilities and their advocates can become part of that change and make reasonable accommodation a way of doing business.

This article was first published in In-The-Mainstream, the magazine of Mainstream Inc, in 1993. It has been slightly updated and is being put up on ICDRI’s website to show advocates how to work with companies to use their change processes to advance disability integration. Although Total Quality Management is used less frequently than it was when the article was written, most of the concepts in the article are alive and well among today’s employers.



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