Research Findings

How organizational spaces contribute to disabling employees with impairments

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May 7, 2020
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Disabled people continue to be underrepresented in employment and to experience unequal career opportunities when they are employed. (While in the U.S., it is more common to use the term ‘people with disabilities’, we follow the U.K. tradition of using the term ‘disabled people’, which is used to particularly highlight the social origin of disability and the role of societal barriers in causing people with impairments to become disabled.) 

This problem has many different causes, including employers’ and co-workers’ stereotypes, different forms of discrimination, the way jobs are designed, and the lack of access to reasonable accommodations. In an article recently published in Organization, we focus on another element that can contribute to the disadvantaged labour market position of disabled employees: the disabling role of organizational spaces.

This study builds on the recent spatial turn in management and organization studies, which has led to increased attention to the relation between power dynamics and the spaces of work. This approach highlights how organizational spaces are designed reflecting a particular political order and specific interests and goals, how spaces shape the way people (can) act in them, and how spaces communicate particular meanings and affect individuals’ sense of self. Organizational spaces are, in other words, not neutral containers in which work occurs, but rather shape organizational realities and contribute to reproducing relations of power. 

Meanwhile, the multi-disciplinary field of disability studies has highlighted the connection between space and disability, arguing that societal spaces are traditionally designed in an ableist way. In other words, their designs reflect those bodily variations considered ‘normal’ and presume able-bodiedness. As a result, these spaces afford unacknowledged privileges to majority bodies and contribute to the exclusion and marginalization of people with impairments.

Building on these insights, we explore the role of organizational spaces in the disadvantaged position of disabled employees. Drawing on 65 interviews conducted in Belgium with employees with a variety of impairments, we identified four processes through which organizational spaces can disable employees with impairments.

Four disabling processes 

First, we found that spaces can disable employees with impairments through affecting their productivity. This occurs as spaces make the performance of particular tasks more difficult or cause the loss of time. Examples are open-plan offices hampering the ability of employees with sensory impairments to work productively, or devices designed to be used while standing that cause employees with physical impairments to lose time trying to operate them. 

Second, organizational spaces can disable social inclusion. They can do so by causing difficulties in participating in social activities. Examples are spatial elements, such as a lack of chairs, the use of high cocktail tables, or poor acoustics, that disable the ability of employees with impairments to participate in lunches, parties, or team building events. 

Moreover, spaces can disable social inclusion by segregating employees with impairments from their co-workers. This can involve reasonable accommodations that enable individuals to work more productively, yet that affect their inclusion. Examples are disabled employees getting the permission to work from home rather than in a poorly accessible organizational space, or being given their own office outside of a shared open-plan office. 

A third way in which spaces can disable employees with impairments is by disabling their independence. The ability to independently perform activities such as eating, drinking or going to the bathroom can become disabled by spatial elements such as appliances, vending machines or toilets that require, for example, ‘processing visual information’ or ‘using stairs’. 

Moreover, spaces can make employees dependent on their co-workers to perform parts of their job in a productive way. For example, interviewees described being forced to ask for their co-workers’ help to use inaccessible computer programs or devices that require ‘standing’ or that only offer visual information.

A final way in which spaces can disable employees with impairments is through affecting their physical comfort and safety. This occurs as spaces cause physical suffering, fear for one’s health, or one’s impairment to worsen. Examples from our research include doors that increase the risk of falling for employees using crutches, carpeting that causes strain and pain for employees in a wheelchair, or the acoustics of rooms that contribute to further hearing loss.

Towards non-ableist organizational spaces

By identifying these processes, this study highlights the different aspects defining ableist organizational spaces. It first shows that ableist organizational spaces are designed around ableist norms, for example on the use of the body and on sensory stimuli. In this way, their design reflects the presumption that the workforce is and will always be able-bodied. 

A second defining aspect of ableist organizational spaces is that they enable, and become dominated by, a routine practice that reflects and normalizes the way able-bodied employees can, and unconsciously do, interact with a space designed ‘for them’. In turn, this able-bodied practice serves as the standard of ‘normal’ organizational behaviour against which all organizational performances are judged and in relation to which disabled employees become seen as ‘different’ (e.g. slower, less productive, less independent). 

A third aspect defining ableist organizational spaces is that they give disabled employees a sense of otherness and inferiority, while affording non-disabled employees a sense of normality. 

Through these different processes, ableist organizational spaces can affect every aspect of disabled employees’ working life, including their ability to work, to be productive, and to form social relations. Moreover, they can lead to feelings of exclusion, dependence, humiliation and insecurity among disabled employees, as well as to pain, fatigue and even the worsening of impairments. Furthermore, ableist organizational spaces risk contributing to the maintenance of stereotypes about disabled employees by making them visible to their co-workers as unproductive, unsociable, dependent, insecure or unsafe.

So how do employers and employees manage these spaces? The main way in which employers attempt to do so is through (legally required) reasonable accommodations. However, our study shows that these interventions tend to primarily focus on improving disabled employees’ productivity rather than on ensuring full participation on equal terms. As a result, they often do not address, and can even contribute to, other processes through which spaces disable employees with impairments. 

Meanwhile, disabled employees often try to manage these spaces by adapting themselves, their bodies, and their behaviour to them in order to protect their productivity and conform to their employer’s demands. However, doing so can involve sacrificing their social inclusion, independence and even physical comfort and safety. 

We therefore argue that creating more inclusive organizations requires spatial interventions aimed at producing non-ableist organizational spaces. This involves spaces that are conceived around all possible bodies and capabilities, that can become dominated by a practice that all employees can adhere to equally, and that infuse the lived experience of all employees in an equally positive way.

Read More

Koen Van Laer, Eline Jammaers and Wendy Hoeven. “Disabling organizational spaces: Exploring the processes through which spatial environments disable employees with impairments” in Organization 2020. For a free, prepublication version of the article, click here.

Image: citytransportinfo via Flickr (CC0 1.0) 

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