On the afternoon of January 20, members of the disability advocacy community gathered to discuss one of the recurring challenges of designing disability policy: allocating scarce resources and balancing competing interests. Panelists and audience members agreed that the labyrinth of state funding and politics alternately helps and hinders the work that disability advocates do. Conference attendees tossed around potential solutions in a high-energy discussion and planning session, working to identify what the focus of disability policy should be, and which tactics the disability community should use to achieve its objectives.
Panelists discussed the case of Vande Zande v. Wisconsin Department of Administration, and used it to frame their questions about how best to address the issue of accessibility, as well as how to balance the needs of workers, employers, and the state. In the case up for debate, Lori Vande Zande, a woman affected by a physical disability, requested workplace accommodations and was denied. The Wisconsin Department of Administration, her employer, held that the cost of these accommodations was not outweighed by the benefit they would bring Ms. Vande Zande or the Administration, and the 7th Circuit Court agreed. Legal decisions like the one against Vande Zande highlight the need for disability advocates and policymakers to come up with creative solutions to the problems of conflicting interests and limited funds. Bobbi Cordano, director of Disability Services at the University of Minnesota, discussed the appealing possibility of changing the overall design of workplaces so that they are universally usable, meaning better for a larger variety of needs. If offices utilize this design, Cordano asserted, employees would be relieved of their duty to request accommodations, and employers would not face additional costs after the initial construction or remodeling of their workspaces.
Panelist Cordano also vehemently agreed that Vande Zande’s specific accommodation requests, particularly workplace kitchen accessibility, were necessary to give her equal access to opportunity. Panelist Rosalie Kane, a University professor who specializes in health services research, declared that issues like kitchen accessibility might represent the disability community’s version of the old adage “In corporate America, it’s all about who plays golf with you”—meaning that people get ahead in the workplace not just by doing their jobs well, but by making connections with co-workers and supervisors on a personal level away from their desks. If people like Lori Vande Zande cannot use the kitchen or eat in the cafeteria, it may be more difficult for them to advance in their careers. Employers’ and policymakers’ vision of ADA compliance should be expanded to include new, nontraditional ideas of equal access.
Conference attendees discussed the importance of framing disability issues in specific ways to spark the interest of policymakers and the public, and give the issues more political clout. Members of the disability advocacy community present vowed to continue their work on developing efficient, cost-effective, useful initiatives that lead to the best possible outcome, without compromising the needs of constituents.