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  May 14, 2001

Hearing Impaired Reluctant to Ask
for Accommodations, Says Researcher

When the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed more than a decade ago, it was a landmark event. But today, under-accommodation is still a major barrier to equal employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

"Passage of a law is only symbolic unless it changes attitudes and behaviors," says David Baldridge, a Ph.D. candidate in management, whose research with management professor Jack Veiga focuses on requests for accommodations in the workplace.

Baldridge understands this well. He started losing his hearing as a child and became deaf at the age of 25.

"It's more than just requests for new elevators, wheelchair ramps, or other expensive equipment," he says. "Sometimes for me, for example, it is just asking someone a second or third time to repeat themselves. This may seem like a small request, but when this is something you have to ask for, day in and day out, and the person you ask gets impatient or embarrassed, it tends to make me more reluctant."

Baldridge says one of the biggest problems with implementing the ADA is that people with disabilities often do not feel comfortable requesting accommodations.

"The ADA specifically states that it is the employee's responsibility to made these requests," he says. "If people with disabilities don't ask for accommodations, their talents will continue to be underutilized.

"What makes a difference," he adds, "is what happens on a day-to-day basis among workers, co-workers and their supervisors."

Millions of other people with a disability face similar dilemmas every day.

Baldridge has developed a theoretical model to help understand what variables might influence a person to ask or not ask for accommodation. Co-authored with Veiga, a Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor who is his mentor and advisor, the paper appeared recently in the Academy of Management Review, a premier journal in the field.

Baldridge is also examining the issue further in his dissertation, "The Everyday ADA: The Influence of Requesters' Assessments on Decisions to Ask for Needed Accommodation."

His research involved collecting data from people with hearing impairments employed in a variety of business organizations around the nation. They were asked open-ended questions about a time they requested an accommodation and a time when they chose not to ask.

"People asked for enough accommodation to keep their jobs, or accommodations that would have a fairly substantial effect on the overall job performance," Baldridge says. They tended not to ask for things that would help them get a promotion or greater pay - things, he says, that would make them successful in the long term.

Thirty-six per cent of people requested support from a fellow employee that had no monetary cost. These included writing something down, repeating what was said, speaking more slowly, using sign language, or changing a seating arrangement.

Thirty-four per cent requested professional services, such as an interpreter or a professional note-taker. Thirty-per cent requested equipment, such as phone amplifiers and light signalers.

Accommodations were not requested when tasks were perceived to be less critical. For instance, when a person believed that self-help approaches like speech reading would suffice, or other adjustments were available that would be 'good enough', they didn't make a request.

A man who was hard-of-hearing explained, "I did not ask because I get by with speech reading in small groups." A deaf woman who had trouble at presentations said, "to fully understand the presentations would be wonderful" but not essential to her position.

Some people said they were more likely to make a request if it would help others in addition to themselves, or if they thought their supervisors would comply. They might not ask for help if they thought it would damage their self-concept or harm their public image.

"People with disabilities are bright, capable and underutilized," Baldridge says.

Proactive managers can make a difference. "They need to create more supportive working environments," he says, "where people are more comfortable asking for what they need. People often forget how hard it might be for a person to ask for help."

Baldridge, who teaches a course in organizational behavior, is the first Ph.D. student to be inducted into the School of Business Hall of Fame. After he completes his dissertation in June, he will join the business college faculty at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Sherry Fisher

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