Most late 20th century federal laws that continue to affect the workplace, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, revolve around the idea of rights. In effect, they mandate that all workers have a right to be treated equally, without reference to such individual characteristics as race, gender, or ethnicity. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), however, did just the opposite. It injected an emphasis on the individual into the workplace, requiring that employers accommodate the needs of individual employees. For the idea that employees must be treated "normally," ADA substitutes the idea that employees must be treated individually – or, at least, that employees with disabilities must be treated individually. Their needs must be accommodated so that they can function successfully in the workplace.

The Division of U.S. Studies' discussion of Ruth O'Brien's Bodies in Revolt: Gender, Disability, and a Workplace Ethic of Care focused on Prof. O'Brien's suggestion of an expansive interpretation of ADA – one that would empower employees to negotiate workplace conditions that provide for the ongoing needs of individuals. As we age, Prof. Brien noted, our bodies break down; "everyone will be disabled at some point." Temporary disabilities will occur during our employment years, whether because of illness, accidents, child-rearing, an elderly parent who needs care, or some other factor. The workplace management ideology that grew out of industrialization forces employees to meet the standards of the workplace regardless of ability or need. If, however, we draw upon ADA for a functionalist conception of disability, emphasizing what each employee can or cannot do, we will move away from the idea of "normal." The question then becomes one of how unions and other employee organizations might work with employers to adapt the workplace to meet the shifting needs of the individual while providing whatever is necessary for workplace productivity. With the advance of computer technology, for example, more flexible workplace styles are possible to accommodate employee needs.

Prof. Celine-Marie Pascale commented that O'Brien's approach would abolish the binary of "able" and "disabled" and begin erasing the stigma associated with the word "disability." It would force recognition that "disability is not something that happens to others" but "affects all of us in different ways." Prof. Chai Feldblum, one of the attorneys who drafted ADA, reflected on its goal of organizing the workplace to meet both individual needs and employer realities. Unfortunately, she said, employers and employees do not now perceive that they have the same interest. Employees recognize that their lives outside the workplace affect their productivity, but they too frequently lack a sense of workplace responsibility and a concern for how their job will get done when an outside need prevents their functioning in the workplace as they should. Employers tend not to view employees' outside demands and needs as their concern. The answer, Feldblum suggested, may lie in loosening of employer control of the workplace and substituting shared control and responsibility. She pointed out that the National Labor Relations Act permits committees of employees to share managerial functions and suggested that such committees could well begin to respond to O'Brien's emphasis on individual needs, while ensuring the continued successful functioning of the workplace.

Drafted by Acacia Reed and Philippa Strum

Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies 202-691-4129