Working the Accommodation Puzzle: A Year in the Life of a Student Researcher

By Katie Cox for

Truth be told, I sort of stumbled into the field of disability law and have quickly discovered a passion for it.  Almost a year ago, I was made aware of and encouraged to apply for a small grant program by a faculty member.  Soon after, I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Leslie Francis and we quickly brainstormed a research plan that became a formal research proposal ready for submission within a few weeks; ultimately, the proposal was accepted for funding.  From there, things continued to fall into place with a Law Clerk position at the Disability Law Center and coursework aligning with regard to my interests in reproductive justice and disability.

Currently, I am a member of the first cohort of the Social Security Administration’s Analyzing Relationships between Disability, Rehabilitation and Work (ARDRAW) Small Grant Program.  Through stipends awarded to graduate students conducting supervised independent research, ARDRAW seeks to “foster new analysis of work, rehabilitation, and disability issues, which may develop innovative and fresh perspectives on disability.”  My research pretty much boils down to understanding how the accommodation needs of workers with disabilities (who also receive SSI or SSDI – more about that below) relate to how accommodation is legally understood.  In an effort to both focus on an important segment of the workforce and isolate a dataset of manageable size, I’ve chosen to focus on the fit between accommodations and the needs of people seeking to return to work or continuing to work in the healthcare industry.

To do this, it is necessary to understand what individuals need or purport to need, as well as what the legal record reflects with regard to reported accommodation and discrimination complaints and how those reports were resolved.  The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employment discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities under Title I and defines disability as having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, or having a record of or being regarded by others as having such an impairment.  A qualified individual is a person who is able to perform the essential functions of the employment position with or without reasonable accommodation; a reasonable accommodation is a change or adjustment to a job or work environment that enables a qualified person with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities, including performing the essential functions of a job, unless doing so would cause an undue hardship (significant difficulty or expense).

Accommodations vary depending on individual needs, but might include modifications to a job application process; alterations or adjustment to the physical workspace, including workstations, bathroom or entryway accessibility; equipment modifications such as phones or computers; modifications to work schedule; and allowing workers to perform job tasks in non-standard ways.  When individuals experience disability-based discrimination in the workplace, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for enforcing the employment provisions of the ADA.  Once administrative remedies are exhausted or the EEOC issues a right to sue, cases can be challenged in court.

The SSA administers Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which are designed to pay disability benefits to people who can’t work because they have a medical condition that is expected to last at least one year or result in death.  The SSA considers someone disabled if they are unable to do the work they did before because of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment, but also cannot adjust to or engage in any other kind of work.  Individuals receiving SSDI or SSI are often interested in returning to the workforce or remaining in the workforce for as long as possible.  For many beneficiaries, these goals are attainable through vocational rehabilitation, retraining, or accommodations in the workplace.  Employment-support provisions allow beneficiaries to test their ability to work, continue working, or work while they medically recover while still receiving benefits and/or having benefits and supports reinstated as needed.

Many disability scholars see the benefits afforded by the Social Security Act as welfare-based while viewing the ADA as a rights-based statute.  While the Social Security Act and the ADA are two different statutes, they work together in that Social Security beneficiaries cross over to the ADA when they seek accommodations or experience other discrimination in the workforce.  We know that accommodations are necessary for many individuals with disabilities who wish to continue working or return to work, including SSDI and SSI beneficiaries.  However, if Title I of the ADA fails to protect individuals seeking the accommodations they need, their efforts at workforce entry will not succeed.

At the culmination of my research, I hope to have a greater understanding of what is working well and what could be improved with regard to how the SSA provides resources regarding accommodations to potential employees, what impairments are most often or most rarely accommodated, and what types of employees are most often or most rarely found to be qualified to work, even with an accommodation. I hope that these findings will inform the services and resources provided by the SSA and ultimately lead to greater successes for SSDI and SSI beneficiaries who wish to utilize work incentive programs and employment-support provisions but need to obtain an accommodation to do so.

The ARDRAW Small Grant Program is currently accepting applications for Cohort 2; more information about the program is available here:


Katie Cox is a second-year law student at the S.J. Quinney College of Law. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English/Creative Writing from Seattle University and a Master of Social Work with a concentration in Organization and Community Social Work Practice from the University of New England. Katie was awarded a research grant through the Social Security Administration’s Analyzing Relationships between Disability, Rehabilitation and Work (ARDRAW) Small Grant Program for the 2017-2018 academic year. She is involved with several student organizations at the law school and currently serves as president of the S.J. Quinney chapter of If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice, as well as vice president of the Public Interest Law Organization. Katie also works as a Law Clerk at the Disability Law Center and is passionate about community engagement.