I presented at the most recent DMEC Compliance conference and heard an awful lot of anguish from employers about administering requirements of both the Family Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, and specifically with the difficulties in complying with those regulations. I also know from having discussions with various employers that many are still struggling with finding the right way to accommodate their employees under these (and other, similar) laws. While taking nothing away from their angst and difficulties, I thought it might be useful to look at these legal requirements from a different perspective.

In the 2009 film Avatar, the lead character, Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington), is a paraplegic who, when appropriately “wired up” on the planet Pandora, is able to run, leap and even domesticate and ride giant predators through his “avatar,” (spoiler alert!) leading a beautiful princess to fall in love with him (Zoe Saldana as Neytiri). This is obviously science fiction, although in the real world the science is quickly catching up with the fiction.

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Technologies using brain waves to control muscles, bypassing damaged nerves, are now at the demonstration stage, and just a few steps away from becoming broadly available. In a recent case, a young man paralyzed in both legs was able to teach himself to walk using brain waves to move his muscles and a harness to support his weight.

Accommodating our natural limitations
All of which got me thinking about human limitations and accommodations. We are (most of us), born with two arms and two legs, each with five digits, and a pretty good brain, but with well-known limitations with respect to perception, memory, judgment and cognitive functions generally. If you think about it, as our species has come to dominate our planet, all that we have accomplished has been achieved through our ability to accommodate our inherent limitations.

About 2.5 million years ago (give or take), the first of our very distant ancestors who mastered the skill of chipping a stone just so, so as to create a cutting tool, was accommodating the limitations inherent in the bluntness of his fingers. Battling a hungry lion with your fists meant that you were dinner; facing a hungry lion with a hand axe and a spear meant that you had a shot at eating lion steak that night.

When you have an appointment on the 67th floor of a building in Manhattan, you don’t need to take steroids to build up your muscles for the long climb; you have a ready-made accommodation in a fast-climbing elevator to whisk you there. When you need to travel to Los Angeles for a meeting, you don’t need to wait until evolution has grown you wings; you have an accommodation in the Boeing 777 that will fly you there in a few hours, and in relative comfort (unless you’re sitting in a middle seat).

Changing over time
It’s also interesting to reflect on how what is considered an accommodation can change over time. Consider eye glasses. Until their invention by an unknown scholar in the 13th century, if you were born with really poor vision you were condemned to live a “Mr. Magoo” existence. Even after the first pair had given its inventor a fresh look at the world, it took a few hundred years for glasses to become commonly available. And it was not until 1784 that Ben Franklin invented bifocals.

Until the 19th century, accommodating for your eyesight limitations was beyond a working-class salary. Now, you can get your glasses in less than an hour in most cases, with all or a portion usually paid for by your health insurer — so much so that we no longer think of these as “accommodations.” Even otherwise visually challenged airline pilots are allowed to fly fully loaded 777s with their corrective lenses. Imagine that.

Accommodations do not have to be physical objects, like hand axes, elevators, airplanes or glasses. Take the case of a young boy with an attention deficit disorder who is having difficulties when taking tests because he is so easily distracted. Having him take his tests in a quiet room with few distractions, or sitting close to the teacher, might be enough to allow him to show us what he truly has learned, but has problems expressing.

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Recording stars Justin Timberlake and Adam Levine, journalist Lisa Ling, Olympic multiple gold medal winner Michael Phelps and four-time Super Bowl winner Terry Bradshaw, political strategist James Carville, and comedian Howie Mandel, are only a few of the legions with ADD whom we might never have heard of, absent a few, minor accommodations. And our world would have been all the poorer without them having access to the minor accommodations they require.

So, in a very real sense, the ADA has not created a new world of accommodation, it has merely moved the ball a little further down the field — the same field that we have been playing on, very successfully, since the dawn of human experience. In fact, one might well argue that our entire civilization is built on accommodation. Knowing this does not necessarily make your task of finding the right accommodations for a specific employee any easier, or take away the stress of the required form-filling and process-mapping. But it might make you feel better about it, knowing that in your own small way you are contributing to the advance of civilization.

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