Conference article

Creating accessibility: the accommodation of employees with disabilities as workplace innovation

Thomas Owren
Mohn Centre for Innovation and Regional Development, Western Norway University of Applied Sciences / School of Business and Law, University of Agder, Norway

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Published in: Proceedings from InnArbeid International Conference on work inclusion for persons with intellectual disabilities 2019, Kristiansand, Norway 23rd May 2019

Linköping Electronic Conference Proceedings 160:4, p. 24-25

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Published: 2019-06-17

ISBN: 978-91-7685-017-6

ISSN: 1650-3686 (print), 1650-3740 (online)


The marginalisation of people with disabilities in the labour market is a longstanding and global trend. To counteract this is high on the international agenda, for instance as part of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Traditionally, disability has been seen as a personal feature. Contemporary understandings, such as that of the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), see disability as a result of interaction between persons with physical, mental, sensory or intellectual impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers (UN 2006). Thus, to move forward on this, it becomes important to enhance the accessibility of workplaces. But at present, the field of organisational and management research on work and disability presents as rather immature. There are meagre amounts of research on disability and the role of employers and managers (Cavanagh, Bartram, Meacham, Bigby, Oakman and Fossey 2017, p. 6; Dwertmann 2016, p. 1477). There is also a lack of differentiation between different subsets of the extremely diverse category people with disabilities (Beatty et al 2019). Lastly, there is a tendency to grand generalizations from researchers based on what I understand as a sample bias towards persons with disabilities that are in or close to employment, neglecting groups which farther from or altogether excluded from employment, e.g. persons with intellectual disability or serious mental illness.

My research question is: What forms of workplace innovation may create accessibility for employees with disabilities require of organisations and managers? Harnessing theoretical perspectives both from Disability Studies, the Capability Approach (Sen 1980, Robeyns 2017) and Workplace Innovation (Pot, Totterdill and Dhondt 2016), I am doing a qualitative critical case study (Flyvberg 2011) with an ambition of developing theory. After doing field work and qualitative and interviews (2016–2017) and getting to know eight employees with intellectual disability and their jobs, managers and organisational contexts, publishing a book chapter (Owren and Helmersen 2018) and an essay on reflexivity in research with persons with intellectual disability (Owren 2019), I am currently (2018-2020) working on two theoretical models: The first (Owren and Dyrkolbotn, work in progress) builds on an analysis of existing research on work and disability to specify four levels of organisational accessibility for persons with disabilities, 0. Exclusion, 1. Rudimentary access, 2. Providing work accommdations and 3. Committing to reorganise, and three corresponding processes: a) from exclusion to access, b) from access to social responsibility, c) from social responsibility to social justice. The second (Owren and Austrheim, work in progress) builds on a synthesis of existing research knowledge about accommodations related to nine diagnoses and causes of cognitive impairment, at present fragmented across a number of literatures. Both contributions point out that beyond the most rudimentary, creating workplace accessibility may require processes of organisational learning, dialogue, negotiation and reconsidering often taken-for-granted assumptions on part of ‘non-disabled’ employers, managers and colleagues. I aim to frame this as a contribution to Workplace Innovation, which is underdeveloped when it comes to disability.


words: capability approach, intellectual disability, persons with disabilities, organizational learning, workplace accessibility, workplace innovation


Beatty, J. E., D. C., Baldridge, S. A. Boehm, M. Kulkarni and A. Colella (2019). “On the treatment of persons with disabilities in organizations: A review and research agenda.” Human Resource Management 58 (2), 119-137.

Cavanagh, J., T. Bartram, H. Meacham, C. Bigby, J. Oakman and E. Fossey (2017). “Supporting workers with disabilities: a scoping review of the role of human resource management in contemporary organisations.” Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources, 55 (1), 6-43.

Dwertmann, D. J. G. (2016). “Management research on disabilities: examining methodological challenges and possible solutions.” The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 27 (14), 1477-1509.

Flyvberg, B. (2011). “Case Study.” In N. K. Denzin and Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.) The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, 4th Edition. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 301-316.

Owren, T. and M. Helmersen (2018). “Coping with work: Redefining relations between work life and society.” In H. C. Garmann Johnsen. H. Holtskog, and R. Ennals (Eds.) Coping with the Future: Rethinking Assumptions for Society, Business and Work. London and New York: Routledge.

Owren, T. (2019). “Nine rules of engagement: Reflections on reflexivity.” The Qualitative Report, 24 (2), 228-241.

Owren, T. and S. K. Dyrkolbotn [work in progress]. “Levelling the Field for Persons with Disabilities: A Four-Level Model of Workplace Accessibility.” [Target journal: Journal of Business Ethics.]

Owren. T. and G. Austrheim [work in progress]. “Accommodating Workers with Cognitive Impairments: A Critical Interpretive Synthesis.” [Target journal: International Journal of Disability Management.]

Pot, F. P. Totterdill and S. Dhondt (2016). “Workplace innovation: European policy and theoretical foundation.” World Review of Entrepreneurship, Management and Sustainable Development, 12 (1), 13-32.

Robeyns, I. (2017). Wellbeing, Freedom and Social Justice. The Capability Approach Re-Examined. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers.

Sen, A. (1980). “Equality of What?” In S. McMurrin (Ed.) The Tanner Lectures on Human Values. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press. 196–220.

UN (2006). Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. United Nations. Retrieved from

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