The Small Business at Work Toolkit

Helping small businesses welcome employees with disabilities

Small Organizations and Title 1 of the ADA:
A Research Study in Region 2

By Hsiao-Ying Vicki Chang, Sarah von Schrader, and Wendy Strobel Gower

Cornell University, ILR School

Executive Summary | Full Report

Small businesses are a critical pillar of the US economy. Companies with less than 500 employees comprise 99.9% of businesses and employ 47.3% of the workforce in the private sector. (US Small Business Administration, 2019). More than half of all workers in New York and New Jersey are employed in small businesses, and in some US territories, these rates are even higher. For example, 80% of employees in Puerto Rico and 91% of employees in the US Virgin Islands work for small businesses (US Small Business Administration, 2014).

Not only do small businesses contribute largely to the workforce, but also working at small business organizations is an attractive option for individuals with disabilities. Over 70% of people with disabilities prefer working for a small organization as opposed to a larger one (Ali, Schur, & Blanck, 2011). Yet, the smaller workforce within such businesses can result in a lack of a formal human resources staff member or department, and less of the capacity and awareness needed to hire and effectively support qualified workers with disabilities. Consequently, small businesses face unique challenges in the implementation of Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compared to large businesses.

To support small employers, and those who work for them, the Northeast ADA Center conducted a mixed methods research study to inform the development of tools to enhance implementation of Tile I of the ADA by small businesses. Key findings and recommendations from this research are summarized below.

Key Findings

Small business employer barriers to ADA compliance and disability inclusiveness vary within Region 2 (New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands).

  • Different contextual factors, such as company size, access to resources, and prior experiences influence an employer's ability and/or motivation to comply with the ADA.
  • About 45% of employers have never received an accommodation request, or don't know if a request was made, in the last 2 years.
  • Over 60% have a policy and a clear process for accommodation, but for many this amounts to a sentence in an employee handbook.
  • 23% do not include the requesting employee in the process.
  • The business owner typically makes the final decision about accommodation.

Providing workplace accommodations is challenging. The top five reported concerns:

  1. The cost of accommodation
  2. Poor communication among parties involved
  3. The employee does not understand the accommodation process, such as what to ask or what the company can provide.
  4. Challenges in determining the type of accommodation needed
  5. Organizational staff does not understand the accommodation process

Barriers to including people with disabilities in small businesses were found in three areas:

Small business employers lack ADA-related knowledge
  • They have heard of the ADA, but do not know how disability is defined by the ADA.
  • They have limited understanding of accommodations.
  • They have limited experience with different types of disabilities.
  • They are not sure how to implement a proper accommodation process/policy.
  • They don't know where to find resources about the ADA.
Small business employers’ fear and stigma is a significant barrier to disability inclusiveness
  • Misconceptions about the cost of employing individuals with disabilities and anxiety about accommodation costs influence an employer's decision to hire and accommodate individuals with disabilities.
  • Negative attitudes and beliefs toward people with disabilities influence the accommodation process and implementation.
Small business employers lack internal policies and processes to implement disability-inclusive practices
  • The size of a formalized policy in small organizations often ranges from one sentence to a couple of paragraphs.
  • Informality is a common theme across policy and practice among small businesses. Structure of the Title I implementation is often developed on an as needed basis. Small business employers shared a desire for having (1) a clear and straightforward accommodation procedure and (2) training to promote the employer's and employees' understandings of the ADA.

Small business employers need different interventions

  • Most ADA-related learning happens when HR staff or leadership receives an accommodation request.
  • Small business employers seek supports in simple process development, checklists, and template forms with jargon-free examples, which they can use when receiving a request.

Everyone in small business needs more information about the ADA

The top five information needs of HR staff and leadership:
  1. How to accommodate different types of disabilities
  2. The types of disabilities that are covered by the ADA
  3. Legal advice on the ADA
  4. How to document accommodation requests
  5. How to develop an accommodation process
The top five information needs of managers and other employees:
  1. What can be asked of an applicant or employee about their disability
  2. How to recognize when an employee discloses a disability
  3. How to respond to an accommodation request
  4. How disability is defined under the ADA
  5. Their organization's accommodation process


Tools to support ADA implementation and disability inclusiveness should:

  • Offer step-by-step guidance on how to respond to accommodation requests
  • Allow flexibility and options in utilizing the tools or selecting strategies.
  • Include realistic and contextually rich case studies to bridge knowledge and practice.
  • Use jargon-free, plain language in the tools.
  • Create one-stop solutions.