Assistive Technology Funding in the Workplace
Technology is key to the performance of a steadily increasing proportion of meaningful jobs in our economy. It has transformed the lives of all workers, but it has been particularly important for people with disabilities because it often represents the best way -- or the only way -- for people with disabilities to perform certain jobs that people without disabilities do in other ways. For example, a worker who is blind may need an optical character recognition system to access printed material, or a worker who is deaf may require a TDD to use the telephone.
The costs of technology are a standard component of the expenses incurred by all businesses. It's hard to imagine the firm without telephones, fax machines, photocopiers or computers.
Nevertheless, when it comes to the added on costs associated with assistive technology, such as the devices noted above, there's still considerable difficulty about how much this technology costs and who should pay.
In analyzing these questions, it is helpful to begin with the premise that assistive technology is part of the continuum of capital costs that businesses incur. For businesses that routinely budget funds for enhancing or upgrading technological capability, the novelty of some assistive technology devices and their difference from what is routinely purchased, may in some cases, be as much the cause of anxiety as the actual increased costs.
Nevertheless, to the degree that assistive devices necessary to employees with disabilities do involve extra costs, it is vital for both employees and employers to understand their respective rights and obligations. Both should also be aware of the third-party resources that exist for subsidizing these costs.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) can in some cases require employers to provide assistive technology. This occurs in the context of the Act's "reasonable accommodations" requirements, when technology constitutes the most appropriate form of accommodation for a worker with a disability. Applicable to government agencies, nonprofit organizations and businesses that employ 15 or more people, the ADA does not require the provision of accommodations that would impose an undue financial hardship upon the employer. But, assistive technology is not necessarily expensive, and it frequently represents the best solution in the workplace.
Of course employers are free to purchase assistive technology devices whenever needed. When they do, businesses should be aware that the usual range of tax benefits apply. The firm that purchases computer workstations for its employees can always deduct the costs, although sometimes issues arise concerning the period of time over which the deduction can be taken. This tax subsidization is available on precisely the same basis when a business purchases assistive devices to facilitate the work and productivity of employees with disabilities.
Small Business Tax Credit
Beyond the usual business deductions, there are additional tax advantages for firms seeking to accommodate workers with disabilities. For small businesses (defined as those with gross receipts under $1 million a year or those with 30 or fewer full-time employees) the Disabled Access Credit set forth in Section 44 of the Internal Revenue Code is of particular importance. This provision allows a business to claim a tax credit for 50 percent of its first $10,000 of ADA compliance expenses each year, above the first $250 of such expenses. In other words, a business that buys $10,000 worth of assistive technology devices for use by employees with disabilities is eligible for almost $5,000 in tax credits to subsidize the cost of "eligible access expenditures."
The business need not have been ordered to provide this technology, and no ADA complaint need have been filed. Availability of the credit does not hinge upon whether the firm would have been required to provide the equipment. Similarly, in the case of a firm with little or no taxable income for the year, it is often permissible to carry otherwise unusable portions of the credit either forward or backward to other years in which taxes are large enough to fully absorb the benefit. Still other tax provisions such as the Architectural And Transportation Barriers Deduction (Internal Revenue Code Section 190) also enhance the tax benefits available for accommodating employees with disabilities.
Finally, the Targeted Jobs Tax Credit, reenacted in the summer of 1993, provides significant tax subsidies for the wages of newly hired people from various disadvantaged groups, including people with disabilities who are referred by state Vocational Rehabilitation programs, and people receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
The Vocational Rehabilitation Program
Many individuals with disabilities enter or reenter employment with the assistance of vocational rehabilitation services provided under the auspices of state programs administered pursuant to the Federal Rehabilitation Act. It is important for disabled workers and job aspirants, as well as current and prospective employers, to bear in mind that these services can properly include the provision of assistive technology devices, or standard tools or equipment, needed for the service recipient to obtain or maintain gainful employment. The determination of services to be provided to each client is made on the basis of the "Individualized Written Rehabilitation Plan" (IWRP), but the authorizing federal statute is now very clear in requiring that assistive technology and "rehabilitation engineering services" be taken into account in formulating goals and in defining the specific goods and services to be provided.
This role of the vocational rehabilitation system is especially important in cases where an employer, in good faith, cannot make the financial commitment necessary to provide needed technology.
In this brief paper, only a few of the most important sources of workplace technology funding have been mentioned. Many other sources, ranging from work incentive provisions in Social Security Act programs to nonprofit loan funds operating in a number of states, exist but cannot be discussed here due to space limitations. For the moment workers and employers who need further assistance in this area should be aware of the technical assistance resources available to facilitate compliance with the ADA, and of the resources and information available through the more than 40 state-based programs operating pursuant to the Federal Technology Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act (The Tech Act). Information about ADA resources can be obtained from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission or the National Institute on Disability And Rehabilitation Research. Tech Act programs can be located through local advocacy or service organizations or by contacting the RESNA Technical Assistance Project in Washington D.C.
Steven Mendelsohn is the author of the 1987 book _Financing Adaptive Technology_ and of the new book, _Tax Options And Strategies For People With Disabilities,_ available from Demos Publications, at (800) 532-8663. Mr. Mendelsohn will also be editing a unique new newsletter devoted to assistive technology funding, scheduled to begin publication early in 1994. For more information write to Smiling Interface P.O. Box 2792, Church Street Station, New York NY 10008-2792 (print, Braille, cassette or DOS diskette) or call (415) 864-2220.