Recently, I had a friend who needed a piece of assistive technology as a reasonable accommodation at work. They were met with a huge amount of resistance from their employer. The objection was that the mobility device they needed to get around their workplace was personal equipment, unlike other kinds of accommodations that might be seen as part of their work environment. In other words, the employer wanted to make a distinction between a device that a person uses as an individual and an accommodation like a ramp or mechanical door opener, which is built into the literal structure of the workplace and not something someone takes with them.
Ultimately, my friend got the equipment they needed to work, but this got me thinking about whether it matters what it means for assistive technology, or really any technology, to be personal. Do we, as disabled people, have less of a right to an accommodation because it’s claimed to be personal? I think not.
First, there is the issue of whether we even can make a clear distinction between a device that is for personal use and one that is not. There are some pieces of technology that are clearly for personal use. For example, my toothbrush is one such item.
It’s not really the intimate nature of how the toothbrush is used that makes it personal, though. Using the toilet is a very private activity, but that doesn’t make it a personal use item, especially if it’s located in a public restroom. Maybe technology is only personal if it isn’t shared, then, and that is what makes my toothbrush different than a toilet. But that can’t be it either.
Many people have office chairs that are their own at work and only theirs. An office chair isn’t a personal item that any employer would balk at providing for someone. Perhaps, then, a personal item is one that only you use, but that you take with you when you leave the office, unlike an office chair. Even the portability of the item doesn’t define the concept, though. When many of us transitioned to working from home when the global pandemic disrupted our lives, many of us were provided with the equipment we needed, including and especially laptops, which we were indeed expected to use at home and that we often use elsewhere.
Taking a laptop as a good example of something that is not a personal item, then, it seems like personal technology is something that is 1) not directly needed to do your work and 2) not owned by your employer. There are many examples of this kind of personal use technology. Maybe, as a hobby, you are a collector of Pez dispensers, baseball cards or action figures. You may have a kayak you take out on the weekends. Or your thing might be a gaming PC that you play first person shooters on with your friends until the early morning hours. You could have your eye on a new gas grill that you can use to host large family cookouts. These are examples of technology your employer does not have a responsibility to provide because they are for your personal use.
There seems to be a clear line, however, between these items and something you need to perform a job function like a step stool, an ergonomic keyboard, or, yes, even an assistive mobility device. I’m not an expert on what is required by law, but if employers are going to be consistent and provide everyone what they need to get the job done, they ought not to deny assistive technology because it is supposedly for personal use.
About Joe Stramondo: Joe is an assistant professor at San Diego University and is extremely active in the disability community. Joe uses an Edge 3 Power Wheelchair to maintain his mobility and independence. In his spare time, Joe strives to be the best father he can to his children. Click here to learn more about Joe.