As the Sears Merchandise Group's "help desk" manager for the Family Footwear Departments of the company's stores, Norris receives about 4,000 such inquiries every month, either by phone or e-mail. "It's fun to talk to the people in the stores. I know what it's like out there," Norris says, recalling his days as a Sears shoe salesman. "Most of the questions are simple, but they all need an answer. If I can't answer a question, I send it along to the line replenisher."
A typically busy day for a Sears headquarters manager, right? Well, almost. Norris handles the daily demands and routines of an important job while living with a major disability: he's been a quadriplegic since 1986 when doctors removed a spinal tumor, the first of 12 surgeries Norris endured during a 20-month hospital stay. Despite his circumstances, Sears, his employer since 1968, invited him back to work--before the ADA or the Family Medical Leave Act were the law.
Before losing the use of his arms and legs, Norris learned many skills during his career with Sears. He worked his way up through several promotions until he was traveling the world, buying shoes for the company. He was physically fit and active, and ran in the 1984 Chicago Marathon.
Now a Senior Systems Specialist in Family Footwear, Norris has become a familiar figure at the Merchandise Group's headquarters in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, negotiating his way along the gray-carpeted corridors in his motorized wheelchair. "It was difficult to come back, but important. Many people in my situation have low self-esteem. Not me. I get up every day and go to work. I'm appreciated. And I do the job as well as anyone. Actually, I ve got a big mouth, so I can do it better," Norris jokes, referring to the almost nonstop inquiries he receives at the help desk.
Norris is able to perform his job effectively largely because of a voice-activated computer and breath-controlled telephone and minor modifications of his cubicle to accommodate his motorized wheelchair. "The computer has become part of me," Norris says, "and it's not all that expensive."
"Though loyalty to a long-time employee was certainly an element of Sears' interest in bringing Tony back to the company, above all it was a good-sense, business decision. Here was a trained, proven professional with a strong contribution to make. Logic dictated that an investment in accommodations would be 'paid back' many times in productivity and the ability to utilize his expertise. And, that has been the case. Tony has been with Sears for 24 years, 6 years since his disability," said Craig Nesper, Inventory Systems Manager of the Sears Footwear Department.
Norris exemplifies Sears' philosophy of work force diversity that transcends mere ADA compliance. "We have a long-standing policy on accommodating people with disabilities that puts Sears beyond minimal compliance with ADA," says Isaac Hawkins, Sears Manager of Workforce Diversity.1 "The policy is as encompassing as it is simple--we accommodate the special needs of any qualified associate to enable that person to perform his or her job. (See "The Bottom Line on Tony Norris" below.)
"After discussing the situation with the affected employee, we select the accommodation that fits best in the specific work environment. We draw the line only in those cases in which we would change or disrupt an entire system, and in those cases, our policy is to accommodate the associate's disability by placing him or her in a comparable job.
"By keeping the policy simple, we require no interpretation. It has become so ingrained in the company that people don't necessarily keep track of every accommodation; they just do them, especially the ones that cost nothing. We've had tens of thousands of accommodations, before and since the adoption of the ADA, not all of which have been formally recorded," says Hawkins.
Post-accomodation...................................4,000 help-desk calls per month
Pre-accomodation.....................................Could not perform present job
Sears estimates that fewer than 10 percent of its associates who self-identify as disabled through the company's Selective Placement Program currently require any kind of accommodation.
The company's data on the cost of providing accommodations to Sears associates with disabilities from 1978 to 1992, presented here for the first time, are as follows:
COST OF ACCOMMODATIONS AT SEARS
Examples of higher costs for accommodations include $1,275 for a work station for an employee with a visual impairment and $16,850 to accommodate an employee who is completely blind. Specific accommodations for the latter are a braille display at $14,500, a voice synthesizer at $1,200, and software and hardware at $1,150.
Other costs for accommodations include $2,413 for work station additions (software at $2,200 and an audio-capture card at $213) for an associate with a physical disability in Illinois; $500 for a railing in a rest room to accommodate wheelchair access for an employee in Ohio; $400 for a light-controlled fire alarm system for a Kentucky employee who is severely hearing impaired; $80 for an electric stapler for an employee in South Dakota who suffers from Reynauds disease with resulting pain and lack of dexterity in her hands; and a no-cost schedule change to reduce stress for an employee in Nevada who is subject to epileptic seizures.
Sears also provided more expensive, state-of-the-art information technology accommodations that enabled groups of associates with and without disabilities to perform information-intensive jobs productively, cost effectively, and accurately. During 1993 the company spent $130,000 on information technology accommodations for 12 associates, as described in the Special Feature.