Kate Kelly

(WOMENSENEWS)–Most Americans think of Labor Day as part of the last long weekend of summer. But as one might guess, Labor Day was started as an outgrowth of the labor movement.

Honoring workers with a day dedicated to them is admirable, but creating a more inclusive workplace is also very important, and few people stop to think about how it has come to pass that disabled (now often called differently abled) people became part of the work force. (People with disabilities were often totally dependent on their families or were expected to beg for food or money).

Today it is fitting to tip our hats to a woman who contributed to making the workplace as inclusive as possible.

Workplace Pioneers

Lillian Moller Gilbreth, who was born in 1878 and died in 1972, with her husband Frank, were pioneers in creating a work environment that included disabled people. Partners in marriage and in business, the Gilbreths worked as management consultants doing time-motion studies–studies that were used to decrease the number of motions to perform a task, thereby increasing productivity–for various clients.

The early 20th century was a time when companies were examining the progress made by the assembly-line management style initiated by Henry Ford, and time-motion consultants were viewed as key to planning how companies could use their employees most efficiently. As injured veterans began to return from World War I, the Gilbreths recognized the need to incorporate workers with disabilities in the workplace and added into their work ideas how to help these men become productive members of society.

Frank and Lillian advocated for those with disabilities and stressed the importance of matching the job to the worker. Some of their studies focused on identifying the types of tasks that these workers could best perform. They also realized the importance of rehabilitating injured soldiers (and others), so they advocated that the those with disabilities be given special training. Their book, "Motion Study for the Handicapped," which was released in 1917, was the first book to deal in-depth with occupational rehabilitation.

The results of their studies were impressive enough to attract the attention of the government and their work was incorporated in the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1918, which Congress passed to meet the needs of disabled veterans.

Breaking New Ground

Lillian’s efforts deserve particular attention because she broke new ground both professionally and personally. Women were rarely afforded decent jobs in the workplace in the early 20th century, and Frank’s early death in 1924 meant that Lillian carried on their consulting work for many years without him.

She continued to incorporate the needs of people with disabilities in much of what she did, adding a chapter to a homemaking book on the needs of homemakers with disabilities. She also worked with General Electric to redesign home appliances with the people with disabilities in mind. In addition, Lillian was actively involved in the Girl Scouts, where she encouraged leaders to take into account the needs of the scouts and potential scouts with disabilities.

Family life was also important to Lillian, who was a role model for work-life balance. The Gilbreths had 12 children, and in 1948 two of her children documented their family life by writing the well-known book, "Cheaper by the Dozen."

Frank and Lillian were unique in recognizing that even though the problems of people with disabilities were physical, it was essential to also address their self-esteem and sense of purpose. Their work went far to help build self-esteem because it provided ways for people with disabilities to take care of themselves–something that is vital to every human being.

Kate Kelly is a writer and speaker. She has written a six-volume history of medicine for Facts on File Publishers, in addition to 35 other books. http://www.katekelly.com