In recent years, a focus on workers' ability, rather than impairment, has guided disability management services. However, a challenge with the notion of 'ability' is identification of the border between ability and inability. This article considers this gray zone of disability management in the case of a workers' compensation vocational retraining program for injured workers in Ontario.
In-depth interviews and focus groups were conducted with a purposive sample of 71 participants who were directly involved with the vocational retraining process. Workers in the program had on average incurred injury 3 years earlier. Procedural and legal documents were also analyzed. Principles of grounded theory and discourse analysis guided the data gathering and analysis.
A program focus on worker abilities did not allow for consideration of unresolved medical problems. Concepts such as maximum medical rehabilitation distracted attention from workers' ongoing chronic and unstable health situations, and incentive levers to employers directed some of the least capable workers into the program. As well, communication pathways for discussing health problems were limited by rules and provider reluctance to reveal problems. Therefore, workers completing the program were deemed 'employable', while ongoing and problematic health conditions preventing employment remained relatively uncharted and invisible.
This study reinforces how the shift in disability management paradigm to a focus on ability and return to work requires consideration of environmental conditions, including policies and programs and implementation. A focus on the environment in which worker ability can be enacted might be as important as a focus on improving individual worker characteristics.