It’s no secret COVID-19 has disrupted labor markets around the world. Here in the United States, by early May 2020, over 36 million Americans had filed for unemployment benefits, a figure comparable to unemployment during the Great Depression of the 1930s, according to the London School of Policy and Economics’ United States Centre. It is evident that most individuals in the workforce have been affected by the pandemic, with those in the disability community being particularly impacted. For example, as reported in a Syracuse University article, employment rates between March and April 2020 decreased by 18% among the general population, but by 24% among workers with disabilities.
In times of crisis, marginalized and vulnerable populations are often the most adversely affected, and it is clear COVID-19 is no exception to the rule. From losing support and services that made it possible to maintain employment before the pandemic and health care concerns to facing barriers to re-entering the workforce and more, the employment challenges the pandemic has imposed upon people with disabilities are very real and far-reaching. However, people with disabilities in the workforce have also experienced some positive aspects of the change, especially in regard to normalizing certain accommodations and opening the door for solutions that have been long sought-after.
Both the disadvantages and benefits for individuals with disabilities in the workforce represent a complex topic that has been a part of the disabled community and disability studies for years. The pandemic presented the right set of circumstances to bring many of these issues to the forefront of more mainstream workforce consideration. Because these issues have been impacting those with disabilities long before 2020, it is critical to build upon the positive changes and work to dismantle the negative aspects of the workplace that have been highlighted during the pandemic.
It may seem counterintuitive, but the pandemic has brought about positive workplace changes for many individuals with disabilities. The two most common changes are the normalization of working from home and the ability for employees to have a more flexible schedule. While integrating these actions into daily life on such a large scale is relatively new for most employers and employees, the adoption of these accommodations is something employees with disabilities have been actively pursuing for a long time. The shift in how employers use and view remote work has been especially impactful.
“For the longest time, people with disabilities were told that showing up at your desk every single day was an essential function of all sorts of jobs, even jobs that were exclusively on the computer,” said Emmanuel Smith, an advocate at Disability Rights Iowa. Smith focuses on barriers to employment people with disabilities face and helps them advocate for their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). “Now, I think it’s really normalized remote work, and it will be very difficult for these companies that have remote worked for the better part of the year to deny this accommodation to people who need it in the future.”
Marissa Ditkowsky, an attorney with an extensive background in both legal research and casework at the intersection of employment and disability, can personally attest to the benefits of remote work.
“Before COVID-19, I had really been pushing myself to go into work physically a lot of days, and that was really a burden on me,” Ditkowsky said. “The commute was a lot, and by the time I would get to the office, I would be drained. Now, I am actually far more productive and in a lot less pain because I don’t have to commute. Because I’m in less pain and not dealing with all of that, I’m less distracted and more productive during the workday.”
The use of flexible hours is another accommodation that people with disabilities have struggled to obtain for some time but has suddenly been normalized by the pandemic.
“Now, it doesn’t matter as much when you’re working, you’re just getting the work done,” Ditkowsky said. “Before, when you had to come in the physical office, untraditional hours were seen as a big deal, but things are getting better in that regard now, especially for folks who have accommodations where they might need to sleep in or get things done a little earlier, people that need breaks, things like that.”
While the normalization of these two accommodations is progress in itself, it serves to pave the way for other accommodations to be more widely accepted and implemented in the workplace.
“The biggest COVID-related gain for people with disabilities is companies have radically changed what they view as possible for their employees,” Emmanuel Smith said.
The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to all their employees that require them. An accommodation is essentially a modification or adjustment within the workplace that allows employees with disabilities to successfully perform their role to the same extent as people without disabilities (remote work and flexible hours are examples, but this can include things like physical changes, policy adjustments, and assistive technologies as well). These accommodations are often simple, low-cost, and serve to benefit all employees. However, even with these advantages, and the fact that reasonable accommodations are required by law, they often carry a negative stigma and can be difficult for people with disabilities to attain or even feel comfortable requesting.
“Unfortunately, when people hear accommodation, they often think one of two things,” Smith said. “They either think of a really expensive piece of equipment, or they think of excuses that a person with a disability could use to not do their job. Neither of those examples are really illustrative of the way individuals use the ADA to protect their rights and succeed in their chosen field to the best of their ability.”
However, even though COVID-19 has provided the environment for some accommodations to become more mainstream and opened the door for others to be perceived as more achievable, the nature of remote work and the pandemic itself has exposed a need for other accommodations that still go unmet. For example, accommodations to make technology more accessible and to facilitate communication often fall to the wayside in this new digital word.
“You are using more tech and new tech, so new accessibility issues come up,” Ditkowsky said. “It can be confusing, not user-friendly, visually difficult, or inaccessible for people who are blind or low-vision. There’s also the fact that many events are happening online and are using captioning. A lot of places have started to rely on AI captioning, and a lot of the time that’s just simply not sufficient if it goes too quickly or spits out nonsense.”
The nature of the current workplace presents unique communication challenges that were more intuitive and simple before the pandemic.
“Communication may be more difficult because more effort is necessary,” Ditkowsky said. “You can’t just go to the other room and talk to people. For those whose accommodations involve clearer communication, direct instruction, those types of things, this is really difficult. It really involves a lot more effort on behalf of supervisors and employees to keep up that communication.”
Outside of these issues with accommodations, COVID-19 has negatively impacted workers with disabilities in a variety of other ways: the loss of essential health care that was tied to a job an individual no longer holds, the health risks posed by returning to work in person, a discriminatory hiring process, and the inability of those who are employed in food services, leisure, hospitality, construction, and manufacturing (all industries that have traditionally employed workers with disabilities). Although these issues are all related to the pandemic, they require solutions that go beyond the present to put a stop to negative employment practices that have continued for decades. One of the primary solutions is as simple as enforcing a law that’s already on the books: the ADA.
“First and foremost, I think you need to fully implement the ADA. The ADA was never really fully put into practice,” Smith said.
The ADA was signed into law July 26, 1990 by President George H.W. Bush with the intent to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life. However, considering that 2020 marked the 30th anniversary of the legislation, it’s concerning that large parts of the law still aren’t being realized.
Ditkowsky agreed and mentioned additional expansion of the ADA.
“There are still folks that don’t even comply with the bare minimum of the ADA, and the ADA doesn’t even go far enough,” Ditkowsky said. “It has been interpreted in such narrow ways and there are so many things that could be expanded in it.”
Aside from changing and enforcing laws, both advocates stressed the need for an attitudinal change in how people perceive hiring, working with, and accommodating their employees and co-workers with disabilities.
“I think the biggest barriers to the success of people with disabilities in the workplace are typically misconceptions,” Ditkowsky said. “Myths and misconceptions that employers have in their minds about what disabled employees bring to the table, how much things cost, what is expected of them, what the law requires, and the fact that the ADA and protections for disabled workers are treated as the ceiling rather than a floor.”
Smith sees this type of attitude frequently in his work with accommodations.
“It’s the idea that providing accommodations and having some degree of flexibility is an employer being magnanimous or generous to people with disabilities as opposed to following their legal obligation,” Smith said. “You wouldn’t praise an employer for creating a work environment that doesn’t have a lot of sexual harassment, right? That’s their legal obligation to protect their employees from those adverse impacts. Employers have an equal obligation to address accommodations and to work with people with disabilities to succeed. I don’t want them treating that as if they are doing us a favor. I want them to realize that’s a legal obligation via civil rights law, and I don’t think that awareness is really there yet.”
Although the circumstances of the pandemic may have opened the door for accommodations to become more easily implemented and accepted, as well as exposing other issues that have long been problematic for workers with disabilities, there is still a long way to go to ensure that the rights of these workers are being protected in the workplace.
Ditkowsky said, “To put it simply, I think it’s all about changing people’s attitudes, and that still needs a lot of work.”