The Pandemic, ADA, and Workplace Access

By Brianna Johnson

As more people are vaccinated and pressure grows to return to “normal,” we have a unique opportunity to re-evaluate the culture of work and create workplaces that not only accommodate, but celebrate, the unique contributions of those living with disabilities. While this July marks the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the celebration of National Disability Awareness Month, our nation still has many lessons to learn and steps to take to ensure those with physical or invisible disabilities can reach their full potential.

The pandemic has shed light on many of the challenges that people with disabilities encounter while trying to find and maintain employment. But it has also shown that organizations and businesses can pivot and make large-scale accommodations as needed to maintain productivity.

People with disabilities have traditionally faced higher rates of unemployment and chronic under-employment. But unemployment among Americans with disabilities reached a high point of 12.6 percent in 2020, an increase of over 5 percent from 2019 that reversed gains from the previous five years. In March 2020, as the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic and our daily lives ground to a halt, Americans with disabilities were one of the groups most affected—and most overlooked. While unemployment among this group skyrocketed, none of the five federal COVID relief bills passed in 2020 provided explicit support to those living with disabilities.

I was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a rare genetic condition causing brittle bones, and have used a motorized wheelchair since I was just three years old. In July 1990, less than three months after my birth, the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed, making life much more accessible for millions of Americans like myself.

In the decade that I’ve been in the workforce, I’ve encountered inaccessible restrooms, shelves I couldn’t reach, and doors I couldn’t open. I’ve also had the good fortune to work for employers who have worked to meet my needs and regarded me as a partner in creating my most accessible workplace.

The best accommodations were those that allowed me to show up as my fullest self, able to offer a unique perspective and empathetic approach to all that I do without constant worry about how the limitations posed by my physical disability might affect my ability to do my job. This is an opportunity that every person with a disability deserves.

When the pandemic forced CLASP to transition to full telework, our organization changed work practices to accommodate whatever steps were necessary to keep employees safe and able to complete their work during a challenging and uncertain time. CLASP is among the many organizations that have embraced telework, flexible schedules encouraging work life balance, and the use of remote technology like Zoom – all of which can make it easier for those living with disabilities to maintain employment.

The ADA provides several protections for employees and job seekers, ensuring that no one can be discriminated against in the workplace due to a disability. The law also requires employers to complete “reasonable accommodations” to adapt tasks and work environments so people with disabilities can successfully perform their jobs to the same extent as someone living without a disability.

While changes to internal policies that favor flexibility can allow people with disabilities to function better at work, true accommodation means facilitating a shift in attitudes to view disability as a valuable form of diversity instead of as a liability. While this shift benefits those with disabilities, a study funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) found that employers who embrace disability as part of their overall talent strategy benefit from marked improvements to employee retention, safety, and productivity.

If our goal is to create workplaces where every person, no matter their level of ability, can be a strong contributor, we must do the hard work of creating and embracing equity, meeting people where they are, and providing the necessary supports to help them succeed. This begins with challenging previously held assumptions about the meaning of disability, acknowledging that those with disabilities are navigating life in a world that has yet to become truly inclusive, and encouraging them to speak up about what does and does not work for their specific needs.