By Brianna Johnson
As more people are vaccinated and the pressure to return to “normal” grows, we have a unique opportunity to reassess work culture and create jobs that not only embrace, but celebrate, the unique contributions of people with disabilities. As 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 that people with physical or invisible disabilities can reach their full potential .
The pandemic has highlighted many of the challenges people with disabilities face in finding and maintaining employment. However, it has also been shown that organizations and businesses can swivel as needed and create large accommodations to help maintain productivity.
People with disabilities traditionally face higher unemployment rates and chronic underemployment. But unemployment among Americans with disabilities peaked at 12.6 percent in 2020, an increase of over 5 percent from 2019 that reversed the gains seen over the past five years. In March 2020, when the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic and our daily lives came to a standstill, Americans with disabilities were one of the hardest hit – and most overlooked – groups. While unemployment in this group skyrocketed, none of the five federal COVID relief laws passed in 2020 offered explicit support to people with disabilities.
I was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a rare genetic condition that causes brittle bones, and have been using a motorized wheelchair since I was just three years old. In July 1990, less than three months after I was born, the groundbreaking Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed that made the lives of millions of Americans like me much more accessible.
In the decade of working I’ve come across inaccessible toilets, shelves I couldn’t reach, and doors I couldn’t open. I have also been fortunate to work for employers who were committed to my needs and viewed me as a partner in creating my most accessible workplace.
The best arrangements were those that allowed me to show myself as my fullest self, to be able to offer a unique perspective and empathetic approach to everything I do without constantly thinking about how the limitations are changing my physical disability could affect my ability to do my job. This is an opportunity that every person with a disability deserves.
When the pandemic forced CLASP to switch to full teleworking, our organization changed work practices to include all necessary steps to keep employees safe and get their jobs done in a challenging and unsafe time. CLASP is among the many organizations that have introduced teleworking, flexible working hours that promote work-life balance, and the use of remote technologies like Zoom – all of which can make it easier for people with disabilities to maintain employment.
The ADA offers workers and job seekers various protective measures and ensures that no one can be discriminated against on the basis of a disability in the workplace. The law also requires employers to make “reasonable arrangements” to adapt tasks and work environments so that people with disabilities can do their jobs as effectively as someone without a disability.
While changes in internal policies that encourage flexibility can enable people with disabilities to function better in the workplace, real adjustment means changing attitudes so that disability is seen as a valuable form of diversity, not a burden. While this shift benefits people with disabilities, a study funded by the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) found that employers that incorporate disabilities as part of their overall talent strategy experience significant improvements in employee retention, safety, and productivity benefit.
If our goal is to create jobs where everyone, regardless of their skills, can make a powerful contribution, we must do the hard work of creating and promoting justice, meeting people where they are, and Provide the necessary support to help them succeed. This begins by challenging previous assumptions about the importance of disability, recognizing that people with disabilities live in a world that has not yet become truly inclusive, and encouraging them to speak up about what is specific to them Needs works and what doesn’t.