The Evolving Employment Panorama for Individuals with Disabilities: New Alternatives in an Period of Office Adaptation
October 2020 marked the 75th celebration of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), administered annually by the Department of Labor to ensure employers include and receive disabled workers in the workplace. This year’s NDEAM is particularly noteworthy as it coincides with the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Disabled Americans Act. It also has a deeper meaning in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing national reflection on issues of diversity, opportunity and social justice.
More than one in five Americans live with a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and although Title I of the ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against people with disabilities, disabled workers remain severely underrepresented in the workforce. Although employment statistics for people with disabilities have gradually improved over the past few decades, the pandemic reversed many of those increases, and in recent months has raised the unemployment rate for disabled workers to nearly double the national average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Despite the plight of the pandemic for so many American workers, and workers with disabilities in particular, its upheavals have also opened up opportunities for change and greater labor market participation as the nation recovers. In recent months, a large number of people have moved from home to work out of necessity. As a result, many have discovered some of the barriers to entry and logistical challenges that workers with disabilities have long faced. In turn, ensuring job accessibility for a much wider segment of the American workforce has quickly become a priority in an effort to lessen the disruption caused by the virus and physical separation.
This newly discovered obligation of accessibility for able-bodied workers can ultimately also benefit workers with disabilities. The increase in the number of people working from home and connecting remotely has helped more people from all backgrounds have access to work environments that may previously have been banned. For example, working from home can provide opportunities for people with mobility or visual impairments who may otherwise have difficulty traveling to a remote office. Likewise, an employee with a speech or hearing impairment can thrive in meetings held through online platforms that use chat boxes to make questions easier and communicate with colleagues.
As workplace routines change, savvy employers will realize that anyone with the right facilities and environment can do the work required and that in many cases, being physically present in an office may no longer be an essential task. Organizations may rethink outdated practices and routines, realizing that jobs are not necessarily made difficult by people doing them differently. In these challenging times in particular, employers can better gauge the determination and creativity that people with disabilities bring to their work. Indeed, disabled workers are innovative by nature and routinely improvise solutions and workarounds to meet the demands of the workplace and life in general. Workers with disabilities can bring creative thinking and unique perspectives that can help companies become more productive and competitive in an uncertain environment.
This underscores a broader point that many companies understand: workplace diversity is not just a matter of social responsibility or obligation, but an asset that makes companies stronger. Companies that want to attract and promote more workers with disabilities can use practices from their diversity and inclusion programs. This may include expanding recruiting efforts, a cultural commitment to inclusion, promoting disability awareness to improve trust and communication for workers with disabilities, and consistently prioritizing accessibility to ensure that employees with disabilities can reach their full potential . Any inconvenience or expense a company may incur in maintaining accessible spaces or accessible technology is typically minimal and is well outweighed by the blessings of a diverse workforce. Companies that carefully and consistently equip their employees with the tools and accommodations they need create a win-win situation as individual employees can reach their full potential and together help their companies achieve a market advantage.