How COVID Has Changed Work for Individuals with Disabilities

Blog: Working during COVID

As the pandemic rages on, it becomes harder and harder to find silver linings.

Yet, the health crisis has yielded certain unexpected opportunities for working-age adults living with disabilities.

Individuals with disabilities have long lobbied for employers to allow them to work from home. Remote work eliminates problems such as transportation barriers, inaccessible offices, rigid work schedules, physical and emotional stress, and the stigma some face at their workplaces.

But in many cases, employers have balked, believing that remote workers will be less productive. Their experiences with remote work during the pandemic have disproven that theory and many workers—disabled and not disabled—have found their quality of life dramatically improved by the flexibility and comfort offered by remote work.

While individuals with disabilities are grateful for the opportunity to work from home, many are frustrated that they faced so much resistance to this practice before the pandemic.

“One of the hardest things for me during this whole time has been seeing something that disabled people have been asking for for so long and told it’s not possible,” Shelby Hintze, a wheelchair user, told CNN in August. “All of a sudden, when everybody needs it, we move heaven and earth to make it happen.”

Individuals with disabilities have also pushed for more online accessibility features.

As reports: “Over the past year, Jennison Asuncion has seen apps like Zoom, a lifeline during the pandemic, expand accessibility features like automatic closed captioning. Messaging app Slack, another critical communications tool, has also become more compatible with his screen reader, which speaks aloud what’s on his phone or computer. Now Asuncion, who is blind, can more easily access his messages.”

People living with disabilities are hopeful that accommodations such as remote work and expanded accessibility features will be available long after the pandemic runs its course.

Workers with disabilities also stand to benefit from what’s being called “the Great Resignation.” With so many Americans leaving the workforce, employers are finally recognizing that people with disabilities represent an enormous and untapped talent pool. Jonathan Bennett, head of Employee Benefits at The Hartford, says the Great Resignation offers opportunities to change American work culture for the better.

“As employers across the U.S. consider the ‘new normal’ of the American workplace, they have a historic opportunity to address the barriers that too often exclude people with disabilities from the workforce. In fact, new data from The Hartford shows that an inclusive workplace culture may help retain employees of all abilities,” says Bennett.

And in more good news:

Andrew Houtenville, Ph.D., professor of economics and the research director of the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability, tells us that “the employment of people with disabilities is pushing past historic levels, as well as pre-pandemic levels.”

According to Houtenville, “the October 2021 employment-to-population ratio of 36.8 percent exceeds the September 2008 employment-to-population ratio of 32.7 percent, which is when the BLS [Bureau of Labor Statistics] first started to officially report employment figures for people with disabilities.”

Granted, these numbers are nothing to write home about—unemployment among the disabled is still ridiculously high. Still, these employment numbers are heartening since early in the pandemic, people with disabilities were losing jobs in record numbers. That trend appears to be reversing.

Could it be that more employers are recognizing the value of an inclusive workplace? We hope so!