COVID gives Business a Mulligan on the ADA

The unspoken legacy of COVID, could be a change in disability inclusion .

A Black Deaf woman with strawberry blonde tightly cropped hair and a black blouse is talking to a South Asian woman wearing a orange tunic, at a conference table.

The Cleveland Clinic estimates that 1/3 of COVID survivors may be long-haulers, individuals who experience long-term symptoms of the virus. These range from brain fog, cardiac damage, respiratory distress, depression and other mental illnesses in addition to the striking similarity to Myaglic Encephalomyelistis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Given that over 30 million people in the United States alone have contracted the coronavirus, that means approximately 10 million people trying to figure out their lives now with new diagnoses, as long-haulers living with a variety of health conditions. That’s on top of an additional one in three diagnosed with mental illness.

Headlines about the state of the economy reiterate how there are more jobs than workers looking for employment. That the “Great Resignation” has shifted attitudes about employment in ways that may last for decades. As the conversation on return to work continues, it must address that a large number of people coming back into the office, are coming with new diagnoses. And those conditions, considered disabilities under the law, entitle employees to accommodations.

The ADA has largely been treated by the business sector as a burden. Whether it be the architectural standards which require doorways to accommodate wheelchairs, signage for offices and bathrooms to be placed at a specific height, captioning for videos and webinars, or Title I which covers anti-discrimination protections and provisions of reasonable accommodations for employees. People with Disabilities make up roughly 20 percent of the population, but only 39% of them have disclosed their disability to an employer (HBR), and that was prior to the coronavirus. In a recent piece for Refinery 29, Wendy Lu discussed the significant stigma faced by people with disabilities when disclosing, and how employers can make it easier by inquiring what accommodations needs a prospective applicant could have early on in the interview process.

But it’s not only in the interview where the discussion can happen. Employees may disclose a disability at any point of the hiring/employment process. Someone could be decades into a job and have previously not disclosed, but may now, given a recent change in symptoms or learning techniques to accommodate them better while working from home.

Disabled people have never existed in a space and time where the goals of the ADA have been embraced, let alone fully realized and enforced.

Employers should see the ADA as and integral part of their post-covid relaunch.

This would mean ensuring that every employee, even those without disabilities be informed that the return to work is happening in conjunction with a discussion of how do we work best. As the world shifted to telework overnight, it seems like a given that increased flexibilities about in-person work are here to stay. But this discussion is so much broader than just that.

Employee Resource Groups are a critical resource for support for staff, and information for management. If an organization does not have a disability/chronic illness ERG yet, now is the time to start one. If one is already in place and thriving, employers should look to them as a source of information about what supports, services or changes could be made to be made to support staff with disabilities and chronic illnesses (and families member who support people in the disability community).

HR and all management could use a refresh training on the Americans with Disabilities Act and how to move from an attitude of compliance to one of success.

What would it mean for staff to want to talk to Human Resources about their accommodation needs?

What if staff making accommodation requests found a solution oriented partner instead of someone who treats workers with disabilities as a burden?Companies can expand their thinking about accommodations to a curb cut approach — thinking about what are modifications to the workplace that benefit not just disabled employees but all employees. Accommodations like professional grade captioning for virtual meetings and events helps not only Deaf or hard-of-hearing employees, but everyone you meet with, in allowing better tracking of conversations and a record of discussion.

What if leadership openly talked and transparently talked about the use of accommodations as an asset for the organization, and worked to create a workplace that allowed all staff to bring their whole selves to the table?

This is also an unprecedented opportunity for management and senior staff to uncloak, or disclose their disability. According to the Valuable 500, within the Financial Times Stock Exchange 100, there are currently no CEO’s who identify as disabled. As Marian Wright Edelman says, “it’s hard to be what you cannot see” — so until senior management starts identifying as disabled, employees with disabilities will struggle too. (I grew up with the expectation of working in politics because I saw EEOC Commissioner Paul Steven Miller do it)

The ball is in employers courts on how to move forward with returning to work, but access to supports in the aftermath of COVID is what will bring people back to the office. And it’s what will help them succeed there. The alternative, in continuing to bury and stigmatize disability inclusion and accommodation requests may in a surge of people quitting their jobs because the world has changed, but their workplace has not.

COVID recovery is not possible without disability acceptance.

Rebecca Cokley is a philantropic buffalo, 3 x Obama Appointee, writer, pundit, & activist who doesn’t believe anyone should wait over 30 yrs for civil rights.