COVID provided a do over for employers on the ADA, is it too late for them to realize it?

Rebecca Cokley
4 min readDec 12, 2023
A Black Woman with strawberry blonde hair in sitting at a board room table signs to a South Asian woman with black hair wearing orange

The unspoken legacy of COVID, could have been a change. It’s not too late.

The Cleveland Clinic estimated 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.

If we are to make strides towards recovering from COVID as a society, it can only be by having an open discussion about disability, who counts as disabled and what are our rights.

Most people think that the what counts as a disability under the law must be a series of specific diagnoses. That is not the case.

The ADA defines disability as, “Any mental or physical impairment which impacts activities of daily life, a history or record of such an impairment.” Those activities can vary person to person but can include learning, working, getting dressed, family caregiving, driving, walking, grocery shopping and more.

All of the conditions documented as symptoms of Long-Haul Covid, qualify as disabilities, IF they impact a person’s activities of daily life. That connection is powerful, because with that acknowledgement of disability, comes the right to reasonable accommodations. This isn’t a new normal and that language is not helpful, this is a new everything, for many people experiencing this. It means new doctors, some of which may or may not believe the patient about their symptoms or the impact on their life. It could mean navigating earned entitlement systems in which 10,000 die a year waiting for approvals. It means navigating social dynamics which often see disability as an inconvenience or a burden resulting in social and professional isolation. It means, in some cases, needing supports to do what was once easy and those may result in additional financial costs (assistive technology, grocery delivery, personal assistant services.)

A Right To Reasonable Accommodation

Asking for access to tools and resources to help you fulfill the core functions of your job, or help you maintain your coursework academically because you’re living with Long-Haul COVID, IS A RIGHT. Civil rights activists from the disability community fought for these rights (remember Crip Camp?) not just for their generation, but for people with disabilities in generations to come. You’re not asking for

  • Special treatment
  • To be held to a different standard than your peers (students or colleagues)
  • To be excused from essential functions of your job or your coursework
  • A public announcement that you’re in need of help (disability information is protected by confidentiality and schools and HR departments are restricted in sharing it) or to be turned into a pseudo ASPCA commercial complete with Sarah McLachlan soundtrack.

What you are asking for, are tools and resources that you are entitled to, by law, to help you achieve an outcome or be successful in a task or assignment. And you can ask at any point in time. If you’ve been impacted by COVID for months now, and because you were at home, didn’t need accommodations, but going back to work you will, that’s perfectly ok. The fact you haven’t disclosed so far doesn’t matter, it’s your right. But now is the time to act.

Schools and employers have a responsibility to let students (and their families) and employees know that they are entitled to accommodations under the law as they come back to school and work. They are also responsible for letting people know where to access them, and creating and atmosphere where requests for accommodations are supported and provided in an efficient manner. They’re entitled to a space where employers don’t act like the “burden” /s placed on them is greater than the need to create a culture of support for their staff.

This could look like voice to text software on a computer, a note taker for a college class, flexible work scheduling to allow for doctors visits, or telework. It’s important to remember that these are rights, not special treatment.

That said, schools and employers expecting people to come back to work and learn, need to send out information about accessing accommodations or the “return to COVID” will be a fundamental disaster. Many have chosen NOT not to do this, to sweep disability under the rug yet again, as they’ve done so many times, and people will either return, and a segment of them will not be the same, will not feel like they are in an environment that supports them accessing their rights and the will likely struggle and leave. Or schools and employers could embrace it and welcome back workers and students with pride and support.

The choice is theirs. I’d like to believe they will take it. But tendency of this country to not learn from their mistakes does not give me hope.



Rebecca Cokley

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.