October 2020 was the 75th observance of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), annually administered by the U.S. Department of Labor as part of its efforts to ensure that employers include and accommodate workers with disabilities in the workplace. This year’s NDEAM is especially noteworthy given its coincidence with the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It also carries deeper significance in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing national reflection on issues of diversity, opportunity, and social justice.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one in five Americans lives with a disability, and although Title I of the ADA legally 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 in recent decades, the pandemic has reversed many of these gains, in recent months driving the unemployment rate for disabled workers to nearly double the national average, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Despite the pandemic’s hardship for so many American workers and for workers with disabilities in particular, its upheavals have also presented opportunities for change and greater inclusion in the labor market as the nation recovers. Out of necessity in recent months, vast numbers of people have transitioned to working from home. As a result, many have discovered something of the access barriers and logistical challenges that have long confronted workers with disabilities. In turn, ensuring workplace accessibility has quickly become a priority for a much broader segment of the American workforce in an effort to reduce the disruptions posed by the virus and physical separation.
This newfound commitment to accessibility among nondisabled workers can ultimately benefit workers with disabilities as well. The proliferation of people working from home and connecting remotely has helped more individuals from diverse backgrounds to access work environments that might previously have been off limits. For example, working from home may present opportunities for people with mobility or visual disabilities who might otherwise have difficulty traveling to a distant office. Likewise, an employee with a speech or hearing disability may thrive in meetings held via online platforms, using chatboxes to more easily ask questions and communicate with colleagues.
With workplace routines changing, savvy employers will realize that anyone with the right setup and environment is able to do the work required, and that in many cases physical presence in an office may no longer be an essential job function. Companies may reconsider outdated practices and routines and recognize that jobs are not necessarily made harder by people performing them a bit differently. Particularly in these challenging times, employers may better appreciate the determination and creativity that people with disabilities bring to their work. Indeed, disabled workers are innovative by nature, routinely improvising solutions and workarounds in order to meet the demands of the workplace and of life in general. Workers with disabilities can bring the sort of creative thinking and unique perspectives that can help businesses be more productive and competitive in an uncertain environment.
This underscores a broader point understood by many companies: workplace diversity is not simply a matter of social responsibility or obligation, but an asset that makes businesses stronger. Companies looking to attract and advance more workers with disabilities can leverage practices from their diversity and inclusion programs in order to do so. This can include expanding recruiting efforts, a cultural commitment to inclusion, promoting disability awareness to enhance trust and communication for workers with disabilities, and consistently prioritizing accessibility to ensure that employees with disabilities can make full use of their talents. Any inconvenience or expense that a company may incur in maintaining barrier-free spaces or accessible technology is typically minimal and vastly outweighed by the blessings of a diversely talented workforce. Companies that thoughtfully and consistently furnish their workers with the tools and accommodations they need create a win-win situation , as individual employees can rise to their full potential and can collectively help their companies to achieve a marketplace edge.