Return to the workplace highlights accessibility concerns for disabled employees

NEW YORK — As COVID-19 restrictions loosen and the country settles into a new normal, disability advocates have mixed feelings about the future of the workplace and public health in the U.S.

Marcie Roth, executive director and chief executive officer of the World Institute on Disability, hopes the accommodations that have been made for all workers during the pandemic continue as the world goes back to normal.

"For lots of people with disabilities, returning to normal horrifies us," Roth said. "Returning to normal means exclusion, inaccessibility, rigidity, a lack of imagination. Rather than the notion that we would be building back better ... we would really like to be building forward better."

Some accommodations have become commonplace during the pandemic -- like equipment requests, modifications to work environments and new schedules and responsibilities. Advocates are demanding that these adaptations are not only kept in place, but embraced by workplaces across industries.

Adjusting to a new normal

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Charles Catherine, who is blind, had to adjust his daily routine to the new safety precautions.

At work, his laptop's screen reader had helped him read the text displayed on the computer and he had co-workers to help him around the office.

But once the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended social isolation and Catherine was forced to stay at home, the new computer software for remote work wasn't immediately compatible with his screen reader.

However, after a few lessons on app workarounds and accessibility updates, Catherine was able to comfortably and efficiently work from home.

"We often talk about how resilient people with disabilities are, that they're problem solvers," Catherine said. "The pandemic was a great example of that."

Catherine, the associate director of special projects at the National Organization on Disability, is one of about 61 million disabled Americans who had to adjust to a world with COVID-19, according to numbers from the Department of Labor.

Catherine was lucky enough to have employers who are knowledgeable about accessibility needs, so adjustments were almost immediate.

Now, he hopes all employers can see the value in disabled workers and create safe spaces for them.

A growing disabled workforce

People with disabilities are joining the workforce in increasing numbers -- rising above pre-pandemic levels.

The disabled labor force participation rate grew to 35.4% in June, according to a report from the Kessler Foundation, a research group focused on people with disabilities, the highest participation rate for this group since July 2009.

"This has been a bright spot during the Covid-19 pandemic, as people with disabilities, perhaps out of economic necessity, remained engaged in the labor market," John O'Neill, the Kessler Foundation's director of the Center for Employment and Disability Research, said in a press release.

Roth said that when the pandemic hit, the requests disabled workers had long been fighting for became a reality once the non-disabled population was also threatened by the virus.

"We have a saying in the disability community: 'Nothing about us without us,'" Roth said. "Employers, schools, community leaders, elected officials, can't be planning for us. We need to be at the table."

COVID-19 fears remain

As coronavirus cases rise again in the U.S., disability rights activists, like Roth and Charis Hill, are asking employers to understand workers' fears concerning the ongoing pandemic.

"My life is still threatened, more so now that people are partying and pretending that there's no danger," Hill, a writer and advocate, said. "A lot of that has to do with them not even realizing the vaccines are less effective with people like me."

The delta variant of the novel coronavirus continues to ravage countries across the globe. Last week marked the fourth in a row that the number of new COVID-19 cases increased internationally, according to the World Health Organization.

Activists would like to remind others that the pandemic isn't over yet, especially for immunocompromised people.

"Everyone now knows what it's like to live with the threat of severe health issues and we've been doing that for our whole lives," Hill said. "Policywise, as we move forward, having disabled people at every table where public health decisions are made is vital for the health and safety of the world."

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