2020 – “Increasing access and opportunity”: A commemorative year in the disabilities world

By Stacey Spencer • Jewish Inclusion Program Manager

What comes to mind when you think of the year 2020 for people with disabilities? In the midst of change and uncertainty we are experiencing during the global pandemic, there are two important milestone anniversaries in the disability world that needs to be highlighted. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Additionally, this month also marks the 75th observance of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), which runs through the end of October.

First, a little background about why the ADA and the NDEAM were created in the first place.  According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the ADA – signed into law on July 26, 1990, by President George H.W. Bush – is a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that works to increase the inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of community life, including employment.

Stacey Spencer

“Ensuring that America’s workplaces continue to include and accommodate people with disabilities will be an important part of our economic rebound,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia. “Looking ahead, the Department will remain focused on the policies that led to a strong economy and record-low unemployment rates for persons with disabilities prior to the pandemic. A vigorous economic rebound and job growth will, alongside the Americans with Disabilities Act, increase access and opportunity for Americans with disabilities.”

According to Jennifer Sheehy, the Deputy Assistant Secretary leading the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), U.S. Department of Labor, “The ADA ushered in a new era of opportunity for Americans with disabilities. Instead of being excluded from opportunities to contribute their skills and talents, Americans with disabilities gained access to places and public services, such as employment and training programs, that were not possible before the ADA.”

Each October, NDEAM celebrates America’s workers with disabilities and reminds employers of the importance of inclusive hiring practices. In 1945, Congress declared the first week of October “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.” In 1962, the word “physically” was dropped to include individuals with all types of disabilities. Congress expanded the week to a month in 1988 and changed the commemoration to National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

“People with disabilities are experienced problem solvers with a proven ability to adapt,” Sheehy said. “Now more than ever, flexibility is important for both workers and employers. National Disability Employment Awareness Month celebrates the ingenuity people with disabilities bring to America’s workplaces.”

The U.S. Department of Labor announced that “Increasing Access and Opportunity” is the 2020 theme for October’s annual observance of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). Does this hold true? Let’s take a closer look at how the pandemic has effected employment for people with disabilities.  

For all of the progress we have made for the last 75 years since the onset on NDEAM, it may be that the greatest evolution is just occurring now, during this pandemic. So how does working remotely from home impact employees with disabilities?

According to the 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, just over 19% of people with self-identified disabilities are employed. Succeeding in the workplace is not easy for employees with physical or mental disabilities, who often face discrimination. But could working from home open the door to employing people with disabilities and be a silver lining or a “leveling of the playing field” during the pandemic?

Working from home has become a new normal for many of us during the pandemic. While this clearly has some downsides (and I am sure we can all relate to those), people with disabilities may benefit greatly. One of the advantages of working remotely for people with disabilities is avoiding the commute to their job, which can sometimes mean a long and stressful process of finding public transportation that is wheelchair accessible, which can take an inordinate amount of time and energy.  Additionally, being able to work from their own home environment that is already designed for their individual needs can mean more job satisfaction and productivity throughout the workday.

“This is an opportunity for us to really create, or future-proof, sustainable work for people with disabilities, and with the success of remote work thus far, it’s likely that there will be increased opportunities for individuals with disabilities,” said Wendi Safstrom, executive director of the Society for Human Resource Management Foundation. I hope she is right about that. This positive employment trend for people with disabilities during the pandemic will lead to more long-term changes in the workforce that in turn could spur employers to be more creative in providing accommodations and other supports, allowing workers with disabilities to benefit moving forward.

People with disabilities may now find the world to be more accessible to them. Even after we go back to our “old normal” after the pandemic subsides, do you think employers will still offer their employees remote policy options, realizing that it can benefit both their employees and their company? After all, working remotely can be more than just a perk for high-performing teams in an office setting. It can be essential to making work more accessible, fair and profitable for everyone.

It will take some work and commitment, but let’s ride the wave and continue increasing the access and opportunity for people with disabilities and advance their employment progress made over the last 75 years—during and after the pandemic.  

For more information contact Stacey Spencer, Jewish Inclusion Program Manager, at sspencer@jfcsmpls.org or 952-542-4845.