Could the lessons of the pandemic be a boon to workers with disabilities?

Working from home has proved liberating for many workers with disabilities, and many hope the flexibility of work during the pandemic have staying power. shironosov via Getty Images/NPR
Female freelance programmer in modern headphones sitting in wheelchair and using computers while coding web game at home

August 26, 2021 | Hosted by David Brancaccio

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Before the pandemic, Britney Wilson’s daily commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan took her two hours. She has cerebral palsy, and uses arm crutches and a motorized scooter to get around. Her subway stop isn’t accessible, and she has to specially arrange to take a paratransit bus. Just this week, she did the commute again for the first time in nearly two years. She said it was an annoying reality check.

“I was just like, ‘Oh, okay. Back to this again, here we go again,’” Wilson said.

More than 61 million Americans live with disabilities, and many of them have been asking for more flexible work arrangements for decades. Now, as employers contemplate a return to the office, and re-think workplaces, there’s an opportunity to make offices, both virtual and in-person, more accessible.

“We don’t want a ‘back to normal.’ Normal was was never enough,” said Maria Town, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities. “I hope that employers are really examining what has worked well during this period of time, and how to continue that.”

Britney Wilson, with the long commute, is director of the Civil Rights and Disability Justice Clinic at New York Law School. She said she likes being there with her students in person, and also likes that she has a flexible schedule, where she’ll be able to work from home sometimes.
“We need to give people what it is they need. If what you need is to come into the office twice a week, and work from home the other three days, you should be able to do that,” said Wilson. “If you don’t need to come into the office at all, then don’t do that.”

The technology companies have adopted to enable remote work has also benefited many people with disabilities. Moeena Das, the chief of staff at the National Organization on Disability, is deaf. Prior to the pandemic, if she was in a meeting, a stenographer also joined to transcribe what people were saying. That took some advance planning. Now, Das uses automatic captioning in Zoom, meaning she can jump on last-minute calls.

“It’s been really incredibly liberating to be in any context and say, ‘Yep, I can hop right in,’” Das said.

Das, who also lip reads, says it’s also good to think about how in-person office policies, such as mask mandates, will affect people with disabilities.

“What might that mean for employees who might have a cognitive disability, or employees who might be deaf?” said Das. “I’m really thinking holistically about how the office is organized.”

One concern is that more virtual interactions will make disabilities less visible in the workplace, said Maria Town of the American Association of People with Disabilities.

“During the pandemic, because people only see me from the bust up, I have to be more explicit about my disability in different ways than I would in an in-person environment,” said Town, who has cerebral palsy.

Town is concerned that remote work, which she believes should definitely be an option, will become the default for disabled people, especially those who require more involved accommodations in the workplace.

“Our motivation and commitment to actually making our physical environments and in-person interactions accessible will be reduced,” said Town.

Given everything we’ve learned during the pandemic, employers have a great opportunity to hire more disabled workers. Of the working age population, only about 30% of disabled Americans are employed.

“Getting back to pre pandemic levels is not enough,” said Taryn Williams, assistant Secretary for Disability Employment Policy at the US Department of Labor.

Plus, employers are missing out on a ton of talent.

“I say all the time, we’re the ultimate innovators,” said Britney Wilson of New York Law School. “Our whole lives are about figuring out how to adjust and to do things, even when they’re not set up for us to do so.”

No judgment, just empathy: How to approach disabilities in a post-COVID era


The Olympics may be over, but the Paralympics, with its 240 incredible men and women representing the United States, are in high gear. What a proud and thrilling time for our country as we witness our best athletes excel in their sport and, in the best of circumstances, win a medal.

Despite everything going on in the world, the Summer Olympics and the Paralympics give us a sense of belonging and a chance to connect with our family, friends and co-workers as we discuss the most memorable moments.

Simone Biles and Noah Lyles
Simone Biles and Noah Lyles (Getty/Getty Images)

What strikes me as an even bigger moment for our nation was when athletes like gymnast Simone Biles and runner Noah Lyles decided to share their own personal mental illness stories with the world. It was a stark reminder to us all about the pressures these athletes feel every day. Most likely, we will soon see more stories about athletes experiencing anxiety resulting from the added pressures of competition. (According to the International Paralympic Committee, paralympic athletes are likely to experience a range of stressors that will compromise their personal well-being.)

I was diagnosed nearly a decade ago with PTSD, so I know first-hand how difficult it is to say, “I need help” or “I am struggling.” It’s public figures like Biles and Lyles, and former gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps who show real courage and give others the confidence to publicly disclose their mental health issues. They show us there is no shame in that. Phelps even started a foundation that focuses on support for healthy living, and a central component is mental health.

According to Mental Health America, 44 million adults have a mental illness and nearly one in five American adults will have a diagnosable mental health condition in any given year. Unfortunately, those numbers will most likely continue to rise as our country continues to grapple with racial injustice, unemployment and the uncertainty about the future caused by the global pandemic.

As businesses bring people back to the office, they are keenly aware that some employees will have difficulty adjusting to the “next normal” in the workplace, juggling expectations at home and in the office.
Company managers need to keep in mind that they may be supervising “long haulers,” or people who have long-term mental health and physical issues caused by COVID-19. This not only could have an impact on employees but on a business’ work productivity. Anxiety and depression are real, and as a nation, we need to take action and help each other. It may be challenging to deal with the stigma of those mental illnesses, but the consequences of not acting — lost productivity, lost workdays, and in the extreme, suicide — are far greater.

We need to have honest conversations about these issues in the workplace. We need to make sure our colleagues are okay if they seem to be suffering. And we need to train managers, those involved with employee assistance programs and all co-workers in how to spot anxiety and depression and how to help those who seem to be suggesting that they might need help.

The paralympics may be over in a couple of weeks, but let’s not end the important conversation that came out of these international games this year. I urge all of us to not judge others, have empathy and keep helping our friends and family who are suffering from mental illness. We as a country win when everyone knows they can open up about their mental health challenges.

Glazer is president of the National Organization on Disability.