Shifting Toward Inclusion: Accessible Workplaces in a World Recovering from COVID-19

by Yomi S. Wrong

October marks National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), a time to highlight the immeasurable value people with disabilities bring to American workplaces. As the nation recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic, the occasion also prompts organizations to assess how well their practices and policies assist their staff with and without disabilities to grow and thrive on the job. 

The abrupt pivot to at-home work in 2020 was a boon for people with disabilities. For the first time, employers understood what our community has always known: with the right workplace culture and support, many jobs can be performed just fine remotely. At the same time, we know the digital space is not a panacea for the myriad challenges disabled people face in the labor market.

As they plan for the post-pandemic period, many foundation leaders are assessing the last 18 months of remote work and strategizing how to emerge from this collective crisis as more inclusive organizations.

 At the Ford Foundation, this means continuing to offer programs and policies developed in response to Covid-19, such as weekly meditation and yoga sessions and hybrid work schedules.

At the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, regularly scheduled time off for staff in the form of a Wellness Day every other Friday has been instituted. Vaccinated staff may opt to go into the Chicago office through the end of 2021; the Foundation is planning an official return to office in January 2022, with two days in person and two/three days virtual (two days for Wellness Day weeks).

And at The Kresge Foundation, an upgraded air filtration system with CO2 monitoring will benefit everyone, but especially those with respiratory issues.

“I think (the pandemic) has forced us to analyze how we work in every way,’’ said Crystal Sewell, Director of Human Resources at The Kresge Foundation. 

The Covid response, initially chaotic and stressful, created the spaciousness for the foundation to deepen work in the disability inclusion space, she said. Kresge is paying closer attention to providing effective communication for people who are deaf and hard of hearing, providing materials in alternate format for people with visual disabilities, and making presentations more universally accessible.

“This pandemic has created its own curb cut,” Sewell said, referencing a disability access improvement that universally benefits everyone.

All of these shifts occurring at foundations represent a good start. But how can philanthropy go further to support the full spectrum of people’s mental, emotional, sensory and physical needs? 

We tapped leaders in the disability rights space for their expertise and guidance. 

The most impactful step foundations can take right now, they said, is to establish or amend remote work rules in order to accommodate a range of needs and life situations.

“We know that disability changes pretty frequently. Not only can anyone become disabled at any point in time, but even for people with existing disabilities the nature of those disabilities can change rapidly and day to day,’’ said Maria Town, President and CEO, American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD). 

Policies must be flexible enough to accommodate people’s lived experience. Rigid rules force employees to burn paid time off or sick leave in order to take care of themselves. This is ableist.

“I can work from bed. Lots of people over the past year and a half have worked from bed,’’ said Town, whose role is to advocate on behalf of millions of Americans currently living with a disability, as well as the untold numbers of Covid-19 survivors with newly acquired disabilities and chronic illnesses who may need workplace accommodations. “But if I’m required to come into work on Tuesday, and Tuesday happens to be the day I can’t get out of bed, let me come into work on Wednesday.’’

The 2021 NDEAM theme, “America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion”, asks that employers not forget about people with disabilities, historically the most unemployed and underemployed group.

While most disabled people work in service industry jobs that cannot be performed virtually, many roles can and should be accommodated with remote options. 

The ways we meet, too, must continue to be inclusive. Online meeting platforms have allowed more people with disabilities to contribute and engage in meaningful work. But advocates worry this mode of connection will be lost if we return to pre-pandemic ways of doing business.

“One thing we are seeing is potentially losing digital traction we gained during the pandemic,’’ said Bridget Hayman, Communications Director at Chicago-based Access Living, one of the most innovative of the nation’s 403 independent living centers. “We are seeing some meetings go back to in-person, so a lot of things that opened the door for people with disabilities, (such as) closed captioning, ASL and CART, to participate feel at risk of going away.”

Still, she said, there aren’t enough digital tools available for Access Living to shift operations completely to virtual spaces. Like many workplaces, the non-profit will implement a hybrid model this fall. This will support in-person engagement among teams and also maintain a physical space for consumers to find community.

Hayman said working from home magnified feelings of isolation for some staff, so a hybrid model makes the most sense.

“This has been a traumatizing year,’’ she said.

The organization has made therapists available to staff and this offering is in addition to the standard benefits package. Post-pandemic, Access Living’s culture will center wellness, she said. Mental health days won’t need to be planned in advance.

But as mentioned above, digital office environments don’t always work for everyone. 

“I think we are starting to see the weakness in a complete virtual office. There’s no doubt about it,’’ said Susan Henderson, Executive Director of the Disability Rights, Education and Defense Fund (DREDF). 

At DREDF, where 95 percent of staff identify as disabled, Henderson said a great deal of generative ideas are born of informal communications. Interpersonal communication and a sense of collegiality are hard to foster in virtual space.

“Seeing each other in person, in real-time instead of sending emails that somebody might read at midnight and then I don’t see until Noon the next day, it makes a difference,’’ Henderson said. 

Covid-19 has dramatically reshaped our world and our workplaces. Planning now for the future to come is smart. Planning with a disability lens is best practice. Of course, we can’t meet the needs of all disabled people in exactly the same way, so it’s best to be expansive in the options we provide and remain flexible and open to continued learning.

To help in this process, here are 5 key guidelines for disability-inclusive workplace policies and practices:

Accommodations

Employees with visible and non-apparent disabilities must be supported and encouraged to succeed. Normalize the process of requesting reasonable accommodations by having proactive and positive/affirming discussions at regular cadence, such as new hire orientation, staff meetings, performance reviews, and moments of transition such as returning from remote to in-person work.

Flexible Meeting Norms

Cameras on or off for virtual meetings? Make this optional and alert participants in advance if there are specific times when they must have their cameras on. Understand that we all have bodies that need attention, so eating or making physical adjustments during meetings is OK.

Avoid Segregation

Yes, virtual work is a big advantage for most people with disabilities. But don’t make this the default for disabled employees because it seems to be the easiest option. Like everyone, disabled people benefit from “face time” and informal office relationships, such as lunches and after-hours gatherings.

Recruit and Invest in People with Disabilities

Are you merely funding disability or are you building inclusive environments where people with disabilities can contribute at every level of your organization?

Consult with Disability Subject Matter Experts

Need more tools to advance inclusion? Hire experts in the field of disability employment, inclusion, diversity, and belonging to help you get there.


Yomi S. Wrong is a disability rights leader and justice dreamer who works at the intersection of liberation, disability inclusion and health care equity. She is the former Executive Director of the Center for Independent Living, the landmark Berkeley, CA-based organization that launched the worldwide independent living movement. Previously, Yomi worked as a reporter for various newspapers, including the Pulitzer-prize winning Orange County Register and San Jose Mercury News.