“Normal” Never Worked For Disabled People — Why Would We Want To Return To It?
By almost every standard, “normal” workplaces were inaccessible.
Upon graduating from my master’s program, I made a promise to myself: I would apply to as many jobs as possible and take any interviews that came my way. I sent out hundreds of applications, but nothing materialized. I felt like I was hurling myself against a wall, over and over again, with nothing to show for it. Then, I decided to make one change to my applications. Instead of disclosing my disability, I omitted any mention of it. After six months of silence, I was able to secure six interviews in one week.
I had never hidden my disability on job applications before this. It seemed to make no sense. What was I going to do, show up to the interview with my crutches and claim “whoopsie” as my defense? Legally, employers are required not to ask about my disability, but that’s not how these things usually play out. As my personal experiment demonstrated, there’s unsaid discrimination in hiring, including at the application level. Getting those interviews was one thing, and showing up was another. No matter what I disclosed on my application, I could never ensure whether a prospective employer’s building was accessible. Then if I actually got the job, I couldn’t be confident that the company would agree to the accommodations I’d need. There were obstacles everywhere.
Experiences like this one have made me well aware of the difficulties faced by disabled people in the job market, but as I watched the professional world adjust to stay-at-home orders due to the pandemic, acknowledging this struggle started to feel like I was gaslighting myself. If it had always been possible to make these changes so quickly, why hadn’t they ever been done before this past year? Like many other disabled people, I was reminded that the same companies that had once refused to be accommodating were now doing so to protect their bottom lines. And rather than seek guidance from disabled people — who were best-equipped to usher the country through this process — society further ignored us and treated us as expendable. This has persisted even as the pandemic is disabling approximately 25-30% of those diagnosed, whether they were symptomatic or not.
The workforce has traditionally excluded disabled people, and the pandemic has made this more apparent for large portions of the community. There are 61 million disabled Americans, and according to a report by The Department of Labor, unemployment stood at 7.8% among this cohort at the start of last year. It reached a high of 18.9% during the first surge in April 2020, compared to a rate of 14.3% for non-disabled workers. Furthermore, the report notes that from February 2020 to July 2020, there was a 15.1% decline in jobs with limited telework for disabled workers, in relation to 12.1% of non-disabled workers. Disabled people are the most economically and socially impacted group of the pandemic, and based on data from previous recessions and economic downturns, they are less likely to return to the workforce after layoffs.
Given these statistics, and the existing obstacles involved with obtaining a job, Kayle Hill was able to find work at the start of the pandemic. They applied for a job that was not listed as remote, but because of stay-at-home orders, their new office went remote and they were hired. “Once they confirmed they'd have remote positions, I was just so elated because that meant access for me in more ways than one,” Hill says. “I'm immunocompromised and at high risk for COVID, but with chronic pain and fatigue it also makes it difficult to be in-person to begin with.”
Working remotely has helped disabled people like Hill gain accommodations during the last year, but for many other disabled people, the hurdle blocking inclusion is internet access itself. According to the NCBI, only 54% of people with disabilities regularly access the internet, whereas 81% of those without disabilities do so. This hasn’t just affected employment during the pandemic, but has also been a hitch in things like registering for vaccines. Additionally, once disabled people are able to be online, there are no assurances that they can use the web pages they seek. According to Web Accessibility Guidelines, 99% of U.S.-based websites are inaccessible to users with disabilities. It is a reasonable assumption to make, then, that the web-based services companies use for many of their administrative and client management tasks also have issues with accessibility. Even video chat platforms like Zoom and Google Hangouts struggle to make automatic captioning reliable enough for disabled users.
Jaipreet Virdi, a Deaf professor of medical history at The University of Delaware, was more prepared than her colleagues to shift to a remote-teaching style, having already done so prior to the pandemic. “I spent most of summer 2020 researching and testing accessibility parameters of various platforms — particularly captioning — to help myself and colleagues at my university globally incorporate best practices for accessibility teaching as we prepared for the fall semester online,” she says. Virdi notes that even with captioning features available on platforms like Zoom, it is difficult to get others to utilize them. “It upsets me considerably that even now, after a year of familiarity with Zoom, people still don’t enable captions except upon request,” she explains. “Or worse, they decide that the Zoom AI captions aren’t good enough and choose not to provide any replacement except a promise to caption the recording after the fact.”
As Virdi demonstrates, people with disabilities are extremely adept at transitioning to remote work, especially because accessibility is needed whether there is a pandemic or not. And while it felt like no one was listening in the Before Times, what are the chances that non-disabled workers will listen to us now?
Workplace inaccessibility both prior to and during the pandemic boils down to one glaring flaw: Society fails to recognize the capacity disabled people have to be leaders in our chosen careers. And because we’re rarely leaders, and accessibility is often seen as only a benefit to disabled workers, those who have influence are not consistently advocating for widespread change. Accessibility looks like flexible hours and offices, inclusive internet and meetings, and the opportunity to adjust whenever necessary. The pandemic proved that everyone benefits from having options, and as long as the job gets done, there’s always a way to make it happen.
Both Virdi and Hill note that they’ve watched some of their colleagues struggle to adjust to remote work, but that this struggle hasn’t necessarily led to enlightenment about the importance of accessibility. “It's the little comments people make about how devastating it is to not be able to be in person, or how they're not having an adequate experience because it's remote, that makes me realize not only are they having a difficult time, but they also don't seem to really understand the access it's providing,” Hill says.
Disabled people are deeply concerned that all of the strides made in the past year will disappear now that many non-disabled people are moving on from the pandemic and “returning to normal.” The problem with that is “normal” doesn’t work for disabled folk, nor did it ever. When it comes to moving forward in a way that benefits all people, not just those who aren’t disabled, the greatest asset toward continued workplace accessibility will be collective memory. While it’s tempting to forget the horrors of the pandemic as mass vaccinations are underway, that can’t be allowed to happen—not at the expense of hundreds of thousands of lives. And the burden of remembering these tools of inclusion and implementing further changes accordingly can’t fall on disabled people. We have always blazed a path of innovation out of necessity, but everyone needs to invest in employment accessibility. The fewer obstacles there are to employ anyone who’s eager for a job, from the application phase forward, the better it is for all.
As Virdi notes, “If there’s one thing that has been consistently, universally learned this pandemic year, it is that access is only made possible when it benefits able-bodied workers. All other times, it seems, it is an inconvenience.”
Accessibility can’t be viewed as an inconvenience any longer, not when it is so imperative — just as it has always been.