By Merrill Friedman, Sr. Director, Disability Policy Engagement from Anthem, Inc.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
I had planned to pause in 2020 to honor the ADA, thinking about what it has meant for people with disabilities and, of course, what work needs to be done to continue moving forward. I looked forward to the flurry of events, seeing people from across the country, and setting some expectations for the next 30 years. Then, we saw the onset of a pandemic, COVID-19. While I, and others here at Anthem, will absolutely include activities to mark this milestone, I find myself thinking that instead of so much focus on gaining ground, we need to worry we don’t lose any.
Exposure to COVID-19 for people with disabilities has several implications, including the threat of health care rationing, restrictions on loved ones having advocates to support them in the hospital, their DSPs and PCAs not being considered “essential workers,” or not having equitable access to PPE. This, along with the staggering unemployment rate, means we need to make sure people with disabilities do not lose the progress hard-won since the ADA was passed 30 years ago.
People with disabilities are more than twice as likely as those without disabilities to experience unemployment. And they are often among the first to lose their jobs when the economy sours; as the economy turns around, it is not necessarily those same workers who get hired back.
There are 60 million people with disabilities in the United States, and those numbers will only grow because of COVID-19. Many survivors will have lasting physical and mental health conditions, which means the unemployment figures could rise even further.
What is frustrating is that high joblessness does not have to be part of the story for people with disabilities. Given their life experiences, they can lead the way for all of us on working effectively from home. They have advocated long before the pandemic that given support, flexibility, and access to equipment and broadband, they can thrive like other employees. This has been our experience at Anthem.
We started preparing for COVID-19 early and with great thoughtfulness. By the time the pandemic was overwhelming the public and shelter-in-place orders were rolling out, 99 percent of our employees were in the process of being supported to work remotely with the tools they needed.
We made sure everyone had the resources necessary to be successful. I am very proud of what the company has done and continues to do. If an employee with a disability requires an accommodation while working from home, we provide it as we would if they were in the office. We have also ensured focus and precision in supporting people with disabilities who access their health care through Anthem plans so they can maintain access to critical supports like their providers, food, and other services.
Mental health support during the pandemic is also critical for all of our associates, who in addition to coping with stress and uncertainty in their own lives, internalize the stress and anxiety that our members share when we speak with them. We recognized that our health care services needed to be easily accessible to both associates and members and expanded telehealth and increased the options for physical, mental health, substance use, and social supports through this platform.
During Mental Health Awareness Month in May, we created #MeMinutes, a reminder for employees to think about their own self-care and to take time for themselves for the purpose of individual health and wellbeing and to better support other people. We know that we only move through this challenging time if we work together.
What has been so interesting is that many of the practices we have adopted recently have been recommended by our colleagues with disabilities for years, showing how important it is to listen to the experiences of people with disabilities.
My hope is that we continue to build on the knowledge and practice gained during this time of crisis and consider when recruiting people with disabilities that they know how to adapt to different work environments effectively with the right supports. Let’s not lose what we have learned as we have navigated the pandemic so we can continue to level the playing field toward true inclusive employment, realizing the promise of the ADA. If that happens, we will all have reason to pause and celebrate this year.
Anthem is a longtime member of the NOD Corporate Leadership Council and a sponsor of NOD’s Look Closer awareness campaign. For its exemplary disability employment practices, NOD has recognized Anthem as a Leading Disability Employer Seal every year since the award’s inception in 2016.