When a virtual training session with more than 50 people began recently, Cecilia Plaza’s coworker asked for closed captioning.
“The presenters started scrambling, and I Googled how to do (closed captioning) in Zoom and pasted it in the chat. And when they asked if the meeting should be restarted … I said, ‘In the spirit of inclusion, I think we should restart the meeting,’” said Plaza, who is senior director, research at ASAE Research Foundation.
“They restarted (the presentation), and they asked if someone would do the closed captioning. I volunteered to do it and I reminded everyone several times to face the camera when they speak. … And then another colleague … said, ‘If you get tired, let me know. I’ll take over.’ And it was like a group effort.”
Plaza said the incident involved an outside trainer; ASAE ensures captions are provided for all meetings and presentations.
However, many groups that make accommodations for people with disabilities to attend physical meetings may not think about accessibility for virtual meetings.
“It’s a new space for everyone, especially having to pivot so quickly because of the pandemic,” said Heba Mahmoud, senior manager of diversity initiatives at the Consumer Technology Association.
Before holding a webinar or other video session, Mahmoud advises answering the questions: “Is it accessibility friendly? How do the accessibility features work?”
Thirty years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act brought about changes in the workplace and society at large. The law was signed by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. However, many organizations—including associations—have lagged in their efforts to support both staff and members with disabilities, according to disability advocates and association executives interviewed by CEO Update. The ADA’s anniversary milestone is a good time for associations to step up their efforts, they said.
The association community “has a lot of work to do … because while the ADA has been around for 30 years, it’s still very difficult for disabled people to get into the professional and trade spaces specifically because of predetermined misconceptions about disabled people and about what we can and can’t do,” said Nell Koneczny, who was hired last year as the American Anthropological Association’s first accessibility and meetings coordinator.
One in four American adults is living with a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The ADA started removing some of the barriers and discrimination faced by people with disabilities, by requiring elevators and ramps in public transportation and buildings and accessible communication for people who are blind or have low vision or who are deaf or hard of hearing.
The ADA “physically reshaped American communities by opening inaccessible spaces to people with disabilities,” Carol Glazer, president of the National Organization on Disability, said in a statement. And it made “disability a protected class and gave our community recourse within our legal system.”
The ADA also required employers to provide “reasonable accommodation” for a person with disabilities who could do the job.
“People with disabilities don’t want to be held to a different standard. People with disabilities can—and want—to do the same jobs at the same levels for the same pay as everyone else,” Glazer said.
However, people with disabilities and advocates say discrimination in hiring is still prevalent today. And some workplaces welcome and support people with disabilities better than others.
Shane Feldman, CEO of Innivee Strategies, said word spreads fast among disability communities regarding which organizations support people with disabilities and which ones fall short.
“That influences our decision of whether or not we want to apply or work for them,” said Feldman, who is deaf.
Feldman, who has been executive director of the Registry for Interpreters of the Deaf and COO of the National Association of the Deaf, is a graduate of ASAE’s Diversity Executive Leadership Program. He would like to see more people with disabilities apply for and participate in the two-year educational and mentorship program.
Out of the 207 people who have gone through DELP since the program started in 2000, six have had visual, hearing, mobility or other disabilities, according to ASAE.
“I recognize that we want to celebrate things during the ADA’s 30th anniversary and everything that’s already been accomplished. But as you reflect back, we can do better,” Feldman said.
Compliance to inclusion
The ADA’s anniversary presents an opportunity for associations to shift from a compliance mentality and “fear of litigation” to an inclusion mentality, said Emily Harris, an independent consultant for nonprofits.
Harris suggests thinking of disability inclusion as a “learning journey.” Leaders should keep in mind that many disabilities are “invisible,” such as dyslexia, for example. And many people keep disabilities to themselves, she said. Harris said people do not realize she is hard of hearing until they spot the hearing aid behind her ear.
Recommendations for attracting and supporting members and staff with disabilities include:
Adopt an across-the-board policyfor helping staff “whether you know they have disabilities or not,” Harris said.
“Think of it as a way to help all employees be their best selves and do their best work,” she said. “What does each employee need in order to be most effective at their job? That might include some disability accommodations or might include other kinds of accommodations.”
Consult disability organizations for guidance, such as the National Federation of the Blind and the National Association of the Deaf. RespectAbility, a disability rights group, released a toolkit to help organizations ensure virtual events are accessible to everyone.
Commityourself and your organization to learning.
“There are so many digital assistive technologies built into operating systems and productivity tools that have no additional cost. Other assistive technologies and accommodations are not outside of the reach of software licenses, adaptive keyboards and desks,” said Samantha Evans, certification manager for the International Association of Accessibility Professionals. “But not knowing these products and tools are available may give a hiring manager … pause when considering a person with a disability in hiring.”
Put an “accessibility statement” on your website, and also make the website accessible, Evans said. If people search for the term “accessibility” on your website and nothing comes up, that may indicate that disability inclusion is not a priority for your association, she said.
People who use assistive technologies know within seven to eight seconds whether a website is accessible to them and will leave if it is not, she said.
“As a CEO, I want my engagement to go higher. I want to reach new audiences. What are the best simple things I can do? I can use the Microsoft Word Accessibility Checker on the ribbon that’s right next to spellcheck to make sure that my documents are accessible. I can add alternative text to my documents, my publications, my social media. I can add captions to my video content. I can provide transcripts for my podcast,” Evans said.
Create a diversity and inclusion initiative, and make sure it includes people with disabilities. Evans said most organizations would likely not want to pay for an accessibility coordinator. But they could designate an “accessibility champion” in the association or within each department, such as communications or IT. The champion should be someone who feels passionately about inclusion and who volunteers to lead their team’s effort.
Create an accessibility fund. Costs vary according to the need and can include sign-language interpreters or scooters at meetings. Some changes are free or inexpensive, such as adding alt text (alternative text) descriptions to images on social media and websites.
Rather than viewing inclusion as a cost, “look at it instead as a benefit,” Feldman said. He gave the example of a department head who was concerned about the cost of a sign-language interpreter coming from the department’s budget.
“So the CEO of the organization said, ‘Instead of interpreting coming from that department, it’s going to come from the company-wide budget,’” Feldman said. “It removed the barrier and that perception of, ‘Oh wow, this department is spending a lot more money because of this one employee.’ Instead, it looks at, ‘This is the best person for the job.’”
Find out what people actually need.
“There needs to be a conversation. (Just because) someone makes a request doesn’t mean it’s a demand,” said Karen Beverly-Ducker, director of multicultural practices, at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. “Talk. Figure it out. What would be the best solution?”
When members, presenters and exhibitors register for ASHA meetings, they can “indicate that they have a disability that may impact their ability to fully participate. … Is it vision, mobility, hearing, speech/language or other?” Beverly-Ducker said. “Dependent upon the area that they indicate, we have someone whose expertise is in that area follow up with that person one-on-one (to ask), ‘What are your needs?’”
“If someone says, ‘I want a sign language interpreter to accompany me to every single session across your three-day convention,’ that’s probably not going to happen,” she said. “So what can we do? That’s where the conversation (happens), and we gain additional information specific to that person’s needs.”
During their convention, ASHA automatically provides a sign-language interpreter during the opening address and captioning for videos on the big screen. She emphasized that groups should hire professionals to do live captioning because it is more accurate than automated captions.
Consider making a statement of commitment on the ADA’s 30th anniversary.
“It’s okay to be vulnerable and to just say, “We realize we can do better. … We’re inviting the disabilities communities to reach out to us, to talk with us, to see how we can do better,’” Feldman said.
Plaza, who helped her ASAE colleague with the closed captioning, has a mobility disability that has become more visible in recent years. She tried to hide her disability at times earlier in her career, fearing that potential employers would discriminate against her.
Plaza’s colleague who needed the captions “said I gave her the courage now to speak up for herself. Because she had always been told to blend in, which I had always been taught,” she said. “We all need to learn to speak up for each other.”
After Plaza registered as a participant for a meeting with NTEN, an association for nonprofit technology professionals, the group’s two-person accessibility team contacted her to ask: “Do you want a scooter at the airport or delivered to you at the hotel? What else can we provide? How can we make this meeting easier for you? We are here to help you in any way we can,’” she said.
“It was a team … of two people that were like, ‘Our job is to make sure that you can get around and have the same experience everybody else does.’”
Plaza said NTEN also offered networking groups in which people could be seated at a table, making it easier for someone with a mobility issue to participate. Although the meeting was ultimately canceled because of COVID-19, “I felt so welcome,” Plaza said.
New York (June 17, 2020) – The National Organization on Disability (NOD) today hosted a webcast for its Corporate Leadership Council members entitled “Building Tomorrow’s Accessible Workplaces”. The webcast provided timely information to more than 500 participants about how accessible technology can create a more diverse and inclusive workplace for employees and customers.
“The pandemic has led to more people working from home than ever before,” said NOD President Carol Glazer. “Companies that use technology to rethink their business operations for the future by fast-tracking digital transformation will be the ones ahead of their competition. Those individuals working with disabilities are the best assets within companies to help them get ahead of the curve.”
Led by an esteemed group of industry experts, the discussion focused on what makes a technologically-advanced, forward-thinking company and addressed accessibility in all its forms. From understanding the difference between providing accommodations for individual employees and ensuring accessibility for a range of users’ needs, to getting buy-in from cross-functional teams including brand marketing, training & development, information security, and talent acquisition, participants learned how to integrate cutting-edge and accessible technology across their organizations.
Welcome remarks were given by Maynard Jenkins, Vice President of HR Support Functions, Sutter Health and Suzanne Montgomery, Vice President, Compliance & Chief Accessibility Officer, AT&T, delivered the keynote address.
The webcast, moderated by Sheri Byrne-Haber, Head of Accessibility at VMware featured the following global technology leaders:
Jennison Asuncion, Head of Accessibility, LinkedIn
Simon Dermer, Co-Founder and CEO, eSSENTIAL Accessibility
Carol Glazer, President, National Organization on Disability
Christopher Patnoe, Head of Accessibility Programs, Google
Jeremy Zilar, former Director, Digital.gov
As we approach the 30th anniversary of the American Disabilities Act on July 26th, NOD and its 50+ Corporate Leadership Council members are ramping up efforts, including holding online gatherings like this webcast, to continue making strides towards disability inclusion in every workplace.
June 10, 2020 – Nearly one in four Americans lives with a disability. For some, that means a compromised immune system and greater risk for the coronavirus. PBS host Judy Woodruff talks to Gov. Tom Ridge, Chairman of the National Organization on Disability and Danny Woodburn, an actor and disability rights advocate, who are sounding the alarm that Congress needs to do more to help this population of society’s most vulnerable.
June 10, 2020 | Blog by Felicia M. Nurmsen, Managing Director of Employer Services, NOD
While working from home is new for a lot of people these days, it is something I have done from my house in Massachusetts for years. However, I traveled extensively and was able to see my colleagues and clients regularly. Feeling connected has become more difficult as I sit in my home office day after day now.
The pandemic has altered everything. For me, it exasperates my anxiety and depression. I have had to find ways to work through these new challenges and stay healthy both mentally and physically. But this is the reality of my situation, and while I may appear to be “living” with my disability in the light, I am struggling in the darkness.
Here are a few of my thoughts right now:
Will I lose my job? I have a career I love, and yet I know, it is a very real possibility, working for a non-profit reliant on philanthropic funding and corporate sponsorships, that cuts could occur.
If I do lose my job, will sharing my personal information, here and now, be a detriment to finding my next leadership role? Many will view my disclosure as a deficit and treat me differently largely due to the disability, and let’s face it, my gender combined with my mental health disclosure could be a real threat to my future success.
The last (and only time) I was laid off from a job I was married. Recently divorced, I am carrying the majority of the responsibility for home, my daughter, two dogs, horse, etc.
Will my daughter be prepared for her junior year in high school? (She is home with me now.)
Will my 78-year-old, lung-cancer-survivor, compromised mother stay away from her friends in her housing complex?
Some days I am so tired; I can’t focus and need to nap in the afternoon and go to bed by 9 p.m. to shut the world out. (I usually fall asleep earlier, while I am supposed to be spending time with my daughter.)
I use telemedicine to keep things in check as much as possible. I walk the dogs three times per day, regardless of the weather, to get outside and reset. I know this is something many of us are dealing with and may not understand the signs or how to mitigate the symptoms. I am not alone in the fear, anger, sadness, frustration.
Roughly 1 in 5 U.S. adults, nearly 47.6 million people, experience serious mental illness each year. And more than 50 percent of Americans will manage a mental health condition at some point in their lives.
We know it is increasing. A recent poll by the Kaiser Foundation showed that about half of adults feel the pandemic is impacting their mental health. Almost one in five says it’s had a major impact.
I am fortunate to work for the National Organization on Disability and to have the full support of my employer where I can be open about my mental health disability.
However, being vulnerable and sharing information about my mental health, does not come easily to me. I grew up in a family with mental illness, but you never shared the details of your “lunatic” grandmother with anyone. I have friends, who to this day, do not know my paternal grandmother was in and out of institutions for most of her life until they gave her a lobotomy and sent her home as “cured”.
Considering all my grandmother endured – being a Puerto Rican widowed mother of three children, living in abject poverty, speaking little English with severe mental health illness – she didn’t have a choice to have the lobotomy. She didn’t have a voice – I must find the courage to use mine.
After this unprecedented time ends, and life settles back into a new normal for all of us, more businesses must work to understand the importance of allowing people to be vulnerable. We all need to feel comfortable sharing details that allow us to receive the appropriate productivity tools we need to be successful.
We contribute a great deal to the workforce, and as I have taught in many trainings on disclosure, we all must operate from a place of power! We are the experts in being adaptable, resilient and have had to work on coping skills many times over. Now is the time to connect with others and share our stories as humans, free of stigma.
Felicia M. Nurmsen serves as Managing Director of Employer Services, where she oversees NOD’s suite of Professional Services, which brings disability employment initiatives to leading companies, and our innovative program. Felicia brings over 20 years of experience making the connection for business to the untapped talent pool of people with disabilities.
Recorded February 24, 2020, Washington, D.C. | NOD President Carol Glazer sits down with Craig E Leen, Director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) at the U.S. Department of Labor, to discuss the agency’s recent focus on disability inclusion through enforcement of Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act. Director Leen also shares why disability inclusion is important to him personally, and why employers should look closer at this untapped talent pool.
Despite significant progress for U.S. workers with disabilities, many barriers remain.
May 27, 2020 | By Allen Smith, J.D.
A blind Harvard law student who couldn’t get a job interview with a single firm. Vietnam veterans who had lost their legs serving their country and couldn’t access buses or trains to commute to work. A polio survivor who became mobility-impaired and was denied a teaching certificate in New York City.
The examples of discrimination against people with disabilities before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted 30 years ago “go on and on,” says Bobby Silverstein, an attorney with Powers Pyles Sutter & Verville in Washington, D.C., and a behind-the-scenes architect of the law.
The ADA opened doors for many. In addition to making disability a protected class and giving the community legal recourse, the act bans questions related to disability on job applications, provides for greater accessibility to public buildings and transportation, and requires employers to reasonably accommodate employees and job applicants. The ADA also makes requiring medical examinations before a job offer unlawful, and limits disability-related questions and medical examinations of employees.
Still, high rates of unemployment and underemployment remain for people with disabilities, and new barriers to Web accessibility are emerging. But employers can help change that.
Before the ADA, many hiring managers didn’t think people with disabilities were able to work, says Chai Feldblum, an attorney with Morgan Lewis in Washington, D.C., and a former commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Feldblum worked for the American Civil Liberties Union AIDS Project while the Senate and House of Representatives were crafting the ADA, and she became the lead lawyer negotiating the law.
Where People with Disabilities Work
Management, professional fields: 34.1%
Sales, offices: 22.3%
Production, transportation, material moving: 14.5%
“Feldblum and Silverstein were really the drafters of it,” says Susan Meisinger, SHRM-SCP, J.D., former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management. She was vice president for government affairs at the Society when the ADA was being worked out.
Before the law was enacted, Silverstein says, the first question on job applications often was “Do you have a physical or mental disability?” This posed a major barrier not only for people with visible disabilities, but also for people with so-called hidden disabilities, such as mental-health issues, epilepsy, cancer or diabetes.
On top of that, easy access to office buildings, stores, hospitals, factories, theaters, recreational facilities, parks, sports arenas, schools, libraries and restaurants “was not the rule, but the exception,” says Jean Ryan, president of Disabled in Action of Metropolitan New York in New York City.
Additionally, service animals, such as guide dogs for people with low or no vision, were often denied access to public spaces, says Priyanka Ghosh, director of external affairs for the National Organization on Disability in New York City. “Communication in various formats, such as Braille signage for people who are visually impaired and teletype phones for people who are hard of hearing, was also not guaranteed,” she adds.
Other types of workplace accommodations were similarly unavailable, according to Feldblum. People who were deaf or hard of hearing had no right to sign-language interpreters, for example, and people with psychiatric disabilities or HIV or AIDS weren’t able to take temporary leave to receive treatment.
Veterans, particularly Vietnam veterans, were discriminated against regularly out of fear that they might become violent due to post-traumatic stress disorder, says Ronald Drach, a Vietnam veteran who lost a leg during his service and is president of Drach Consulting in Oxford, Pa.
Before the ADA, “stigma was acute for all types of disabilities,” says Deborah Dagit, president of Deb Dagit Diversity LLC in Washington, N.J. “Companies could openly discriminate without fear of reprisal, and myths about people with disabilities were treated as fact versus fiction,” she says. “Employers could decide what kind of an accommodation a person with a disability should have, whether it worked for them or not.”
Civil rights legislation was “desperately needed” 30 years ago for Americans with disabilities who “were shamefully shunned and excluded from virtually every aspect of society,” says Andrés Gallegos, a member of the National Council on Disability in Washington, D.C., and an attorney with Robbins, Salomon & Patt in Chicago. The exclusion resulted not from their disabilities, but from environmental barriers “constructed by a society that had fashioned views of disability as shameful, grotesque, requiring fixing and, if fixing wasn’t possible, then segregation by institutionalization.”
Apart from those employers covered by the Rehabilitation Act, Gallegos says, employers “had no legal obligation to provide disabled employees with any form of support or assistance to help facilitate their success at work.”
Veterans were discriminated against regularly out of fear that they might become violent due to post-traumatic stress disorder, says Ronald Drach, a Vietnam veteran who lost a leg during his service.
The Rehabilitation Act: Groundwork for the ADA
Much of the ADA, including the reasonable accommodation requirement, was derived from the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Meisinger notes.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits recipients of federal funds, including many universities and schools, from discriminating based on disability. Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits federal contractors from discriminating based on disability and, unlike the ADA or Section 504, requires affirmative action for people with disabilities.
But individuals cannot sue for violations of Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, notes Larry Lorber, an attorney with Seyfarth in Washington, D.C., who used to head the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. Instead, they must rely on the U.S. Department of Labor to sue on their behalf, he says.
SHRM’s Role in the Enactment of the ADA
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) supported the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and “took a balanced approach,” weighing the needs of individuals with disabilities and employers, says Susan Meisinger, SHRM-SCP, J.D., former president and CEO of the Society. She served as SHRM’s vice president for government affairs when the ADA was being negotiated.
There were two main points of negotiation with the business community, Meisinger says: damages and concern over substance abuse.
The Civil Rights Act of 1991 subsequently provided a sliding scale of damages based on company size, to be capped at $300,000 for employers with more than 500 employees. As for the substance-abuse concern, the ADA does not protect individuals based on a drug addiction. The ADA does protect those who have successfully completed a drug rehabilitation program or are currently participating in such a program and are no longer using prohibited drugs.
Alcoholism is a covered disability, but the ADA may require an employee with alcoholism to meet the same standards of performance and behavior as other employees, though an employer may choose to offer the worker a last-chance agreement. Under a last-chance agreement, an employer agrees not to fire an employee in exchange for his or her agreement to receive treatment for substance abuse.
“The ADA is a foundational workplace law, affecting work, workers and the workplace,” says Emily M. Dickens, SHRM’s corporate secretary, chief of staff and head of government affairs. “It informs compliance but, more importantly, workplace culture. SHRM seeks to keep the tenets of this law evergreen—continuing to work with HR professionals to implement best practices for inclusion and nondiscrimination as they seek talent wherever it is found.” —A.S.
The ADA transformed the lives of people with disabilities, and support for its passage came from both sides of the aisle.
“There was a direct cause and effect between the AIDS epidemic and the enactment of the ADA,” Feldblum says. When George H.W. Bush ran for president, he was asked about a law prohibiting discrimination against those with AIDS. He was for such legislation but wanted a bill that prohibited discrimination against all people with disabilities.
Justin Dart, who headed the President’s Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities—the predecessor for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy— at the time of the ADA’s enactment “was a major driver in persuading Bush to do something,” Meisinger says.
Bush was a “critical player,” says Silverstein, who was staff director and chief counsel to the Subcommittee on Disability Policy, working for Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa and chief sponsor of the ADA.
Bush sent numerous messages in favor of the ADA during his presidential campaign and delivered a speech at an inaugural ball sending the message that he supported a civil rights bill for people with disabilities. Sen. Bob Dole, a Republican who represented Kansas, also was key in ensuring that Republicans negotiated and passed the bill.
Pat Wright, director of government affairs of the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., spearheaded various grassroots efforts in the disability community, Silverstein says, noting that Wright was called “the general” for her leadership during the ADA’s enactment.
But the ADA would not have been possible without the disability rights movement that began in earnest in the early 1970s, according to Gallegos. “The disability rights movement was not led by a handful of individuals—although the movement has specific heroes—but by thousands of people who borrowed the tactics of other civil rights movements,” he says. “They mobilized; took to the streets in protest; staged sit-ins; testified before local, state and federal government officials; and wrote thousands of letters and placed calls to government officials in support of civil rights legislation for persons with disabilities.”
Gallegos adds that the galvanizing of the disability community to fight for civil rights legislation helped shape how people with disabilities came to view disability and themselves. Up to that point, he notes, many of them had “internalized the negative societal disability constructs.”
‘The signing of the ADA physically reshaped American communities by opening inaccessible spaces to people with disabilities.’ —Priyanka Ghosh, Director, External Affairs, NOD
On July 26, 1990, Ghosh recalls, President Bush “spoke to the thousands assembled on the South Lawn of the White House, including many in attendance with disabilities, and proclaimed that the signing of the ADA ‘signals the end to the unjustified segregation and exclusion of persons with disabilities from the mainstream of American life.’
“The signing of the ADA physically reshaped American communities by opening inaccessible spaces to people with disabilities,” Ghosh says.
“The greatest impact initially was [on] public access, including transportation,” Dagit says. In addition, all new buildings had to be accessible, including having compliant wheelchair ramps, and renovations for older buildings were required to meet accessibility mandates. This opened up new opportunities for people with disabilities.
“I happen to be a wheelchair user who also has motor coordination/dexterity issues and visual limitations because of cerebral palsy,” says Amy Scherer, a staff attorney with the National Disability Rights Network in Washington, D.C. She entered her freshman year of college at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., shortly after the passage of the ADA. “I was the first wheelchair user to attend this university. As a result of the ADA, they renovated one of the dorms so that I could live on campus and made adjustments to several of the inaccessible buildings so that I could easily attend classes.”
Workers with Disabilities Feel a Pinch in Their Paychecks
While these individuals tend to hold lower-paying jobs, including as drivers, cashiers and movers, they also earn less than people without disabilities in nearly all occupations. The difference grows as salaries increase. For instance, the wage gap in retail sales is about $3,200 per year. It rises to $10,000 for IT workers and a whopping $30,000 for chief executives.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau.
Scherer notes that following her graduation from law school, she did not have to face intrusive questions about her disability and instead was able to focus on highlighting the skills she would bring to the job. “Despite the fact that I am unable to drive, I can get to and from my office independently each day by using the accessible public transportation system in my city,” she says. “Needless to say, my employment experience would have been much different without the passage of the ADA.”
Another game changer introduced by the ADA, according to Dagit, was methodology for identifying what constitutes a reasonable accommodation. People with disabilities now have a large say in what an accommodation will be, thanks to the requirement that employers discuss possibilities with them.
There have, of course, been some bumps along the way. During the 1990s and early 2000s, for example, courts limited who was considered to have a disability. Even people with prosthetic limbs did not qualify, Feldblum notes. That changed when the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) restored the broad definition of disability originally envisioned by the law’s drafters.
The ADAAA put the law’s focus back on reasonable accommodation, which is the heart and soul of the ADA, says Lorber.
In addition, stigma against people with disabilities has decreased in recent years, Dagit says: “While we still have a long way to go for full and equal access, we have made significant progress.”
Ongoing Discrimination and Barriers
Although the ADA has been in place for 30 years, “assumptions about the capabilities or presumed lack thereof of a person with a disability still remain a barrier to successful employment for people with disabilities,” says Cabell Clay, an attorney with Moore & Van Allen in Charlotte, N.C. “Stigmas against people with disabilities continue to exist.”
It can be hard to change views that have been “hardened over decades and, like any other stereotype or prejudice, handed down between generations,” Gallegos says.
Less than 14 percent of workers with disabilities seek special equipment or other workplace modifications, and when they do, the cost is usually negligible. Here are the most common changes sought and the percentage of workers seeking each one.
New or modified equipment: 33%
Physical changes to the work environment: 21%
Changes in communication or information sharing: 11.6%
Policy changes: 8.7%
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Additionally, some employers still don’t fully understand what reasonable accommodation involves. All too frequently, Clay notes, “employers presume that accommodating an employee with a disability will be disruptive or expensive. In fact, it may be as simple as providing an extra five-minute break to allow an employee to check her blood sugar or providing a headset to accompany an employee’s phone.”
Dagit adds, “While we have seen dramatic improvements, it is still challenging to get from point A to B using public transportation, [and] unemployment remains high, as often, employees with disabilities are the last hired and first fired during changes in business conditions.”
Dagit, who is 4 feet tall and has a large presence in the disability community, says she routinely encounters barriers on business trips, including:
Insufficient parking at the airport for people with disability permits.
Challenges transporting her service dog on a plane or train. Dagit says this can require “mountains of paperwork” that has to be updated annually and frequently involves inappropriate questions about the dog’s role.
Concern about whether her wheelchair or scooter will be operable when arriving at her destination.
Accessible hotel rooms that aren’t acceptable for her because they were designed for a man of average size with a spinal-cord disability. Dagit says she has to ask for a “regular room” with a bathtub, which can be hard to find.
Wheelchair entrances that are far from parking spots and hard to locate.
Security staff who do not want a service dog in the building.
Next Frontier: Web Access
When website designs pose problems, employers can lose out on top talent and the benefits that diversity brings.
According to the Office of Disability Employment Policy’s (ODEP’s) Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology, these are accessibility problems commonly seen in website design:
Poor screen contrast.
Confusing, poorly written and inconsistent instructions.
Inaccessible form fields.
Reliance on color, graphics or text embedded with graphics to convey directions or important information.
Images lacking alternative text.
Applications that require a mouse.
Videos or audio instructions that are not closed-captioned.
Inaccessible CAPTCHAs with no audio option.
Trouble uploading necessary documents.
Lack of contact information for technical support.
Lack of information on how to request an accommodation.
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) is a partner in the ODEP Alliance, a cooperative program that enables organizations committed to improving workplace practices to develop and implement model disability policies and initiatives. The SHRM Foundation and the Workplace Initiative by Understood are also working to advance the employment of individuals with disabilities through the Employing Abilities@Work initiative and a new certificate program. The free training will help HR professionals and hiring managers better understand how to hire, retain and advance employees with disabilities. —A.S.
The Way Forward
Thirty years later, “people with disabilities are still twice as likely to be unemployed” as those without disabilities, says Corinne Weible, co-director for the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology in Washington, D.C. “To close that gap, we all need to work together to make every workplace an inclusive workplace.”
Employment discrimination remains one of the top issues in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, says Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf in Silver Spring, Md. “Companies now will not blatantly refuse to hire or accommodate deaf or hard-of-hearing people on the basis of disability,” he explains, “but many have found other reasons or excuses not to hire them.”
In addition, many employers are reluctant to retain sign-language interpreters and often mistakenly believe interpreters are needed full time, he notes.
One possible solution is for employers to establish a centralized reasonable accommodation fund (CRAF) to help pay for accommodation needs that might arise. While accommodations are often inexpensive and sometimes even cost nothing, “data on employment shows that employers in both the private and public sectors that hire the most deaf and hard-of-hearing people are those that have a working CRAF system in place,” Rosenblum says.
‘The disability rights movement was not led by a handful of individuals … but by thousands who borrowed the tactics of other civil rights movements.’—Andrés Gallegos
For Chris Danielsen, J.D., director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore, the main employment barriers for people with visual impairments are not legal but attitudinal. “Employers have low expectations and do not know the true capacity of blind people to perform the vast majority of jobs and job functions,” he says.
The main takeaway on the 30th anniversary of the ADA, says Disabled Action of Metropolitan New York’s Ryan, is that people with disabilities represent a valuable but largely untapped group of workers.
“Those of us with disabilities spend our lives ignoring discouragement, persisting through setback, solving problems and finding creative routes around obstacles,” Ghosh says. These are traits that any employer would be lucky to have in an employee.
As Gallegos puts it, thanks to the ADA, “persons with disabilities need not be dependent upon social programs but can contribute positively to society and live independently in pursuit of their own defined goals and dreams.”
Allen Smith, J.D., is SHRM’s manager of workplace law content.
During the Pandemic, Recognize the Needs of Workers with Disabilities
The news is out, and it isn’t pretty: The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting long-standing inequities in the U.S.
Some workers with disabilities face an elevated health risk. And while job prospects for those workers were brighter than ever at the start of 2020, mass layoffs and other consequences of the crisis could erase decades of hard-fought advancements in job opportunities and worker safety.
It will be months before concrete data on the pandemic’s impact are available. But the loss of jobs in the restaurant and hospitality industries where these workers are disproportionately represented is particularly worrisome, says Susan Bruyere, a professor of disability studies and the director of the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability at Cornell University.
“We know from prior recessions that individuals with disabilities are often the first to be laid off and the last to be reabsorbed,” Bruyere says. (During the worst period of layoffs in the Great Recession, disabled workers lost or left their jobs at nearly twice the rate of other workers, according to U. S. Labor Department data.)
There also are new risks for disabled workers who are low-wage earners and still working during the pandemic.
Some are putting their health on the line by riding crowded buses and subways or working in fast-food restaurants, laundries, nursing homes and other places where social distancing is difficult, says Cheryl Bates-Harris, a disability advocacy specialist with the National Disability Rights Network, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group. Many of these workers were already at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 because of pre-existing health conditions.
Layoffs and furloughs at social service agencies and nonprofits mean that some individuals with severe disabilities are working without the support and guidance of job coaches and mentors, Bates-Harris adds.
There is, however, one bright spot that has emerged: Widespread shelter-in-place orders have increased work opportunities for individuals with mobility impairments who can work only at home, says Alan Hubbard, chief operating officer of the National Telecommuting Institute, a nonprofit that places disabled workers in home-based call center jobs. Large call centers have been overwhelmed by increased call volume, and some that couldn’t pivot to remote work have been forced to shut down, he says.
For employees who are deaf, work-at-home arrangements have been a great equalizer, says Scott Wills, a research chemist at Dow Chemical. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, he hired a number of deaf workers for scientific and technical jobs but feared they were missing out when their hearing colleagues chatted informally. “When everyone relies on text and e-mail, there is no undercurrent of watercooler conversations,” he says.
Ignoring the needs of workers with disabilities is not just unfair, it may also be illegal. Here’s how employment law experts say companies can do the right thing and stay on the right side of the law:
Recognize the legal and moral responsibility to reasonably accommodate the needs of workers with disabilities.
Recognize that remote-work requests and other accommodations previously associated with such workers may benefit all employees.
Make sure social distancing and other special steps aimed at curbing the spread of the virus don’t disproportionately harm workers with disabilities.
Prove to those workers that HR is a trusted partner by helping to resolve any problems they may be having.
Recall workers in a way that doesn’t disproportionately affect individuals with disabilities.
WASHINGTON, D.C. (ABC7) — The National Organization on Disability is proud to partner with actor and comedian Danny Woodburn, best known for his role on NBC’s Emmy-winning show Seinfeld, to promote equality and inclusion for Americans with disabilities, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to negatively impact our community at both an individual and collective level.
But first, Danny began the interview by acknowledging the widespread protests against racism and police violence sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and commented on how racial discrimination, like COVID-19, has also disproportionately impacted those with disabilities since the prevalence rate is highest for African Americans.
“I want to recognize that other virus that is affecting America, the racism and police brutality that caused George Floyd’s murder and its aftermath has definitely put the underserved, underrepresented and low socioeconomic communities at greater risk. The system that’s in place has never worked for minorities, and it’s been devastating. And there’s an overlap of that devastation that affects people with disabilities.
“One cannot help but see some of these parallels of discrimination in employment, education, financial independence – and yes, police brutality. People of color make up a large percentage of the disabled community, and at the national level African Americans are two-and-a-half times more likely to have a disability than whites. So there’s no coincidence that roughly a third to half of all victims killed in police brutality are people with a disability.
“People who protest are vital, absolutely vital. But when communities are destroyed by a few, it can destroy access to food, medicine, drugstores, pharmacies, essential services […] which for some of us [with disabilities] can be a death sentence, and that population is largely people of color.” – Danny Woodburn
May 28, 2020 | Blog by Charles Catherine, Special Assistant, NOD
Have you ever attributed some of your accomplishments to luck rather than to your own talent? You are not alone. This phenomenon, which is known as “imposter syndrome,” was conceptualized by Suzanne Imes, PhD and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD in the 1970s. It occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. According to a 2013 study, minority groups, including people with disabilities, are especially susceptible to experiencing impostor syndrome (Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development).
The impostor phenomenon becomes a vicious cycle. Afraid of being discovered as a fraud, people go through tremendous efforts to do a project perfectly. When they succeed, they begin believing all that anxiety and effort paid off. This constant fear can have a terrible impact on our mental health.
Like the coronavirus, emotions are highly contagious. And negative emotions are the easiest to catch. Fear, uncertainty and worry can spread to our collective psyche.
Thankfully, there are many ways to help us overcome the belief that we don’t measure up to people’s expectations. The COVID-19 crisis opens up a rare window of opportunity to practice some of these coping mechanisms and to change the way we think about success and leadership:
Talk to your mentors
Recognize your expertise
Realize no one is perfect
Change your thinking
This crisis challenges our ability to think of suffering not simply as an individual burden, but as a shared experience – an experience that we could then potentially turn into something affirmative. To all of you who are feeling unsettled, realizing that you might suddenly need technical or mental health support, to those who worry about how this might affect your productivity and your ability to keep your job, I welcome you to my world. Even when this pandemic finally ends, let’s remember how we felt during this crisis, when we were truly caring about each other, when we were ready to go shopping for our elderly neighbors, when we had dinner on Zoom with our family, when we felt connected by this common struggle. In this emergency situation, there is no room for pretense, we have a chance to show our true self and lead in a different way.
The pandemic has made the world stand still; it forces us to show another side of our personality to our colleagues and will change tomorrow’s professional environment. It could also help us redefine the qualities that we value in our leaders. When we leave the imposter idea behind, we have a chance to open up to our coworkers, be more vulnerable than we would otherwise be.
I challenge each of you to identify something that you noticed during these unprecedented times that could impact everyone if universally implemented. It could be thinking about accessibility, starting a conversation on mental health, having more flexible accommodation policies, OR rethinking the way we lead. As President Lyndon B. Johnson said: “Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose.”
Charles Edouard Catherine joined the National Organization on Disability in 2018 as the special assistant to the president, Carol Glazer. With a background in Global Health, he served for several years as the executive director of the Surgeons of Hope Foundation. He successfully led the expansion of the organization from operating a solo program in Nicaragua to several ongoing, congruent programs throughout Latin America. A 2012 graduate of Sciences Po Bordeaux, France, Charles holds a Master’s degrees in International Relations. Charles is also a classical pianist of 25 years, a marathoner, and an elite triathlete.
Blog by Margaret Ling, Project Assistant, Employer Services & Office Manager, NOD
As days morph into a continuous stream of time, I feel the control I once enjoyed over my life has drifted away.
COVID-19, and its uncertainty, hurts my ability to find balance and causes confusion as we all try and adapt to a ‘new normal.’ For people like me who deal with mental health issues, it is particularly hard.
It seems a fitting time to talk about the depression and anxiety many people are feeling right now as May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It is a good opportunity to focus on how to help ourselves and those we love.
I am grateful for my family, my friends, and my mission-driven job. I feel fortunate to be working as unemployment skyrockets to new daily highs. But things are hard right now.
My life is all NYC. This is home and everything I know. Many of the people I love live here. And sadly, a new habit formed in the last few months is to constantly check Facebook. It has become the obituary section for me to learn about friends’ deaths from coronavirus.
Texts are coming in alerting me that someone close is gone. Staring at these device screens, my heart sinks and I shudder to think who in my life will be next? Living through post 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy was brutal. This is truly horrific.
Hearing daily reminders of the pandemic, layered with mortality data and personal losses, induces fear, stress and anxiety. I know I am not a lone sufferer.
I have had a two-decade-long courtship with anxiety and panic attacks. I feel fortunate that I can recognize and have learned to verbalize what I feel internally. Rapid pounding in my chest, shallow breaths, inability to maintain a clear thought or focus, stabbing chest pains, cat naps in place of extended hours of sleep, racing thoughts, weakness, headaches, mind and body numbness and other physical symptoms can be variations within a single day.
I understand the stress, anxiety and panic that overtake my mind and body. It happens even when I try to rationalize with myself that all of this chaos might pass and become a memory in some months. Still, getting through each day means finding ways to cope with the constant unknowns and uncertainties.
What grounds me are my weekly sessions with my therapist, now done over the phone. With each conversation, I’m working to radically accept my thoughts and feelings instead of trying to fight and suppress them. I know they have legitimacy now during a global pandemic.
My struggles with mental health issues have helped me work on NOD’s Campus to Careers program, which helps students with disabilities find internships and jobs. I have seen how prominent mental health issues are for our traditional college-aged students. It forces me to think about what can be done so that generation, and all of us, can heal. Our lifestyle must embody our mental well being to address pain, grief and distress.
We need to start helping ourselves by practicing mindfulness, introspection. We must find ways to be kind to ourselves and those around us. We should push forth, challenge the stigma attached to mental health issues and open a dialogue about it. If we work together, be patient and understand how to label symptoms and feelings, we can come out of this pandemic with a new way to look at mental health challenges.
Margaret Ling serves as NOD’s Project Assistant for Employer Services and Office Manager. She received her B.B.A from Baruch College, City University of New York in Management. During this time, she was active in advocating for people with disabilities on campus by founding the Difference Makers Club and serving as Vice Chair, for the CUNY Coalition for Students with Disabilities.
When my first son was born, I remember thinking, as parents do, about the promise of what the future would hold for him.
With Jacob though, I discovered that the future can begin as a quivering promise.
Jacob was born with hydrocephalus and would undergo a dozen brain surgeries in his first year — another two dozen over the course of his life. It all took an emotional toll.
Years later I was diagnosed with parental Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, and associated anxiety and depression. Normally we relate PTSD with soldiers who experience combat. But parents, especially mothers, of children with serious health conditions can suffer from the condition.
I have learned a great deal from my experience, about myself and about the toll mental health challenges can take in the workplace. I understand how important it is for organizations to recognize that mental illness is an issue their staff struggles with regularly.
Roughly 1 in 5 U.S. adults – nearly 50 million people – experiences mental illness each year. More than half of Americans will deal with mental illness at some point in their lives.
And that figure was a baseline before COVID 19. A poll in April by the Kaiser Foundation shows that about half of adults feel the pandemic is impacting their mental health. And one in five says it’s already had a major impact.
Our great task is to find ways to help our employees who are struggling with these difficulties and allow them to thrive. When I discuss my experience, I emphasize the importance of empathy. If there is one thing that companies can take away in May from Mental Health Awareness Month, it is that.
It was the empathy among colleagues at work that helped me deal with the anxiety and the stress associated with my diagnosis. To bend an old saying, they helped me realize that while time heals all wounds, it also leaves marks that have to be attended to.
Part of empathy is helping our staff work through their own experiences around mental illness. It has to start with an understanding of the pain of mental illness.
Our Corporate Leadership Council member companies are doing amazing things; they are creating work cultures that allow employees to be open about mental illness, giving them permission to share their stories. They understand this allows managers to create more inclusiveness and reap the benefits from diverse talents and perspectives.
With COVID we need to be even more cognizant of employees facing mental health challenges. Because of the economic trials, fears of a life-threatening illness and continuing isolation, people have no lack of stressors.
Most of us lived through 9/11 and know that in the wake of the disaster, we healed ourselves by coming together, joining with our families, our neighbors, our co-workers. We can’t do that with social distancing. Also, 9/11 had a start and an end. What fuels anxiety is that we don’t know when the end of this is pandemic will occur or what it will even look like.
More than ever we need to create work cultures that make it okay to reach out and ask a colleague in distress if they are all right. This is especially important now, when we are not physically together – and in some cases may be permanently teleworking.
We have to create ways for people to feel safe, where they have the confidence that they don’t need to conceal their experiences. Rather they can talk about them, get treatment for them, and even use them to advantage.
I have been able to do that with my wonderful colleagues at the National Organization on Disability. Between knowing I can be honest at work, and watching Jacob grow into a funny, caring, lovable young man, I find strength.
We know that with the pain of mental illness comes resilience; there is a greater ability to cope with adversity, understand vulnerability, and show compassion. All of that drops to the bottom line for a company and helps those of us dealing with mental health challenges become assets to our employers, not liabilities.
Carol Glazer is President of the National Organization on Disability, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization representing all of America’s 57 million people with disabilities. She is a speaker and subject matter expert on issues regarding the employment of people with disabilities and has addressed audiences at national conferences, corporate forums and higher education institutions, among others.
Carol holds a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and in 2012, was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters by Allegheny College for her work on behalf of individuals with disabilities. She has two children, one of whom was born with hydrocephalus and has physical and intellectual disabilities.
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