A Crossroads For Workers With Disabilities – OpEd


This Labor Day, it’s time to talk about disabled workers.

This issue is personal for me. I debated for years about whether to disclose my disability status to potential employers. 

I have rheumatoid arthritis, which is largely managed thanks to medication. I’m extremely lucky — I get to choose whether and how to disclose my disability, instead of needing to disclose it to get access to tools I need to succeed on the job. Usually, the only visible evidence of my disability at work is when an occasional flare-up gives me pain. 

At least one out of every four Americans has a disability, and conditions like long COVID may have bumped that number even further. Millions of disabled American workers rely on a variety of visible and invisible workplace accommodations to help them do their jobs and do them well. 

As the U.S. Department of Labor explains on their website, workplace accommodations “may include specialized equipment, modifications to the work environment, or adjustments to work schedules or responsibilities.” That can mean anything from adaptive technology to ergonomic office furniture to a hybrid or fully remote work schedule. 

We still have a long way to go to make American workplaces around our country more accessible, inclusive, and more likely to hire and retain disabled workers. Labor Day is the perfect time to talk about how to raise the standard across the country when it comes to disability accommodations in the workplace.

Three years into the pandemic, changes in remote and hybrid work policies have transformed the job market for disabled workers, vastly expanding opportunities for employment and making it more feasible for disabled workers not only to survive but to thrive. Workplaces in turn benefit from disabled workers’ talents, perspectives, and adaptiveness. 

Disabled workers are a growing portion of the labor force and a vital asset to our economy. But with a growing employer pushback against remote work and other basic accommodations, these pandemic-era gains could end up being temporary if we’re not careful. 

We’re at a crossroads: we can either continue to build on this progress that has opened doors for an entire section of the labor force — and for improved labor policies in general — or we can undo those great strides and shut disabled workers out. 

Despite some protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which just turned 33, disabled workers still face stigma when it comes to hiring, employment, and navigating workplace environments that require accommodations. 

Although a lot of progress has occurred over the past several decades, workers like me can still face an uphill battle when trying to access workplace accommodations to fulfill our job duties. Doctors’ notes, medical records, complicated human resources processes, and other hurdles can be a barrier to getting even the most basic requests accommodated. 

The cost for employers tends to be pretty small. A May survey of employers by the Job Accommodation Network found that fulfilling an accommodation request cost half of them nothing at all. Of those that did incur an expense, the median cost was just $300.

Meanwhile, staff-wide workplace measures like flexible scheduling, paid sick leave, intermittent breaks, or ergonomic office furniture tend to benefit everyone, not just disabled employees. 

Let’s raise the standard this year. Let’s treat disability accommodations like we treat safety standards or anti-discrimination statutes — as common-sense measures that help employers retain great employees and ensure their full potential, for the benefit of everyone.

This article was published by OtherWords.org. 

Olivia Alperstein

Olivia Alperstein is the Deputy Communications Director at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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