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The COVID Economy: Challenges and Opportunities for People with Disabilities

By Carolann Murphy, PA

Both people with and without disabilities are being negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of both absence from work and layoffs. At this point in time, the effects seem to be proportionately similar for both groups, with greater numbers of people being absent from work and laid off than during the Great Recession of 2008-2009.

The implications are profound for organizations that provide direct services for people with disabilities, such as state vocational rehabilitation agencies, community-based employment programs, and independent living services. These service providers are adapting to the situation, assisting clients with acute needs for technology, personal protective equipment (PPE), and food and shelter, as well as escalating needs for employment services. For example, staff are advocating for clients who have been laid off and need help applying unemployment and other benefits, and seeking guidance for the safe return of high-risk individuals to work.

Technology is now a priority, as workers adapt to working remotely, interviews and training become virtual, and more services must be accessed online, including telehealth and telerehabilitation. This created ongoing challenges for both service providers and their clients, many with immediate needs for computer hardware and software and home internet access. Providing the means for remote access to the workplace may increase the likelihood of returning to work for some employees with disabilities, while also allowing access to health care, and offsetting the negative effects of social isolation.

Technology may also enable service organizations to transform their delivery models, and continue operations, providing community-based services that are needed more than ever.

As more jobs shift to work at home options, some people with disabilities are gaining advantage in the workplace. Placement firms like Boston-based National Telecommunicating Institute, which has connected jobseekers with disabilities with temporary work-at-home positions for many years, are seeing a major increase in demand for workers prepared to work from home. As remote work and flexible work arrangements quickly become standard options for all workers, these will no longer be viewed as accommodations for workers with disabilities. Providers of customized employment programs are seeking opportunities to bring workers back into new work environments. The drive toward accessible and affordable high-speed internet and secure and reliable tools for collaboration will bring benefits to many workers at all kinds of businesses, and increase access to higher education for individuals with disabilities.

Adequate supplies of personal protective equipment is another priority for workers with disabilities, especially those who rely on caregivers. Providing PPE for working people who require assistance with personal care will minimize this barrier to receiving the care they need to continue working, and minimize their risk for infection and absence due to illness.

Even in the best of times, many people with disabilities, working or not, experience food insecurity. With the public health crisis requiring sheltering at home, food insecurity is exacerbated. Those laid off often need to apply or reregister for SNAP benefits, and are relying on service providers and advocates to work through the bureaucracy. Fearful of leaving home or unable to leave, people with disabilities often rely on food banks that lack delivery services. There is a need for expanded flexibility of nutritional support programs, such as SNAP, including options for food delivery, and for standardizing benefits across the country. Legislative efforts that include these issues, such as a bill recently passed by the House, need the support of the disability community. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves across the U.S., the changes to the employment landscape will continue to bring challenges and opportunities. The nTIDE team will continue to host an open dialogue aimed at ensuring the health and safety of workers with disabilities, and finding new ways to maximize their inclusion in the workplaces of the post-pandemic era.

Based on the May 15, 2020 Special COVID Update, National Trends in Disability Employment report.