By Morgan Smith, Make It
For nearly 20 months, debates about the future of work have dominated meetings and Twitter feeds as the coronavirus pandemic upended every aspect of our jobs from commutes to office dress codes. These conversations continue to influence companies’ return-to-office plans and their remote work policies. But despite the pandemic taking a disproportionate toll on their job prospects and well-being, people with disabilities continue to be left out of many of these critical conversations.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is more than double that of those without: 9% compared to 4.4% as of September. People with disabilities are also far less likely to be employed than workers with no disabilities. There are several factors driving this disparity, including discriminatory hiring practices and fewer people with disabilities completing bachelor’s degrees.
The pandemic has only exacerbated this gap. Before the pandemic, workers with disabilities were more likely than those without disabilities to work from home, a new report from Rutgers University found. But because people with disabilities are more likely to hold blue-collar and service jobs, they have had far fewer options for remote or flexible work arrangements during the Covid-19 crisis, the report notes.
As employers announce plans to bring people back to offices and experiment with hybrid work schedules in the coming months, workers with disabilities and disability advocates are urging companies to rethink the structure of their organizations to better accommodate people with disabilities. “Folks with disabilities have been asking for flexible and remote work options for decades and have been consistently denied,” Maria Town, the president and CEO of The American Association of People with Disabilities, tells CNBC Make It. “Now we know these jobs can be done remotely — and people don’t want to see these options go away the moment we decide the pandemic is over.”
The pandemic created new challenges for workers who were already struggling
People with disabilities already experienced “significant” barriers while navigating the pre-pandemic job market — the pandemic has both amplified existing barriers and removed certain hurdles, Town points out. Job applications and interviews are increasingly online, but Town observes that many people with disabilities don’t have access to the assistive technology they need to navigate online job boards. “The expectation is that you will find and apply for jobs online, and for many people with disabilities, that’s not possible,” she says. “But they can’t approach a community center or store in person and ask if they’re hiring anymore, because it’s riskier during the pandemic.” Some people with disabilities are more likely to get infected or have severe illness from coronavirus, according to the CDC.
The ongoing pandemic has also heightened the isolation people with disabilities faced prior to the pandemic. A recent study published by the Disability and Health Journal shows that people with disabilities experience loneliness and social isolation at much higher rates than those without disabilities. “With social distancing and the rise in new variants, it’s even harder to find out about job opportunities and connect with others,” Town says.
People with disabilities have also struggled to get certain accommodations approved for their work throughout the pandemic. Town notes, for example, that some immunocompromised teachers have been asked to be in the classroom or host in-person office hours despite their concerns of falling severely ill from the virus. People infected with long Covid may also qualify as disabled, but struggle to get the accommodations and benefits that come with a more well-known condition.
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