Post-COVID employment changes that will benefit everyone, but especially people with disabilities

Who wants to “go back to normal” when “normal” wasn’t so hot anyway?

Work from home setting with laptop on cluttered kitchen table with bright green pillows
Work from home setting with laptop on cluttered kitchen table with bright green pillows
Photo by Djurdjica Boskovic on Unsplash

I’ve been accused of being a glass half-empty kind of person, but I have a good reason for how my personality was shaped. I spent 25 years of my life with a visible disability before the enactment of any law that guaranteed me equal access. Plus, I’ve undergone 24 surgeries and gone through a couple of “zebra” diagnosis. Sometimes it’s hard under those conditions not to wonder what is going to go wrong next. You frequently find yourself waiting for the next shoe to drop. I’m also allergic to toxic positivity, so I absolutely flat-out refuse to look for the good in every single negative situation.

That being said, there is some good to be seen for some people with disabilities in the workplace resulting from the COVID chaos. However, it is essential to note that 20 % of workers with disabilities have lost their jobs as compared to 14 % of people without disabilities.

Things that will definitely change (or have changed already)

Several work-based behaviors have been immediately, and possibly permanently, impacted by COVID-19.

WFH is here to stay

No doubt about it — between social distancing requirements in physical workplaces when they re-open and the demonstrated reality that the work-world did not implode when mass WFH began almost three months ago. Requesting work from home no longer holds the stigma it once did.

This change disproportionately benefits workers with disabilities who hold jobs that can be done from home. People with disabilities who can WFH can adjust their work schedules around what is best for their disability, be it doctor’s appointments, or frequent breaks. Few people prefer working in an office to working from home because of traffic, paying for transportation, wearing uncomfortable clothes, and the extra costs associated with all of those things plus the tendency to eat out more.

The critical thing as WFH starts to become more permanent is to make sure that the employer or the worker’s team-mates do not treat people who choose to largely WFH as second class corporate citizens. Businesses that will succeed at WFH are ones where the business culture *intentionally* includes people working from home. As WFH spreads everywhere, it is necessary to consider thoughtful timezone scheduling for meetings. The pain needs to be shared. The world should not revolve around the timezone where the headquarters are located.

Low/No touch objects in offices

One thing that drives me nuts about the ADA is there are exactly *ZERO* regulations for standard internal doors.

  • Outer doors? 5 lbs. of maximum pull weight. Interior doors can be as heavy as they want. When I traveled a lot at previous jobs, I continually ran into new doors that I couldn’t open without help.
  • Outer doors? The requirement is no opening mechanisms that require grasping or turning. Interior doors can have all kinds of obnoxious and unusable handles that are effectively germ depositories.

This lack of consideration for interior doors in the ADA makes me want to scream to regulators, “What, did my arthritis suddenly get cured when I came through the magical outer door?” The lack of ADA regulations for interior doors makes no sense to me at all. But it is what it is.

COVID means that employers are going to need to take some responsibility for safety precautions in the workplace. Door handles and buttons ANYWHERE (elevators, printers, kitchen equipment) are workplace source #1 of transmission of all things infectious. Everyone touches them. A person with asymptomatic COVID (or a cold or flu) could touch a button or door handle, and the deposited virus can remain there between 1 and 3 days waiting to jump to its next host. Since there is no such thing as self-cleaning door handles or buttons (copper reduces, but doesn’t eliminate the risk) the next best thing is to change how workers interact with these objects to reduce the chance of transmission. Some of the changes to expect include:

  • Doors that don’t require grasping or turning handles. Automatic doors are the gold standard, but expensive. They also require permits and backup power sources because of the necessary electricity in many cases, which increases the price and time to install considerably. Mechanical bars that you can bump into and push with a hand, hip, cane, or wheelchair are far easier to retrofit.
  • Printers/Copiers that are software controlled and print automatically by scanning a badge
  • Traffic signals that don’t require pushing buttons

Telemedicine means fewer actual trips to the doctor’s office and thus less time away from work

People with disabilities typically make more trips for medical care than people without pre-existing conditions. A trip to the doctor’s office for me usually eats a minimum of half a day — travel, find parking, waiting room time where hopefully there is Wi-fi, and you can get *something* done, actual appointment, followup with lab, pharmacy, x-ray, etc., travel back to the office/home. Shifting half of my non-invasive doctor’s appointments to telemedicine and email means I can save at least 30 hours a year — and that’s 30 hours less I am away from work. Pre-COVID, I had to push my physicians to do a video call, and those in small practices didn’t offer them at all. Now they are frequently offering video visits first, before asking if I want to come into the office.

Office open floor plans are toast

Frankly, this one is none too soon for me. Open floor plans are abjectly awful for people with a wide variety of disabilities and non-disabling work preferences. Lights, noise, difficulty finding people, smells, allergies, furniture getting moved into wheelchair clearance areas all make open floor plans a discriminatory experience for people with disabilities. There is nothing good to stay about open floor plans. It is difficult bordering on the impossible to remain socially distanced when working in an open floor plan layout. Standard projections for open floor plans are 25 % maximum occupancy when people are allowed to return to work. Expect a return to cubicles with high walls that can be disinfected (no cloth surfaces) or maybe even closed-door offices with air filters under some circumstances.

People will be banned for coming into the office while ill

Everyone has worked in an office where some influential leader has commented, “Look at Suzy’s commitment — she came in even though she was deathly ill.” Pre-COVID, coming in when sick was a sign of sacrifice. Leaders who praised this type of behavior set a very bad example that encouraged this behavior to be repeated by others.

Every year in September, I send out a Slack message to my nearby co-workers, begging them not to come in if they have flu symptoms. I am not oblivious or arrogant enough to ask everyone to get a flu shot — that is a personal decision, and not 100 % effective regardless. However, since I have several autoimmune conditions, flu season is a serious concern of mine. Three years ago, I spent several days in infectious isolation in the hospital gravely ill when I picked up a flu strain (despite being vaccinated) likely from work-based business travel. My entire bone marrow production completely shut down. Someone made the decision that their need to travel was more important than my life. An employee’s need to get work done does NOT extend to harming a co-worker or someone close to them to accomplish that work. Expect in-office temperature taking combined with frequent symptom assessments and questionnaires about members of your family and their symptoms.

Better Exercise/Yoga at Home Options

Yes, people with disabilities exercise. Yoga, while seated, is actually a thing. But rather than having to travel and change clothes to participate, there is now a slew of service providers who have migrated their offerings online, and the employee can exercise and do yoga at home. Again this is a timesaver and will lead to happier and healthier employees, which is always a good thing.

Things that might change

Some issues will take longer to see if they will change as a result of COVID.

Better arguments for paid sick time and Medicare for all

Not everyone has paid sick time. Especially for hourly jobs, the lack of paid sick time frequently encourages people to come in even when they are ill because they are financially punished for staying at home. We saw this prior COVID with several food-borne illnesses that likely involved worker transmission at Chipotle, and cruise ships are notorious for this as well. A society committed to everyone’s good health requires paid sick time, similar to the SFPLO in San Francisco.

One devastating element of COVID for people with disabilities is when the loss of a job is combined with the loss of insurance. For people in states that have expanded Medicare, they can frequently immediately qualify for subsidized health insurance through the Affordable Care Act healthcare exchange. People in this situation who live in states like Texas are in health care limbo, with zero insurance options until they find a job that provides coverage again. COVID has proved that the American connection between health insurance and employment terrible for everyone. Hopefully, this situation will be another reason that legislators will consider a “medicare for all”-type solution.

More focus on mental health?

One-third of Americans are showing signs of clinical depression under the current conditions. Anxiety is on a hockey stick slope up, and the US wasn’t prepared to deal with the levels of mental health issues we had before COVID made it that much worse. The stress caused by isolation is leading to higher rates of abuse and addiction relapses, overdoses, and deaths. Economic devastation is contributing as well — a study after the 2007 recession found that for every percentage point increase in the unemployment rate, there is a more than 1.5 % increase in the suicide rate.

Despite the costs associated with all of the mental health issues triggered by COVID-19, very little of Federal Coronavirus funding has gone to mental health. Schools and workplaces are being forced to pick up the slack because you can’t learn or work at full capacity when you are having so many unresolved emotional difficulties. That is not sustainable in the long term, and if not addressed, will be costing families and societies money long after COVID is eradicated.

Written by

Accessibility Architect @ VMware. W3C Silver, ITI & IAAP GLC committees. Degrees in CS, law, business. Wheelchair user w/ a deaf daughter.

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