What Message Will You Share About Your Commitment to the Disability Community During the Coronavirus Pandemic?

A few weeks ago, just as the majority of companies were making the decision to request employees work remotely in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, our leadership decided to give away two iDisability modules to support employers with accommodating individuals with disabilities during this strange time. I was never prouder of my company than when we started the #EndCOVID19NotInclusion campaign to promote sharing these free resources. Support, at this time, is critical to the on-going success of all people with disabilities and the success of the business community. There is much that is unknown right now; the reach of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact will stretch much further than the date when social distancing mandates are ended and will take a toll on humanity beyond the frightening loss of lives.

At Bender Consulting Services, we talk daily to people who are struggling to access accommodations that enable them to continue to be productive in the workplace and classroom and are fighting for the commitment to these accommodations to be maintained, once they are in place. As a person with a disability who has struggled for most of my life to receive adequate and impactful disability accommodations, starting with my earliest experiences of navigating the educational accommodation process in elementary school, I urge employers and educational institutions to consider the message they are sharing to the disability community during this time.

Are you sharing a message of inclusion, or will the disability community once more be labelled by our non-disabled brothers and sisters as unimportant, insignificant, and unwanted? Will we, as a culture, continue to move forward with the promises made when the ADA was signed 30 years ago and commit to further the goal of reaching the true ideal of inclusion, or will we reinforce stigma and continue to condition employees and students to not disclose disability or request accommodations that will ultimately make not only the person with a disability more productive, but our society as a whole? Already we are experiencing atrocities, comparable only to the horrors of the eugenics movement, as states including Pennsylvania, Washington, Tennessee, Kansas, and others who are providing guidelines that limit access to life saving treatments to people with disabilities, regardless of their ability to survive COVID-19 if given equal access to appropriate care. What does it say about a society that identifies people with disabilities as a lower priority for accessing critical care treatment in times like these?

So many times, employers have asked, what can we do to encourage our employees with disabilities to disclose? For years my answer has been, create an environment that is inclusive, hire and promote people with disabilities. In light of COVID-19, my answer has changed. If you want employees to feel comfortable in coming forward as a person with a disability, then put all your promises about inclusion into practice today. Make it easy for your employees with established disabilities and those who are currently situationally disabled to continue to support your brand by making the process easy to request and gain accommodations. These requests often have no cost, except for the loss in productivity your organization will experience by denying simple solutions and the loss of reputation as an organization that is inclusive of people with disabilities. Many of the accommodation solutions that are having the best results being implemented right now are around establishing routines, allowing for flexibility in remote work schedules, and effective communication practices tailored to the employee. The only barrier to applying these solutions is a lack of leadership, a lack of inclusive practices, and an underlining unwillingness to admit that there may be a better way. How your company responds now will have a lasting impact on how your employees will feel about disclosing a disability for years to come.

Companies and schools stuck in their processes when it comes to the disability community, even in these times of great innovation and constant change, will not be seen as organizations that are truly inclusive. People dealing with pre-existing or new mental health concerns related to the Coronavirus pandemic are being questioned on whether those needs are ‘real enough’ to warrant an accommodation. As a person with a non-apparent disability, there is nothing more likely to make a person hesitant to disclose a disability and request an accommodation than consistent reinforcement by those in positions of authority, like supervisors or teachers, that your disability isn’t ‘real enough.’ I refer to this process as ‘accommodation conditioning.’

Accommodation conditioning is a developed behavior indicative of the propensity to request an accommodation, or not, resulting from past experiences with the accommodation process. If a person requests an accommodation and it is denied or an arduous process must be followed to only receive an accommodation that is inconsistently applied at best, it negatively impacts the likelihood that the person will request an accommodation in the future. If you encounter this situation repeatedly, no matter how simple of a request your accommodation may be, then the likelihood of requesting future accommodations becomes lower and lower, as does the person’s effectiveness in the workplace or classroom. For people, like me, with a non-apparent disability, this process can be difficult because it involves sharing very personal information, putting you in a vulnerable state and opening you up to ridicule, that is often made public, by an individual with authority over your success as a student or employee.

I myself have personally had difficulty throughout the education process gaining access to my accommodations for my dysgraphia. Many teachers felt that I didn't need them or did not believe that I truly had the disability that was shared. I nearly missed out on the opportunity to go to college simply because I could not get the college board to approve accommodations to take the SAT exam. It took several attempts of requests, and contacts to the Department of Justice to gain access to these accommodations for a very crucial time in my life. This experience led me to not request additional accommodations, and to not explore what accommodations are out there to benefit my disability. I was diagnosed with dysgraphia in the fourth grade and did not truly find an effective accommodation tool until I was 28 years old. The tool that I use, Dragon Naturally Speaking, was available for the majority of that time but I never took the opportunity to access it. Even though I work in an environment where accommodations are readily available, I had conditioned hesitation to requesting access to the software. Once gaining access to it for the first time in my life, I felt I could be expressive when writing content, and more effective at written communications in my role.

I ask this question, in the wake of COVID-19, and limited access to healthcare, is it really essential that a person receive a note from a doctor to be able to grant an accommodation of a flexible work schedule, to be considerate of what works best for others in how we communicate, or to allow a person who has a neurodiverse disability the ability to have as much consistency in their day as this situation can allow for? When so many are stuck at home, can we have so little time that we cannot take time to call a student or employee to spend a little extra time with them to facilitate learning a new task or lesson?

What about people who have already received an accommodation, but need an adjustment due to changes in the environment as schools head to an online environment and workers go home? Is it really necessary to restart evaluations from the beginning? Can we not be flexible in our processes to adjust to current environmental factors?

These are tough times, but I assert that what is right has not changed; what is just has not changed. We must remain steadfast and united against policies and practices that disregard inclusion. Now, more than ever, we need to start with love; speak with a kind voice; and take actions that raise the standard for what it means to be human. We need to lay aside our assumptions and prejudice, lay aside blame and anger, and unite, not just as a country but as humanity to build a better tomorrow. We have the ability to lay the foundation for a future of inclusion or slink back into the darkened hallows of our past mistakes. The choice is yours.

I leave you with this question, what message will you share about your commitment to the disability community during the coronavirus pandemic? Will you be a leader in inclusion or will you once again relegate disability to the backburner as unimportant and insignificant?

References and Resources:

Access your FREE copy of iDisability’s Emergency Preparedness and Mental Health Disabilities eLearning resources.

Learn more about the COVID-19 civil rights complaint filed against Pennsylvania’s medical treatment rationing guidelines by Disability Rights Pennsylvania and other Pennsylvania disability advocacy organizations.

Hear people talk about critical disability concerns during the Coronavirus Pandemic on Disability Matters with Joyce Bender.

A Message from Joyce:

Gerald Homme is one of our lead recruiters and our product lead for the Careers2B program. He is an amazing employee who demonstrates true dedication to the mission of Bender Consulting Services. He maintains our office fish tanks and is the premiere ‘punner’ on team. Gerald is also a talented musician and composer, who plays the saxophone in his Pittsburgh-based, funk-rock band, The Sun Champs. He is an avid fan of Godzilla, Marvel Universe, and Lord of the Rings.


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