Disabled Community: We've Always Needed Today's Flexible Work Arrangements. So Make Them Stick - OZY | A Modern Media Company
While the ADA has resulted in significant gains for the disability community, there frequently remains structural and interpersonal ableism at play when somebody requests accommodations.


"Radical" accommodations finally getting a test drive should be permanent.

By Rebecca Cokley

This opinion piece was written by Rebecca Cokley, director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress. 

“I told my boss my chronic illness is flaring up and I could be more productive if I work remotely, with the aids and remedies I have at home. My boss told me it was an undue burden for our team — and at this point, I don’t think I can keep my job.”

“I wish I could do more online learning, which would allow me to accommodate my mental illness. I asked school administrators what online courses are available in my major — they said none, and if I couldn’t come to class, maybe I shouldn’t come to college at all.”

This kind of dialogue is heard often within the disability community, even as the Americans with Disabilities Act turns 30 years old. While the law has resulted in significant gains for the disability community, structural and interpersonal ableism frequently come into play when somebody requests accommodations. 

With the outbreak of COVID-19, we’re beginning to see schools and employers make what would have once been seen as radical shifts to change how we learn and work. Yet many of these proposed solutions are things the disability community has been asking for — and denied — for decades. 

Businesswoman in wheelchair working at desk

While the ADA has resulted in significant gains for the disability community, there frequently remains structural and interpersonal ableism at play when somebody requests accommodations.

Source Getty

That denial has ramifications: It’s unclear how many people’s career paths or GPAs were forever altered by a professor or employer’s denial of access to a piece of software or remote participation. What technological advancement or artistic masterpiece are we missing because that student was not allowed to work remotely when she had migraines? We will never know. Yet we do know roughly two out of three students with disabilities enrolled in a four-year college don’t graduate, according to data from the National Center for Special Education Research published in 2011.

With this current shift to remote working, we’re also seeing a “Columbusing of the abled population.” We’re hearing about the “discovery” of best practices combined with the unchecked ego of the cool boss who pats himself on the back and acknowledges, “Hey, my team can work just as effectively from home if given the right tools and supports.” This dialogue is hurtful. It’s a form of professional gaslighting. Professionals should acknowledge these practices have existed for some time, and that workplaces are integrating them given the urgency of now. 

Midsection of businesswoman typing on keyboard at desk in creative office

Employers and universities are making accommodations the disability community has been seeking for years. But will they stick?

Source GETTY

The passive-aggressive glad-handing is bad enough. But what makes this particular “told you so” feel especially painful for our community is the fact that we know something about the coronavirus that nondisabled people do not, or are not yet ready to face. A mentor of mine and longtime resident of New Orleans, Susan Daniels, once told me, “I have hope, but I also carry the burden of history.” And if history tells us anything — whether it be Superstorm Sandy or Hurricane Katrina — it’s that our folks are going to die. 

People I know personally will not make it through the coronavirus because nondisabled folks aren’t taking necessary steps to ensure our survival. And yet Bob is over here patting himself on the back for learning how to use Slack. 

People will die due to the lack of attention lawmakers are paying to the disability community while they develop policy responses. It’s reminiscent of the ways employers and professors have treated disabled workers and students for years. Action alerts from disability organizations have been activating chapters and members to tweet at Capitol Hill, under hashtags like #SeeUsSchumer or #WhatWeNeed, in response to relatively minimal prioritization of the disability community’s concerns. 

In fact, early iterations of the paid family leave policy left out parents of adult children with disabilities. If paid caretakers for an adult child with disabilities fall ill and can’t come to work, those parents need emergency paid leave from their own jobs to step in and stay home — just as parents need access to paid leave in order to supervise students home from school.

The Senate CARES Act package promised a cash benefit to help people with disabilities, but as it currently stands, exempted recipients of Supplemental Security Income and left people on Social Security Disability Insurance with the bare minimum. People are being told to stay home — but without the ability to acquire surplus medications and supplies, those with disabilities will undoubtedly need to venture outside to pharmacies and doctors’ offices for refills. And Medicaid will not allow delivery by mail.

The legacy of the coronavirus and its impact on our lives, education and jobs cannot be contained just by looking at the present. If we get past this pandemic, will this period be seen as a fluke — like 1970s fashion? Or will technologies and practices derived from the disability community, now finally being given a test drive, become mainstream for the long term?

In essence, it’s a question of whether remote work and learning will become an iteration of the “curb-cut effect.” The wedge cuts now ubiquitous on sidewalks were designed to help those in wheelchairs navigate streets, sporadically, post-World War II. They became mainstream in response to rampant protests by disability activists, including ADAPT.

This architectural adjustment was intended to accommodate the disability community, but it benefits everyone — from parents wheeling strollers to someone lugging groceries. Likewise, these flexible work accommodations should become integrated into society as we move forward.

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