October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). Declared in 1988 by the United States Congress (though its roots go back to 1945 when Congress urged employment for WWII servicemembers with disabilities), NDEAM is a good occasion for us to celebrate the contributions of people with disabilities to workplaces and the economy. We also recommend taking this time to better understand employer obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act and consider how to be more inclusive and accommodating than what the law strictly requires.
The DOL’s Office of Disability Employment Policy is commemorating NDEAM this year with the theme “America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion.” This theme “reflects the importance of ensuring that people with disabilities have full access to employment and community involvement during the national recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
We’re glad to see this.
People with disabilities (1 in 4 adults in the United States) are at greater risk of poor outcomes from COVID-19. At the start of the pandemic, workers with disabilities lost their jobs at a higher rate than the general population. As the pandemic continued, those with intellectual disabilities were six times more likely to die from the virus than other members of the population. Helping people with disabilities stay safe and succeed as the pandemic continues will be essential to a full recovery, and employers can play a huge role in that.
Supporting employees with disabilities may also be vital to the success of individual employers—now and after the recovery. According to a CNBC poll, nearly 80% of workers say that they want to work for a company that values diversity, equity, and inclusion. With roughly half of small businesses struggling to fill roles, competition for talent is fierce. Employers who don’t appear to believe that it’s important to include and support employees with disabilities put themselves at a huge disadvantage.
What can you do to help?
First, make doubly sure you understand your compliance obligations related to applicants and employees with disabilities. We have lots of resources for you on the HR Support Center. If you search disability in the search bar, you’ll find articles, forms, guides, law summaries, letters, policies, Q&As, videos, and more.
Second, as the pandemic continues, do what you can to accommodate employees with disabilities who may be at greater risk of severe illness or death. Accommodations to consider may include remote work for those who can do their jobs from home and extra PPE (e.g., N95 masks, face shields, gloves) for those who need or want to work onsite. Other possible accommodations are different shifts, job changes to reduce physical proximity or public interaction, extra breaks (for handwashing or mental health), permission to keep a minifridge or other personal storage device at one’s workstation, and extra cleaning supplies. All in all, when an employee requests accommodation, do what you can to try to make it work. Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t.
Third, stress to everyone that respect and empathy are nonnegotiable values. Employees who need extra support so they can do their jobs well aren’t going to ask for it if they believe their concerns will be dismissed or that they’ll be ridiculed or looked down on by coworkers. If they don’t feel like they can ask for accommodation, they’re more likely to look for a job elsewhere. And if they stay, it’s unlikely that they will be as productive or successful if they feel unsafe and stressed out. That’s a lose-lose. But it’s a win-win when employees feel safe asking for accommodations and those accommodations enable them to succeed.