Written by Courtney Felle
Courtney talks about the need for remote work post-COVID-19 and the difficulties of obtaining meaningful employment for people with disabilities
National Disability Employment Awareness Month
Every October, employers in the United States recognise National Disability Employment Awareness Month, or NDEAM. And every October, disabled workers are left with mixed emotions. Some disabled workers tepidly celebrate how inclusion is increasing, even with a lot of work left. Other disabled workers groan at another cycle of corporate panels that feel the same, even as protections for disabled workers get stripped back. Return-to-office policies are picking up, even when workers are more satisfied in fully remote roles. The statistics show that companies can retain employees better when offering remote work options, and such options support marginalised employees who may have caregiving duties and/or physical disabilities that restrict commutes. But here we are.
I am one of the people who rely on remote work. It is scary to admit that I have no idea what my professional life would have looked like without remote work access, but I know others struggle with the same issue. I am trying to advocate for what feels vulnerable, knowing that vulnerability also underlines how important it is to me and others. Have you ever tried to take the subway with thousands of other bodies crushing around your wheelchair, spreading germs unmasked while you dwell anxiously on how this might impact your compromised immune system, only to discover the elevator is broken at your station and you’re stranded? This is what an average commute to work feels like. Every week. Every day. And for many, it is literally impossible.
Reflecting on the challenges for young workers with disabilities
Last year for NDEAM, my wonderful mentor Merrill Friedman put together some questions for a panel of young workers with disabilities. I wanted to be optimistic. There are some lovely people who are leaders within their fields and are open about their disability pride, including Merrill, and there is more intergenerational support than I ever expected to find. It’s also, so often, nowhere near enough. There just aren’t enough avenues for young disabled people to connect with support. There just aren’t enough possible openings.
I want to include my responses from last year in full, because they continue to weigh on my mind.
How do you feel, if at all, that the Covid-19 pandemic positively impacted people with disabilities in securing a job or reaching their career goals?
The remote options made available during the Covid-19 pandemic were life-changing. As someone with a progressive chronic illness, I may sometimes wake up with too much pain and fatigue for everything involved in an in-person workday: commuting on public transit with mobility aids, navigating inaccessible office locations, and ensuring I have safety and support in the event of a health crisis. Continued access to remote work allows me to still have a fulfilling and possible career, and it allows me to share critical insights about the chronic illness community with the organisations where I work.
What keeps you up at night when you think about people with disabilities not being able to get a job when they want one?
Most of my friends are young adults living with chronic illnesses and rare diseases. I stress living because, with the right treatment and support, we hope to spend a long time getting older. Surviving as a young adult right now, especially a young adult with complicated and expensive medical needs, is difficult. It is hard to afford staying alive if you don’t have family wealth to fall back on, and sometimes even then. I am constantly in awe of how talented, insightful and kind my friends are, and how much the world needs to witness and incorporate our perspectives. I want us to access entry-level jobs with life-sustaining income more easily. I want us to live into positions of power and change, in as many different spaces as we can. I want us to live.
As we continue to increase Integrated Competitive Employment and inclusive workplaces, what recommendations would you suggest to policymakers to ensure employment statistics improve for people with disabilities?
Seek out guidance from individuals with disabilities and chronic illnesses themselves, who can inform more accurate and holistic data collection. In my own experience, I usually ask: Who is missing entirely from these statistics? (For example, if you are using models that depend on unemployment statistics, challenge your definitions of “unemployed but looking for work” versus “dropped out of the workforce.” Look for people who have not retired early, but have been forced out of the workforce due to illness and/or inaccessibility.) I also consider who has not survived to become counted in the statistics, especially as we still experience large-scale mortality from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Slowly, we are starting to see policy change. I am glad to see the Biden administration reevaluating the use of subminimum wage under Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. I am glad to see legislators working to change overly restrictive SSI asset caps. But I want our on-the-ground experiences as young disabled professionals to truly reflect flexibility, security and belonging. We are aware of all the challenges associated with disability employment. Now, it’s time to act.
Editor’s note: Courtney described her views on the vital importance that remote work has for her in a recent article: businessinsider.com/remote-work-changed-my-life-not-going-back-to-office-2022-7