For the 1 in 5 Americans who live with a disability, the pandemic has brought upheaval and stress. But the past year and a half has also brought some unexpected good news. Today, 35% of working-age people with a disability have a job, up from 33% in February 2020.
Steve Bartlett is a former congressman from North Texas, and he helped write the Americans with Disabilities Act. He is chair emeritus of Respect Ability, a nonprofit advocating for people with disabilities. He told Texas Standard that 23% of people with disabilities had full-time jobs when the ADA was passed in 1990. Gains over the years have been slow, and were stalled earlier in 2020 by the pandemic.
But gains made later in the pandemic came as the result of several factors, including high levels of motivation to work and new work-at-home options.
Still, he says most people with disabilities do not have full-time jobs.
“A 35% employment rate means a 65% unemployment rate. So we have a ways to go, but it’s good progress,” Bartlett said.
Many people with disabilities lost jobs at the beginning of the pandemic, often being “last in, first fired” among employees. But the current worker shortage, and the ability for some to work more effectively from home, have aided some job-seekers in returning to the workforce. For many people with disabilities, doing a job from home offers a better work environment, eliminates the need to find daily transportation and facilitates productivity and focus.
“Working from home: in disability law, you call in a ‘reasonable accommodation,'” Bartlett said.
Loyalty to employers among disabled workers may give both employers and disabled workers the opportunity to keep the improved participation rates going, even after the pandemic’s effects lessen, Bartlett says. Workers with disabilities often remain in jobs longer, both because of loyalty and the difficulty of securing employment elsewhere.
Meanwhile, remote education has not been a positive experience for many people with disabilities, Bartlett says.
“That’s been the big failure during the pandemic crisis,” he said. “Education has just simply not kept up, especially for people with disabilities.”
In many cases, school districts struggling to put classes online have not provided for their students with needs for academic accommodation.
“They’re so focused on the nondisabled student body that they just didn’t get around to helping those with special needs,” Bartlett said.
The challenge is particularly great for high school seniors with disabilities. The final year of school for those in special education programs, Bartlett says, focuses on transition between education and work. That transition was lost during the pandemic, making it even more difficult for graduates with disabilities to find jobs. Bartlett suggests education agencies add a 13th year of school to get students back on track in their transition to the working world.
Bartlett says improving employment opportunities for people with disabilities remains a major challenge 31 years after the passage of the ADA. He also says taking the stigma away from disability is an important goal, one in which progress has been made recently.
“The public perception of people with disabilities is still that they’re somehow second class, or not to be regarded or not part of the mainstream,” Bartlett said.
But some film and television producers have recently increased representation of disabled people in their projects, Bartlett says, sometimes hiring disabled actors without making their disability a part of their story, and sometimes including disability in narratives. Bartlett says that since 20% of Americans have a disability, showing them in film and on TV makes sense.
“If you get 20 people in a room, five of them would typically be disabled,” he said. “Putting those actors into the films helps a lot.”