Have We Seen a Pandemic Silver Lining for People with Disabilities?

Published April 1, 2021

We wrote last year that the global pandemic could prove to have a silver lining for people with disabilities for two primary reasons. First, everyone on the planet has now experienced, to an extent, what it feels like to be "locked out" of access to many of the venues of everyday life. Second, we have learned just how promptly and efficiently we can make changes to improve accessibility for everyone, when sufficient incentive exists. Think Zoom!

First, the downside

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a greater percentage of people with disabilities lost their jobs during the past year than in the general population. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities increased by 12.6% in 2020 compared to the same rate in 2019. This rate of increase was significantly higher than the rate for people without a disability who saw their unemployment rate increase by 7.9% from the prior year.

There is no question that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on marginalized groups such as people with disabilities. For example, it has been noted that the increase in mental health problems during the pandemic has been seen most frequently in these groups. People with disabilities were already experiencing mental health issues five times more frequently than the general population. This group is likely experiencing an increase in mental health challenges today in large part because they have less access to resources to deal with the stress that has swept over all of our lives.

An increased awareness

Many major societal changes have had their starting points with events that generate awareness of the struggles of a particular group and empathy for those who suffer. Sometimes a triggering event can be dramatic like the March 7, 1965 March on Selma. Other times, increased empathy evolves over time, often as each of us increasingly confronts struggles of others in our daily lives. The pandemic has really combined both.

"I think there’s a nationwide enlightenment happening in thinking about the people you work and learn with being as human," says Caleb Sandoval of Michigan State University’s Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities. "Remote work has certainly contributed to this." Sandoval adds that "people who might have been less open to hearing messages about the importance of empathy will be less inclined to be that way going forward, because of the way the pandemic has been a struggle for every single person."

A real shift

Many of the adaptations made as a result of the pandemic have simply accelerated certain trends that have been with us for years. For example, in-person retail shopping has been increasingly bypassed for years by online shopping. A cashless society was only a dream a number of years ago. Today, we aren’t too concerned with leaving the house without cash in our pockets. And of course, remote work has been increasing for years even though the early proponents have been somewhat disappointed by the resistance from those who could not let go of the belief that face-to-face contact was necessary. These objections seem to have largely disappeared over the past year.

People with disabilities have been clamoring for years for greater acceptance of remote work and for the development of the technical tools that can improve remote accessibility to the workplace. And it appears the pandemic has generated support for this proposition among the very leaders who can make this happen. In a recent survey by Gartner, more than 80% of company leaders indicated that they plan on permitting employees to work remotely at least some of the time.

This has made a real difference. For example, people with autism can experience difficulty with the traditional workplace with its "ambient noise…fluorescent light…(and) constant conversation." For such people, "Covid…has rewritten the possibilities." Because the pandemic has in effect normalized the remote office, "the pandemic has made it easier for people who don’t adapt well to office environments to thrive."

A return to complete normalcy is unlikely

Of course, the key question is whether, and to what extent, our collective embrace of remote work, learning, and shopping remains as the pandemic eases. There are signs that we may never return to complete normalcy. Additionally, research conducted by the Society of Human Resources (SHRM) suggests an increased focus on disability, with at least 5% of firms planning on hiring more people with disabilities than before the onset of the pandemic.

Even if many companies and their employees revert to a more traditional office environment, we have learned that new technologies, when harnessed properly, can transform our way of conducting business and that the work world does not collapse when employees are not constantly under the watchful eye of management.

Finally, the pandemic will undoubtedly have a tremendous impact on the sensibilities and perceptions of a younger generation who will be shaped by the pandemic experience much like prior generations were shaped by the Great Depression and World War II. Part of this experience has been the realization that everyone can contribute and thrive if given the access to the necessary opportunities and tools.

Time will tell

Of course it’s too early to predict exactly how the real changes made to our environment during the past year that both directly and tangentially benefit people with disabilities, will be permanent. Nevertheless, there we may well be witnessing a paradigm shift in our approach to improving opportunities for those with disabilities.

"People with disabilities are our most-practiced innovators, they spend most of every day solving problems, removing barriers and inventing ways of doing things," says Wendi Safstrom, Executive Director of SHRM. "With the success of remote work thus far, it’s likely that there will be increased opportunities for individuals with disabilities."