Commentary

For some workers with disabilities, the pandemic brought surprising benefits. Now the flexibility is fading with a return to the old ways of working.

Some employers aren't making it any easier to obtain accommodations — even though many accommodations are easier to implement than before.

“The ADA prohibits not only discrimination against those with an actual disability, but against those who are ‘regarded as disabled,’’’ says Kelly Kolb, labor and employment attorney at Fowler White Boggs. “Questions about an employee’s physical characteristics (to the extent they reflect a perception of disability) are prohibited, just as are questions about a person’s actual disability.’’ Prospective employers may, however, ask if you’re able to perform essential functions of the job, with or without accommodation, Kolb says.


One happy surprise during the coronavirus pandemic is how technology and flexible thinking enabled many workplaces and workers to stay connected and productive even outside a traditional office setting.

This swift, widespread overhaul came as a bit of a slap-in-the-face to unemployed and underemployed workers with disabilities who had been fighting for workplace accommodations for years under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Employers everywhere were suddenly embracing remote work, flexible hours, wellness and mental health support, and other accommodations that had been deemed too burdensome and impractical before the pandemic. Maybe these widespread adaptations could end up opening doors to those who had previously been unable to participate fully in the labor market.

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Or not. According to several readers, some employers aren’t making it any easier to obtain accommodations — even though many accommodations are easier to implement than before.

Billie Alexander from Pittsburgh is a part-time graduate student who had a job providing administrative support for a public library system. She also has an autoimmune condition that affects her physical and mental health. Sometimes the condition flares up and requires her to take time off, she said in an email.

“I worked from home for over a year between March of 2020 and June of 2021. There were measurable results, too — we had some pretty major events I organized,” said Alexander.

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However, in June, Alexander’s employer refused to allow her to continue working from home and reassigned some of her work to other employees. The employer also denied most of her accommodation requests, requiring her to use her personal paid leave for medical appointments.

“I ran out [of leave] pretty quickly as the adjustment back to in-person work was so hard on me physically,” she said. Alexander has since left that employer for another job where she is able to work from home and which is more willing to provide accommodations.

Another happy discovery during the pandemic is that video technology is up to the challenge of facilitating everything from online conferences to virtual office parties and job interviews.

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Marlowe, who describes herself as extremely hard-of-hearing, is a grant writer and communications coordinator in Southern California. She is comfortable with video meetings, as setting them up is part of her job. (Marlowe spoke on the condition that she be identified only by her middle name because she doesn’t want her employer to know she is looking for another job.)

When contacted for video interviews, Marlowe said, she asks for automatic voice-to-text captioning, which she relies on in addition to lip-reading, and offers tips on how to enable it. Marlowe has access to a lower-quality, third-party captioning app, but it requires her to manipulate multiple windows on her screen. “Having to do [this] puts me at a disadvantage as a candidate and makes me look disorganized,” she said in an email.

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In Marlowe’s most recent interviews, “two out of seven companies provided the captioning I requested, and four of seven said they could and didn’t,” she said in an email. One recruiter who had claimed to be “excited” about her qualifications blocked her on LinkedIn after she mentioned accommodations, she said.

Olivia Norman, a Washington D.C. resident who is blind and suffers from chronic asthma, has built a career testing products and websites for accessibility to users who are vision-impaired and who use screen-readers, which convert text to speech. Working remotely meant she no longer had to risk exposure to infection during her commute on crowded Metro trains, or rely on ride-sharing services whose drivers frequently denied service to her and her guide dog, Tofu.

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Since her most recent contract ended this summer, Norman has struggled to find work. Like many job candidates in “The Great Resignation,” she’s encountering employers looking to operate with “lean” staffs that can produce a full staff’s output at minimal expense. “Everyone wants someone who can do everything my team did” — including some tasks that Norman can’t do even with a screen-reader, she told me. Norman’s also having trouble finding employers that are willing to let her stick with an all-remote or hybrid office schedule.

“It’s harder when you see what is possible and what you can do — and then you’re back down here again,” she said.

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With financial support from her parents, Norman has health insurance under COBRA and is working with a job counselor from a D.C. rehabilitation agency for the blind. She needs help filing weekly for D.C. unemployment insurance benefits because the benefits site is not compatible with screen-readers.

You know, I bet they could pay someone to help with that.

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