Disabled Community: We’ve Always Needed Today’s Flexible Work Arrangements. So Make Them Stick

 Disabled Community: We’ve Always Needed Today’s Flexible Work Arrangements. So Make Them Stick

Businesswoman in wheelchair working at desk

By Rebecca Cokley

“I told my boss my chronic illness is flaring up and I could be more productive if I work remotely, with the aids and remedies I have at home. My boss told me it was an undue burden for our team — and at this point, I don’t think I can keep my job.”

“I wish I could do more online learning, which would allow me to accommodate my mental illness. I asked school administrators what online courses are available in my major — they said none, and if I couldn’t come to class, maybe I shouldn’t come to college at all.”

This kind of dialogue is heard often within the disability community, even as the Americans with Disabilities Act turns 30 years old. While the law has resulted in significant gains for the disability community, structural and interpersonal ableism frequently come into play when somebody requests accommodations. 

With the outbreak of COVID-19, we’re beginning to see schools and employers make what would have once been seen as radical shifts to change how we learn and work. Yet many of these proposed solutions are things the disability community has been asking for — and denied — for decades. 

While the ADA has resulted in significant gains for the disability community, there frequently remains structural and interpersonal ableism at play when somebody requests accommodations.

That denial has ramifications: It’s unclear how many people’s career paths or GPAs were forever altered by a professor or employer’s denial of access to a piece of software or remote participation. What technological advancement or artistic masterpiece are we missing because that student was not allowed to work remotely when she had migraines? We will never know. Yet we do know roughly two out of three students with disabilities enrolled in a four-year college don’t graduate, according to data from the National Center for Special Education Research published in 2011.

With this current shift to remote working, we’re also seeing a “Columbusing of the abled population.” We’re hearing about the “discovery” of best practices combined with the unchecked ego of the cool boss who pats himself on the back and acknowledges, “Hey, my team can work just as effectively from home if given the right tools and supports.” This dialogue is hurtful. It’s a form of professional gaslighting. Professionals should acknowledge these practices have existed for some time, and that workplaces are integrating them given the urgency of now. 

Midsection of businesswoman typing on keyboard at desk in creative office

Employers and universities are making accommodations the disability community has been seeking for years. But will they stick?

The passive-aggressive glad-handing is bad enough. But what makes this particular “told you so” feel especially painful for our community is the fact that we know something about the coronavirus that nondisabled people do not, or are not yet ready to face. A mentor of mine and longtime resident of New Orleans, Susan Daniels, once told me, “I have hope, but I also carry the burden of history.” And if history tells us anything — whether it be Superstorm Sandy or Hurricane Katrina — it’s that our folks are going to die. 

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Originally posted on Ozy

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