October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM 2021). This year’s theme “America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion” focuses on the importance of ensuring employment participation of people with disabilities in America’s national recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. JAN has played a critical role in this effort. For NDEAM 2021, we interviewed Associate Director Anne Hirsh to get her perspective on JAN’s ongoing mission supporting inclusive employment opportunities for people with disabilities, including JAN’s role negotiating challenges during the pandemic.

How long have you worked at JAN?

I started with JAN as a Consultant in June of 1988, a few years before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) went into effect. Before that, I was a Graduate Assistant at JAN while working on my master’s in vocational rehabilitation and vocational evaluation. I have been at this for a while!  

What was the biggest initial change the ADA made in the work you do?

The biggest initial change was the volume of phone calls and as a result, the volume of things we were printing and faxing or putting in the mail to people. We killed a lot of trees back then. Our call volume not only increased but also, we were hearing from employers from more industries as well as from a lot more individuals with disabilities wanting to know about the new law. Pre-ADA, while we sometimes did get questions about rights and obligations under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, it was not very common. As a result of the increase in questions about the law, the staff at that time had to quickly learn about the ADA to be able to direct employers and individuals with disabilities to the most accurate and comprehensive information possible to help them make an informed decision. I am so pleased to say the staff really mastered that task! It has been a pleasure to work with such dedicated people all these years.

What are the biggest trends you’ve seen over the years related to the ADA and accommodations, both positive and negative?

You know one of the biggest trends, positive and negative, is how the definition of disability has been interpreted over the years. Initially, we received a lot of questions about whether an individual met the definition and too often employers determined that they did not. After the implementation of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), which broadened the definition of disability, conversations about whether a particular employee had a disability became less common and the focus became much more on what accommodation options there were for a particular situation. That’s not to say we did not give information about accommodation options before the ADAAA, we most certainly did, but we also spent a lot of time discussing the definition of disability.

Another positive trend over the last few years has been more employers wanting to go beyond the requirements of the ADA and opting to do whatever it takes to retain the talent of employees with all kinds of health conditions.

In your experience, has the ADA improved the employment of people with disabilities? What barriers remain?

I think it most certainly has improved employment for many people with disabilities, but we still have some work to do! There are still plenty of talented people with disabilities who are unemployed or underemployed. One of the biggest barriers that remains is attitudinal awareness. The ADA has helped make employers more aware of disability-related issues but more needs to be done to change negative attitudes about what people with disabilities can and cannot do. That is why programs like National Disability Employment Awareness Month or NDEAM and the Campaign for Disability Employment are so important.  

Have you had a lot of questions about the ADA and accommodations during the pandemic? Do you think having the ADA has helped people keep their jobs?

Oh boy have we had a lot of questions about the ADA and accommodations during the pandemic. They run the gamut from how to communicate with someone who reads lips if they have to wear a mask (clear masks exist!) to setting up accommodations at home for workers who are teleworking. You can read more about the types of questions we get and answers we provide by visiting our COVID-19 webpage.

I think the ADA certainly has helped some people keep their jobs during the pandemic.  We know from the questions we received from individuals with disabilities pre-pandemic that many had asked to work from home as an accommodation and employers were often resistant to it. Now that many employers had to suddenly have their entire workforce telework, there is evidence that people can successfully work from home in many instances. As employers started bringing people back into the office, at-risk employees who needed to continue to work remotely because of a disability found it easier to do so. That is not to say that working remotely works for all. We’re hearing from some people with disabilities that the isolation telework causes can be more harmful than beneficial.

If you could suggest a change to make it easier for people with disabilities to get and maintain employment, what would it be?

In many communities, lack of transportation remains a major barrier for people with disabilities to getting and maintaining employment. Research and funding for improving transportation options for people with disabilities who need it would help. Our funding agency, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), has helpful resources on transportation issues.

And because so many employers require job applicants to apply online these days, employers really need to be sure their online job application and interview process is accessible. ODEP’s Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology (PEAT) has a good resource on the topic of accessible online applications.