How Covid’s Mass Disabling Event is Impacting the Workforce

April 22, 2022 BY SAMANTHA SAULD
Updated: September 20, 2023


Listen: A Look at Disability in the Workplace with Cheryl Rayburn [Free Podcast]

When the COVID-19 pandemic took the world by storm, the way we operated as a society completely changed. We had to learn how to quickly pivot and adapt to our “new normal.”

One of the major sectors of our society that the pandemic altered was employment. At the height of the pandemic, tens of millions of people became unemployed. Unfortunately, this predominantly affected our most marginalized groups – including people with disabilities.

As the world shifts, once again, this time learning how to live with the pandemic, we are facing new challenges. While unemployment rates have decreased, the impacts of COVID as a mass disabling event are hitting the workforce. How do employees and employers alike handle this?

The Growing Disabled Workforce

person on computer writing captionsMany disability advocates, like Imani Barbarin, also known online as @crutches_and_spice, are using their platforms to shed light on COVID being a mass disabling event. 

You may be wondering what this even means. 

There is a significant portion of the population who tested positive for COVID-19 that have symptoms longer than the usual two-week period. Terms like “long-hauler”, “long COVID”, “PASC”, and many others have been used to coin this new phenomenon. As a result of these symptoms, millions of people have become disabled either temporarily or even permanently, and it has greatly impacted their day-to-day life.  

In a span of one year alone, 1.2 million more people identified as having a disability in the United States. A large number of these people are participating members of the workforce.   

Now more than ever, it’s imperative that workplaces accommodate the growing number of employees with disabilities.


 Listen to the podcast: A Look at Disability in the Workplace with Cheryl Rayburn ➡️ 

Accommodations for One, Accommodations for All

As workers with disabilities, many are unaware that they have the right to request accommodations and companies have the responsibility to provide the appropriate tools and resources for employees to perform their duties successfully. 

Legal balance scale and yellow blobThere are several laws and standards in place that ensure the rights of people with disabilities are protected, like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. 

The ADA is a broad anti-discrimination law that was passed in 1990 so that disabled citizens can fully participate in society. 

It’s divided into five sections of public life, known as titles, and the first title covers employment. Title I states that it is unlawful for employers to discriminate against people with disabilities. In order for disabled workers to have fair and equal opportunities in the workplace, accommodations need to be in place. 

This doesn’t only apply to private employers either. According to the Rehabilitation Act, government agencies and organizations receiving federal funding must also provide accommodations to their employees. 

Oftentimes when people think of accommodations for disabilities, they refer to physical accessibility like providing a wheelchair ramp or automatic doors. However, disability isn’t only limited to mobility. There are a plethora of disabilities invisible to the naked eye that frequently get overlooked. It is equally as important to support physical accessibility as it is to support sensory, cognitive, psychological, and other types of disabilities. 

An article written by Harry T. Paul, an M.D./Ph.D student at the John Hopkins University School of Medicine, shared, “A better understanding of hidden disabilities can improve patient care and accommodation practices in medical facilities, schools, businesses, and other public places.”    

With the growing number of “long-haulers” in the workforce, it’s become increasingly pertinent for employers to support and accommodate these individuals – even if their symptoms may not be physically apparent. 

Listen to the Podcast: A Look at Disability in the Workplace with Cheryl Rayburn ✨

Accommodations in the Workplace

Now that we’ve covered COVID’s mass-disabling effect and the laws that protect the rights of individuals with a variety of disabilities, let’s dive into accommodations in the workplace. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, government officials ordered a shelter-in-place mandate to limit the spread of the virus. A number of businesses and organizations in certain industries responded to this mandate by requiring their employees to work from home. Many businesses have since then reopened their doors to their staff, however, there are still millions of Americans who work remotely. 

Whether employees work in the office, work from home, or a combination of both, companies must consider the needs of employees with disabilities and ensure they are complying with the major accessibility laws. 

When companies put accessibility at the forefront of their organization, all employees benefit. Just look at businesses, like CapitalOne, that are implementing accessibility strategies within and outside of their organization.

Comparatively, just as disabilities come in a wide range of types, accommodations are also very diverse. No one particular accommodation can cover all of the needs of the different types of disabilities. Therefore, accommodations can be physical, neural, digital, and the list goes on. 

Below, we’ve listed some common accommodations that aren’t limited to, but are beneficial for a more accessible workplace – both at home and in the office! 

  • Frequent breaks 
  • Captions and/or transcripts for video or audio content 
  • Note-taking services
  • Audio description or verbal description of graphs/images
  • Sign language interpreters
  • Larger print 
  • Screenreaders 
  • Reserved parking 
  • Provide or adjust work equipment (i.e. chair, desk, etc.) 
  • Flexible work schedules 
  • Service animals 
  • Restructuring the role and/or responsibilities 
  • Reassigning work responsibilities
  • Adjust the temperature on a thermostat 
  • Accessible restrooms 
  • Provide an assistant 
  • Correct color contrast 
  • Accessible keyboards 

This list is a great place to start to give more context to the different types of accommodations available to employees. That being said, the important thing to remember is that businesses should provide accommodations with their employees’ specific needs in mind. As mentioned, disabilities are heterogenous so accommodations should reflect that too. 

A Brighter Future: Beyond COVID as a Mass-Disabling Event

Although COVID sparked a mass-disabling event, the needs of disabled workers have been overlooked for far too long. 

Regardless of if the cause of a disability is due to COVID-19 or something else, it is a disservice to our growing number of disabled workers to fail to provide adequate accommodations. People with disabilities and their needs must be centered in every sector of our society, including employment. 

When we embrace accessibility and continue to build a more inclusive and equitable society, it’s truly a win-win for everyone involved. 



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