​Rebuilding Our Nation with Access and Inclusion

Posted by Stephanie Woodward in Life After Paralysis on October 25, 2021 # Employment

Women at workOctober is National Disability Employment Awareness Month which focuses on educating about disability employment and celebrating the contributions that people with disabilities make to America’s workplaces and economy. The 2021 theme for National Disability Employment Awareness Month is “America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion.” This theme gives critical recognition to the need to ensure people with disabilities are included in the workforce as we work to rebuild after the worldwide pandemic has changed the way we do almost everything.

Prior to the pandemic, many people with disabilities were left out of the workforce – not because we are unable to work, but because of inaccessibility, lack of reasonable accommodations, negative stereotypes, and blatant discrimination. In February 2020, right before the COVID-19 pandemic spread nationwide, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 7.8%, while the national unemployment rate was 3.6%. By September 2020, unemployment for people with disabilities was at 12.5% and 7.5% for people without disabilities. Now, a year later, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 10.9% and 5% for people without disabilities.

It’s clear that disabled people are consistently unemployed at higher rates, and the pandemic has only exacerbated this problem. However, the pandemic has also introduced us to new, inclusive ways of doing business – and if we’re going to recover as a nation, we need to ensure that these inclusive business practices stick around post-pandemic.

For example, working from home has created a lot of opportunities for people with disabilities to participate in the workforce when we have previously been excluded from these opportunities due to lack of accessible transportation, inaccessible buildings, and other factors. Flexible work schedules allow people with different disabilities to care for themselves and perform the duties of their job on a schedule that is right for them. Hosting virtual workplace meetings and events has allowed more people to participate in these forums. Overall, the pandemic welcomed more options for performing jobs, which not only created convenience for the average person but created access and opportunity for those of us with disabilities.

In my own life, I have been able to access more because of the pandemic. I could easily teach my college-level class without worrying about if my wheelchair would get stuck on the snowy sidewalk as I made my way from the parking lot and into the building, because I was able to teach my class virtually instead. I also did not have to worry about if my frail and elderly clients would be able to get a ride to court because they were able to attend hearings virtually. When I had a urinary tract infection, I did not have to take any days off from work because I could run to my own bathroom as much as I needed to – and I could wear comfy pants that didn’t push on my bladder!

Now that we’re working to rebuild as a nation, we cannot simply “go back to normal.” The “normal” we had was not working for people with disabilities, who – by the way – make up more than 25% of our population in the United States. We cannot leave one-quarter of our nation behind by reopening our offices, shutting down Zoom meetings, and going back to our old ways. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t reopen offices – in many cases, we should have offices open again, but we should also maintain the option to work from home, have flexible work schedules, and – yes – the option to Zoom into meetings! The pandemic has taught us that we can be flexible with where and how people perform their job duties, and now that we’ve figured that out, we shouldn’t let that knowledge go to waste.

So for this National Disability Employment Awareness Month, I invite employers to think about the practices you’ve implemented during the pandemic that has created more access for people with disabilities and how you can maintain these practices as we rebuild together.

Stephanie Woodward is an attorney and Executive Director of Disability EmpowHer Network, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering girls and women with disabilities. Stephanie is passionate about seeking justice for marginalized communities - and has an arrest record to show for it. As a proud disabled woman and civil rights activist, Stephanie is committed to bringing more women and girls with disabilities to the forefront through mentoring and activism.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.