The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to make major adjustments to our lives. Many workplaces are closed off to us. Our travel is greatly restricted. We can’t even get together with friends and family.

Welcome to what everyday life is like for people with disabilities.

The adjustments most of us have made recently are inconvenient and sometimes uncomfortable, but they’re also temporary. That’s not the case for people with disabilities. This is a stark reality, especially as we mark 30 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). That sweeping legislation made huge strides in opening public spaces and workplaces to people of all abilities. But after 30 years, we recognize we still have a long way to go.

“Now that COVID-19 has given all of us a glimpse into what life is like for many people with disabilities, we have a chance to use that knowledge to actively work toward creating a society that’s inclusive for everyone,” says Gene Boes, president and CEO of Northwest Center and the father of an adult daughter who is on the severe end of the autism spectrum.

Gene Boes with his daughter, Tori.
Gene Boes with his daughter, Tori.

Temporary inconveniences vs. lifelong challenges

Wearing a mask

Masks make communication a little more difficult. Because they muffle our voices, it’s often hard to hear and to be heard. They also remind us how much of our communication is nonverbal as they remove some of the facial cues we use to assess and express emotion.

People who have disabilities that affect their ability to hear, see, or process visual cues already cope with challenges like these every day.

Lack of access to necessities

As the pandemic rapidly swept the country, it became nearly impossible to find basic necessities like toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

Of course, says Boes, toilet paper and wheelchair access certainly aren’t the same thing — but now all of us understand a bit more what it’s like to not have access to a necessity. The biggest difference, Boes says, is that when the pandemic subsides, finding TP and hand sanitizer won’t be an issue. But many buildings and outdoor spaces will still be out of reach for people with limited mobility.

Isolation

Social distancing has created an epidemic of isolation and loneliness — suddenly we can no longer linger in a favorite coffee shop or meet up for a night out with friends.

For people with disabilities, this isolation is far too often just a part of daily life.

“For many people with disabilities, the workplace is one of their only social outlets,” says Taryn Farley, regional director of Northwest Center Employment Services. “It’s especially hard on them when they can’t see their co-workers.” She points out that while public transportation has vastly improved thanks to the ADA, many people with disabilities can’t simply jump in their car to meet a friend.

And just the reality of being “different” brings its own share of isolation, Boes says. “As a society, our default is still to avoid what we don’t understand. My daughter Tori is mostly nonverbal and interacts with the world in a different way than most of us do. Northwest Center worked with those differences and helped her find engaging work, but that’s still the exception, not the rule.”

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And that’s a problem. But it’s one that Northwest Center is working to solve.

Gene Boes, president and CEO of Northwest Center.
Gene Boes, president and CEO of Northwest Center.

Inclusion as solution

Northwest Center is helping create inclusive workplaces where people with and without disabilities work side by side — Northwest Center Employment Services place job seekers with disabilities in jobs that are meaningful to them and beneficial to their employers, and also consult with businesses to help them hire a more inclusive workforce.

Laethan Wene is living proof of the benefits of inclusion. Wene, who was born with Down syndrome and autism, found a job that he loves thanks to Northwest Center and now serves on the Northwest Center Board of Directors. He’s worked at Arby’s for 24 years and has won awards including Employee of the Quarter and the “Red Hat” award. He’s not able to work right now due to COVID-19 restrictions, but his confidence and self-advocacy help him maintain a positive attitude.

The 30th anniversary of the passage of the ADA means a lot to Wene, who has spent decades traveling to Olympia to meet with state representatives to advocate on behalf of people with disabilities.

“Some people are not able to talk for themselves, so that’s why I am a voice for people with disabilities,” he says.

Inclusion is good for everyone, Farley stresses. When businesses overlook someone with a disability, they miss out on great talent.

“There are people with disabilities who are successful engineers and computer programmers, for example,” she says. “But because they may interact with people differently or are in a wheelchair, they’re treated as though they don’t belong in certain places.”

In order to create more inclusive, diverse workplaces that benefit all of us, Farley says changes need to happen at all levels of business.

“Companies need to make clear that people with disabilities are welcome,” she says. “Making a conscious decision to be inclusive and welcome people with disabilities into a workplace, and communicating that to every level of a company or business, is a good place to start.”

Northwest Center has helped companies get creative with job interviews, where many qualified candidates can be dismissed too quickly.

“Businesses have told me an applicant seemed ‘uncomfortable’ during the interview and wouldn’t be a good fit. But if that person has autism, while they may not shine in a typically expressive interaction like a job interview, that kind of social barrier may have no effect on their ability to do the job,” she says.

“If someone needs a little extra processing time when asked a question, that may not impact job performance if they’ll spend most of the day working on a computer. But many employers aren’t thinking about it that way.”

It’s crucial for all of us to broaden our definition of the “perfect candidate,” Farley explains. “To me, a perfect candidate is someone who has all the essential skills, and is enthusiastic about the work.”

COVID-19 has given us all greater insight into the challenges and isolation that can come from having a disability. It’s also shown us that with a little creativity, we can continue to connect and work can continue to get done. Boes points out that with so many of us working from home, online meetings are a great example of our ability to adapt without too much pain and still turn in stellar work.

Let’s use the lessons we’re learning from the challenges of COVID-19 to make an effort to include people with disabilities at work and in the community. Because until all of us are allowed to engage and contribute, none of us can reach our full potential.

Northwest Center has led inclusion efforts since 1965: our founders wrote the first laws guaranteeing all children an education. Our therapy, education, and employment services for people with disabilities maximize potential and create diverse schools and workplaces that benefit everyone.