“Inclusion drives innovation” is the theme for this October’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), an annual awareness campaign that celebrates the contributions of workers with disabilities and educates the public about the value of a workforce inclusive of their contributions, skills and talents.

This year marks the nation’s 75th observance of NDEAM as well as the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The roots of this month date back to 1945 when Congress enacted a law declaring the first week in October to be “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week” focusing attention on the return of WWII soldiers with disabilities. Much has changed since then, but the fact that individuals with disabilities want to work and are a vital part of the American workforce remains the central message.

People with disabilities are experienced problem solvers with a proven ability to adapt,” said Office of Disability Employment Policy Deputy Assistant Secretary, Jennifer Sheehy. In the current environment where the pandemic has challenged every aspect of our society and economy, “now more than ever, flexibility is important for both workers and employers. National Disability Employment Awareness Month celebrates the ingenuity people with disabilities bring to America’s workplaces.”

In 2019, before the pandemic began to affect the U.S. economy, just 33 percent of people with disabilities ages 16 to 64 were employed, compared with 77 percent of people without disabilities. Since March, approximately 1 million US workers with disabilities have lost their jobs. Workers with disabilities represent only about 3 percent of the labor force, but they have experienced disproportionate labor market impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The US Bureau of Labor Statistic reported that since March, 1 in 5 workers with disabilities have been dismissed from employment compared to 1 in 7 in the general population.

Both the widespread shut down of businesses and the mass shift to “work from home” have directly and negatively impacted employees and job seekers with disabilities, as well as the delivery systems for disability employment services. Many people with disabilities work in businesses identified as essential during the pandemic, such as grocery stores, retail fulfillment centers and healthcare facilities. However, underlying health conditions may put them at greater risk in these public-facing roles. In addition, these essential workers often rely on supports from job coaches and employment specialists to navigate elements of their job responsibilities.  Supported workers need assistance to understand universal precautions, to adjust to changing work responsibilities, manage anxiety and ensure communications are understood. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, many of this critical in-person support was put on hold.

Similarly, when the economy shut down earlier this year, many facility-based day rehabilitation programs and pre-vocational programs were forced to shut down. Community-based service providers needed to quickly pivot to provide supports remotely, utilizing various forms of readily available technology, often without complete assurance that remote service delivery would be reimbursed. Despite a relatively quick response from state and federal authorities to enhance flexibility and adjust funding requirements, community-based disability service providers across the country had to shut down programs and furlough staff. It is unclear how many of these programs will reopen. Because of social distancing requirements, some programs are not able to serve enough people right now to be financially feasible and programs that have attempted to reopen have seen low utilization.

National Disability Employment Awareness Month reminds us that people with disabilities deserve the same opportunities as everyone else to achieve personal satisfaction, economic security, and independence through employment.   Employment advocates across the country are working to overcome challenges amid the pandemic to keep their clients engaged in training and employed. They are balancing the availability of jobs with the safety of their clients to maintain supported employment and other employment services in local communities so that people with disabilities can have the supports they need to remain successful and safe on their jobs.