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Last Tuesday, people nationwide—and national museums in D.C.—celebrated the 31st anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the major U.S. law forbidding discrimination on the basis of disability. That same day, the Biden administration issued guidance for the first time about how the condition of “long COVID” can be considered a disability under the ADA. The announcement opened a pathway for people experiencing debilitating long-term effects of COVID-19—including crippling fatigue, organ damage, and mental health conditions—to qualify for reasonable accommodations in the workplace and elsewhere.  

Some considered this widespread celebration of the ADA, and the formal recognition of long COVID as a potential disability, positive side effects of a COVID-era heightened awareness of disability from people not part of the community. And with that comes a better understanding from employers of the feasibility of reasonable work accommodations under the law.

“I really think this pandemic has increased our sensitivity to that, that we’re all struggling,” DC Office of Disability Rights (ODR) attorney advisor Abby Volin told City Paper. Volin was referencing the surge of information the public is getting about long COVID and people newly diagnosed with the condition, as well as data that shows the likelihood that people will experience a disability at some point in their lives. 

Others think not so much

Local advocates have guided workers with disabilities and their employers through office reopening periods. These workers include government employees, who Mayor Muriel Bowser pushed to return to the office last month as a part of reopening D.C. But timelines for the return to the office vary from agency to agency. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) issued a memo on July 23 to agencies—whose back-to-office plans were due July 19—encouraging them to strategically deploy remote work “in the context of changes in workplaces nationwide as a result of the pandemic and in response to long-term workforce trends.”

Particularly for people with disabilities, concerns around the delta variant of COVID-19 have lent more urgency to negotiations around accommodations. This is especially true for people who are navigating the world of work accommodations for the first time, either due to getting long COVID, needing accommodations to comply with back-in-office COVID precautions, or due to underlying immunocompromising conditions (which are more common among people with disabilities) that make folks more susceptible to the virus even if vaxxed.

Kelly Mack, a five-year federal employee whose workplace still hasn’t issued guidance around the return to work, has already established with her boss that she’ll continue to work remotely. Mack, who is immunocompromised and uses a wheelchair, told City Paper about her journey to request and get work accommodations for the first time. She hopes that her story will encourage others—with and without disabilities—to advocate for their needs during the pandemic. 

The Decision

Mack knew there was a system for requesting reasonable work accommodations, but had never done so. The exception was when she asked for support setting up her desk so Mack, whose juvenile rheumatoid arthritis makes it difficult for her to reach things, could work at her computer. She just didn’t know exactly how to go about it. Back in June, after months contemplating what a back-to-office future at her workplace would mean for her, she decided to tell her supervisor what she would be requesting. For Mack, remote work arrangements were necessary for multiple reasons. Apart from being immunocompromised, her joint mobility issues in an in-person office setting meant she would need help (which she regularly got from her spouse) putting on and taking off her mask to eat or drink. 

Having the Talk 

Mack acknowledges that not everyone has the most understanding supervisor. Never mind employers’ legal obligation to make changes in an employee’s work role or workplace so employees can perform essential functions of their job and enjoy the same work benefits as their colleagues.

But having a supportive supervisor didn’t make it much easier for Mack to make this first-time move, despite her pre-pandemic work arrangement of working from home twice a week. That arrangement had been part of the telework policy as a federal employee. A reasonable accommodation request felt, and was, under the law, very different. 

“I had to face my fear,” she told City Paper, “I thought my boss would be supportive, but I didn’t know until I had that conversation. It can be very scary for someone with a disability, maybe, even more so, an invisible one, to say what you’re concerned about, what your challenges are, and have that kind of deep dialogue.”

Such fears, in addition to the still-pervasive issue of women facing backlash for negotiating at all, reflect doubts from many people with disabilities and disability rights advocates that heightened awareness around disability issues because of COVID is real or lasting. Mack and others remain skeptical that this type of mental shift happened over the course of the pandemic when, for so long pre-pandemic, employers across sectors claimed remote work wasn’t feasible for people with disabilities.  

ODR director Mat McCollough says his office has witnessed an uphill battle to understand ADA compliance and disability rights from some employers more than others. 

“What we observed was, if human resources or the ADA coordinator have [certain] personal experiences,” he told City Paper, “then they are much more mindful, understanding, and accommodating towards other employees if they’re dealing with an ADA coordinator. I fully understand all these … business owners had to go through a learning curve … and some have some sense of understanding or personal perspective of how COVID-19 has impacted their family or the queer community, that’s actually been quite helpful when we give these talks.”

Commissioner for the DC Commission on People with Disabilities Rachael Gass understands the plight of employees fearful of requesting work accommodations even in the time of delta. “Asking for accommodations can be really tricky in the workplace,” she told City Paper, “And it’s not cut and dry … a lot of people do have hurdles coming out with their disability … And a lot of workplaces still will create even more hurdles for getting those accessible accommodations.” 

For Mack, it was helpful to rehearse for the talk she would have with her boss, role-playing with her spouse until he got tired of replaying the scenario.

She likens these negotiations to talking through a menu during a shared meal: “You put forward the things you want the most, right? Then you kind of go down the menu, or you have a conversation about, ‘OK, this is what the boss needs, this is what I need. Let’s talk about where we can meet somewhere that we both like, or can live with.’ ” 

For accommodation requests from folks whose situations allow for more flexibility, Mack recommends those preparing for negotiations to have a list of ideas ready and a list of their workplace needs. 

Starting the Process

Her supervisor explained the process—in her case, it started with getting a letter from her doctor explaining Mack’s symptoms and need for accommodations. The ADA doesn’t require medical documentation for employers to provide accommodations, but employers may request it when the disability isn’t known or obvious. For Mack, while her wheelchair is an indicator of her physical disability, her immunocompromised condition—the primary basis for her need to work remotely—isn’t. Such invisible disabilities have long been more likely to be ignored or dismissed, yet another workplace barrier some diversity and inclusion experts hope the experience of the pandemic will help break down.  

(What) to Share … or Not to Share?

Mack, who knows that the federal government, just like any employer, must keep her medical information private, also recognizes that the decision of whether, and how much, to share one’s personal information while establishing a medical case for reasonable accommodations is, well, personal. 

“I don’t know what happened to [my doctor’s letter]—it went into a black box, I don’t know who saw it, maybe the president did,” she joked. “Nah, he’s too busy.”

While the ADA requires that all employees’ medical information, whether or not related to disability, be kept confidential, the law doesn’t prevent managers from reporting vital information to the appropriate officials if it’s needed to take action under CDC pandemic guidelines.  

The Path Forward for Folks New to Navigating Reasonable Accommodations

Despite her nerves, Mack’s process went smoothly: from the talk with her supervisor to getting the accommodations approved. “I was like, ‘why didn’t I negotiate sooner?’” she recalls, laughing. She recommends folks embarking on a similar process ask for guidance sooner and seek out resources early on. 

A few resources disability rights advocates recommended to City Paper for D.C. residents new to the ADA process include:

DC Office of Disability Rights (ODR), Voice Telephone: (202) 724-5055, Text Telephone: (202) 727-3363— “We are the ones who are ensuring that the District complies with ADA obligations”

Job Accommodation Network (JAN), Voice Telephone: (800) 526-7234, Text Telephone: (877) 781-9403

“What I really love about them is their creativity,” Volin tells City Paper. “They have really brainstormed … every kind of disability you can think of, and more that you haven’t. And they said, ‘Hey, here are some ways to accommodate these kinds of symptoms.’ ”

The American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), Voice Telephone: (202) 521-4316, Other Options:  (800) 840-8844, is a national disability rights organization headquartered in Foggy Bottom that Kristin Duquette, an active community advisory member of the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD), finds particularly helpful.  

•The COVID Community Corps—While perhaps known best for providing vaccine information, this group of folks who knock door to door and attend events throughout the city can make referrals based on individuals’ diverse needs, Rachael Gass tells City Paper. 

Gass feels the type of service these Corps—and other resources not solely for folks with disabilities—provide will help combat the misinformation that often leads to less self-advocacy from workers. This support will be even more vital in the post-pandemic future of the workplace.

“How do we make sure that people are getting the information they need to empower them as well?” she wonders. “You’re going to see a workforce that is going to need more paid leave, it’s going to need disability benefits, and what does that look like? And how can we make sure that those who need it are getting the help that they rightly deserve?” 

—Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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