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Career Pathways: Shelter-at-Home Orders Put Spotlight on Disability Accommodations

The coronavirus pandemic has raised the profile of flexible work arrangements, compelling corporations and institutions to recognize that reasonable accommodations are not only doable, but that they represent a key step toward inclusivity that will help both employees and employers.
Career Pathways: Shelter-at-home Orders Put Spotlight On Disability Accommodations

Pointing to the reliance on telework during the coronavirus pandemic, Rebecca Cokley, director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress, observed, “It’s on the C-suite folks to see that the disability community has been telling the truth for years that telework can be a reasonable accommodation.” Having worked on disability policy throughout her career, Cokley shared her expertise in an email interview.

A mindset change across industries and institutions won’t happen overnight, however, or perhaps with any gigantic leap.

But for those with disabilities still aiming to advance their careers while work flexibility and accommodations remain top-of-mind, Cokley says her biggest tip would be “for folks to spend time documenting what you are doing while on telework, so that when it comes time for midyear check-ins or reviews, you have the information you need to make the best case possible for your productivity.”

And, while you’re at it, why not aim for an executive position at a time when leaders need to truly understand the need for flexibility and accommodations?

“My team and organization (at the Disability Justice Initiative) were able to move quickly because my boss is also a person with a disability, and when we raised concerns about coronavirus, there was no doubting of our ability to continue delivering on our workflow remotely,” said Cokley, who was born with achondroplasia, a common cause of dwarfism.

“If there was a time for people who have unapparent disabilities to ‘come out’ and talk about how their disabilities do in fact influence their decisions they make as a leader (and they are better for that), then it is now,” she said in the email.

“In addition to telework, I hope this will change the overall perception of reasonable accommodations as a natural part of the workforce,” she said. “Just as someone may be using videoconferencing now, you may have a colleague who needs personal assistant services to do their work. The use of long-term services and supports doesn’t mean that their work is less valuable, less important, or that they are less of a professional.”

Indeed, people with disabilities have, out of necessity, become proficient at technologies such as Slack, Zoom, Trello, and Microsoft Teams that their able-bodied colleagues may not have fully embraced.

Cokley started her career at the Institute for Educational Leadership, where she worked for five years building tools and resources to empower and educate youth with disabilities and their adult allies.

She previously served as the executive director of the National Council on Disability and worked in several roles in the Obama administration from 2009–2013, including as confidential assistant to the assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. Cokley last served in the Obama administration as special assistant to the principal deputy at the Administration for Community Living at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


Meghan Donahue, a Ph.D. student in human factors industrial and systems engineering at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, said the idea of designing for differing needs not only varies for each person, but it’s also about the environment.

Engineers can improve work conditions for everyone, whether that means ensuring that computer monitors are at a 90-degree angle from a window to prevent screen glare, to explaining how people sitting up correctly at their computers can optimize their breathing, to situating the computer keyboard and mouse to prevent injury.

“These improvements help give people more energy to do their work,” said Donahue, who holds a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering and a master’s degree in bioengineering with a focus on rehabilitation technology. “Your body is conscious of the crick in your neck, so when you adjust your monitor, chair, or desk height, you can correct your positioning. Now, while you’re not slumping your shoulders at your desk, your subconscious, or conscious, is no longer distracted by the pain.”

Rehabilitation engineers can recommend mental-health supports, too, such as setting up a task timer for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or autism, using apps to help people with anxiety management, or positioning a rearview mirror next to a computer monitor to let a worker see someone coming up behind him or her and reduce triggering a startle reflex.

Donahue, who first aimed to focus on improving the design of wheelchairs, said she’s excited about industrial engineering because it’s process and system-oriented.

When she finishes her Ph.D., she plans to still do the hands-on work, allowing her to figure out each person’s best workspace, but she’ll also do research on processes that help people with disabilities improve the services they receive.

Another strength of inclusion is that it’s usually low-cost while paying off in returns — a key factor amid economic uncertainty, said Becca Monteleone, a disability studies scholar who worked in spring 2019 as a Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate fellow at the Center for Engineering Ethics and Society. The National Academy of Engineering awarded the fellowship.

“Hiring a diverse workforce generates positive social, creative, and innovative thoughts,” she said.

Employers in a Job Accommodation Network survey reported that 58% of disability accommodations cost nothing, while the rest said a typical cost was $500. That compares with as recently as 13 years ago when, for example, a single Braille machine that teachers used to write instructions in Braille cost $800.

And, of course, smartphones, iPads, voice-recognition assistants, smart artificial intelligence, intelligent home technology, and even commercially available wheelchair parts have driven costs down dramatically.

“Even wheelchair customization costs less than a decade ago because supply companies can manufacture custom parts,” Donahue said.


Besides hardware, the philosophy of diversity is proving a valuable business case, too.

A 2018 study found that 45 companies with progressive disability policies had, on average over a four-year period, 28% higher revenue, double the net income, and 30% higher economic profit margins than their peers. The analysis also showed the value of U.S. economic activity could get a $25 billion boost if more people with disabilities were employed. The study was conducted by Accenture; the American Association of People with Disabilities; and Disability:IN, a nonprofit network of more than 185 corporations aiming to expand opportunities for people with disabilities.

Executives also may be unaware that much of their workforce already meets the federal government’s definition of having a disability — and that they just need to listen more carefully to those employees’ needs.

“If there was a time for people who have unapparent disabilities to ‘come out’ and talk about how their disabilities do in fact influence their decisions they make as a leader (and they are better for that), then it is now.” 

– Rebecca Cokley, director, Disability Justice Initiative, Center for American Progress

One study found that 30% of white-collar employees meet the federal government’s definition of having a disability, and 48% of employees with disabilities who had ideas that would drive value for their companies failed to win endorsement for those ideas. More than one-third said they had encountered discrimination or negative bias at their companies, according to the report by the Center for Talent Innovation. And more than half (57%) said they felt stalled in their careers.

One bright spot, however, is that women increasingly hold positions of leadership, responsibility, and decision-making in fields such as biomedicine, bioengineering, and industrial and rehabilitative engineering, where everyday decisions can empower people with disabilities.

Women earned about 40% of biomedical engineering degrees in the United States in the latest data, about twice the average of all engineering degrees, and about 30% of industrial/manufacturing/systems degrees are awarded to women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Donahue said she’s found helpful mentors and colleagues by being active in the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America.

“Within this network, I have found my voice and confidence in the value I add to a team,” Donahue said.

And she said she’s discovered that many women she mentors struggle to overcome “impostor syndrome,” or doubting one’s abilities and accomplishments.

“My colleagues in my network have helped me to realize my worth, and to believe in myself and the value I add to my field,” Donahue said.

She said another secret to her success has been to treat everyone with whom she works with compassion and to give “110 %” in everything she does, with the utmost integrity.

The next step, disability advocates say, is to get women with disabilities into leadership roles. That would require today’s leaders to create contexts that better respond to the needs, talents, and knowledge of people with disabilities, Monteleone said.

Underlying the conversation is the question, “Who is responsible for making decisions and ensuring that technology and the internet truly serve people and put people first?” Samantha “Sam” Burton, former director of insights at the Mozilla Foundation, said in The Thoughtful Technosapien podcast.

“Who’s building this world?” said Burton, now senior policy advisor at the Canadian Digital Service. “Who’s making these decisions?”

“At the same time, it’s incumbent on anyone working on a project to bring up questions that might be unsettling, including, ‘What’s the worst-case scenario and how can we prevent it?’” she said. “Take it upon yourselves to raise those questions.”

“Shelter-at-Home Orders Put Spotlight on Disability Accommodations” was written by Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor. This article appears in the 2020 spring issue of  SWE Magazine.

Read more from the 2020 spring issue of SWE Magazine: