Being a worker is important in our society. Work can lift you out of poverty. It provides a rhythm to your life and a sense of identity and self-worth. It is a role that is highly valued by those around you. And the workplace is fertile ground for social interaction and friendship.
The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic has harmed the US (and world) economy deeply, causing a steep decline in employment and disrupting the daily routines of millions of people. In general, people lost jobs for several reasons:
- State guidelines designed to reduce the spread of the virus forced many businesses to temporarily (and sometimes permanently) close their doors or drastically reduce their services. This caused lay-offs and furloughs to a degree not seen since the 1930s.
- Many workers had underlying health conditions making them especially vulnerable to the virus.
- Many workers lived with family members who were vulnerable so the workers chose not to risk catching the virus at work and bringing it home with them.
The pandemic has been especially harsh on people with disabilities (see the New York Times article at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/10/health/covid-developmental-disabilities.html for a good summary of this).
Many people with disabilities are faced with additional obstacles to maintaining their work because they:
- work in “lower-level positions in industries that have been most heavily hit” by the pandemic. (https://diverseabilitymagazine.com/2020/11/disabilities-leads-business-success/)
- have the kinds of jobs or the job skills that are not transferrable to working remotely.
- have a higher rate than average of having other underlying health conditions making them more vulnerable to the virus.
- may have difficulty following protocols designed to keep them and others safe during a pandemic.
- live in congregate settings (i.e. group homes), places with a demonstrably higher risk of virus spread.
- spend at least a portion of their days in congregate settings (Day Habs, CBDS sites) that, again, are places with a demonstrably higher risk of virus spread.
- depend on others for transportation who may not be in a position to provide it.
- may be dependent on job coaches to successfully participate at work, and many job coaches were laid-off, furloughed or had their own health-related concerns that forced them out of the workforce.
- are subject to rules/regulations set by funders and provider organizations that limit/eliminate individuals’ opportunities to continue working because of the systems’ health concerns. A participant in an October 2020 meeting of the International SRV Association stated that “Agencies completely own people with disabilities right now. There is an increase in the role of ‘clienthood.’”
- are under guardianship and have others making decisions on their behalf. This included removing some people with disabilities from their jobs even when the jobs were open and the individuals wanted to work and were capable of following safety protocols.
The impact of losing job/day opportunities for people with disabilities has been predictable: financial instability, an increase in adverse behaviors as routines were disrupted (although some individuals actually had a reduction in such behaviors!), a diminishment in self-esteem and a loss in social connections with their co-workers.
But some people with disabilities were supported to safely continue work. At a recent gathering of folks interested in this topic, the following recommendations were made:
- It is clear that our dependence on congregate services has adversely impacted the lives of people with disabilities. We need to seek more individualized/personalized work/day supports.
- Be sure to get a clear indication from the person with a disability whether or not s/he wishes to continue working during times like these. This requires, of course, that s/he fully understands the risks involved and is capable of following necessary safety protocols at work.
- If s/he does want to continue/return to work, establish the protocols that need to be followed as s/he transitions between home and workplace. These protocols will likely be the same that program staff need to follow in their work.
- Organizations should begin identifying people they support who may have the capacity to learn the skills for jobs that can be done remotely, if necessary. However, avoid setting people up for permanent work that will be done in isolation, negating efforts to connect with others in meaningful ways.
- The pandemic slowed down peoples’ lives and provided a chance for individuals (with our support!) to explore other opportunities that could lead to work. People were able to virtually explore options that interested them. Zoom and other platforms also proved to be quite effective for convening planning meetings like person-centered planning. Use this time constructively to help people move on to something more meaningful in their life.
Even though having a job is a valued social role in our culture it does not guarantee friendships between people with and without disabilities. Some additional considerations:
- In early stages of employment set a goal of fading from organization-paid job coaches to natural supports by co-workers. It may be time to reconsider shifting funds from organization-paid job coaches to subsidizing the work place for this additional support.
- It is not a typical part of the employer role to encourage friendship development among its employees. For various reasons some employers actually tend to discourage friendships at work more than encourage them! But if someone needs to make the “ask” for friendships to happen, then who will do so? Who might take on the asker role?
- When possible, gather contact information of co-workers. Even in the best of times (non-pandemic) the ability to connect with co-workers outside of the work place and work time is a real sign of the friendships we’re striving for. And during tough times, maintaining these contacts can make all the difference in the world.
Article by Jim Ross.