The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 31st Anniversary: Celebrating Resilience! focused on how Minnesotans with disabilities got through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and what steps they will take going forward. This year’s July 26 celebration was held virtually.
Pandemic impacts were discussed by self-advocates, who were introduced by Cara Ruff, executive director of central Minnesota’s Independent Lifestyles, Inc. “Resiliency is about a mind-set of bouncing back, adaptability of being positive and proactive and creative,” she said. “And I think all those things describe people with disabilities in their fight for justice and equality and inclusion.”
Self-advocates said it has not been an easy time, and they look forward to resuming normal life instead of many virtual meetings and activities. “It’s like everything stopped at March,” said Donald J. Curry. He expressed sadness at not being able to be out in the community, and fear about those who aren’t vaccinated. But Curry is also looking forward to fall bowling, Special Olympics and his job.
Kate Moen described the change from being out and about, to being confined to home. She participated in BOLD-choice Theatre, did craft projects, rode her bike and played soccer with socially distant rules. “I’m feeling good because I can get out more and more now.
A large crowd watched the virtual celebration. Viewers enjoyed speakers as well as performances by acclaimed jazz guitarist and recording artist Sam Miltich and Duluth-based BOLD-choice Theatre Company.
Gov. Tim Walz proclaimed July 26, 2021 as the 31st Anniversary of the ADA. Meredith Kujala of Arc Northland served as emcee, and Duluth Mayor Emily Larson gave the welcome. Larson pointed out recent access improvements in Duluth, including efforts to widen and improve the popular Lake Walk.
One theme throughout the presentations was that of adaptation and how changes made during the COVID-19 pandemic have become or could become permanent. Another theme was the many hardships people with disabilities faced, and continue to face, as a result of the pandemic.
Mai Thor of the Minnesota Department of Health outlined how efforts were made to make sure people with disabilities and their caregivers were vaccinated in a timely manner, and had access to testing. Having a coordinated response to serve people with disabilities was and continues to be crucial, Thor said.
Sue Abderholden, executive director, NAMI Minnesota, discussed the mental health impacts that pandemic has had. Impacts are varied and widespread for people with disabilities, their families and their caregivers. The impacts included how isolation affected mental health, job loss and loss of income, threats to housing, stress for students and families involved in distant learning, and the loss of community activities.
“The last thing I want to mention is that while we’ve all been in the same ocean, we have not been in the same boat,” Abderholden said. BIPOC community members have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. They caught COVID at a much higher rate because many were essential workers. They also were hospitalized at a higher rate and died at a higher rate.
Add to that the trauma layered on after the 2020 murder of George Floyd, and the attacks of Asian-Americans who were unfairly blamed for the pandemic.
“And so as we kind of look to the future and how we’re going to address these issues, we just have to remember that not everyone was impacted equally,” she said.
One focus was employment, with Peter Berg of the Great Lakes ADA Center. Berg is project coordinator of technical assistance for the center, which is part of the federally funded ADA National Network. the center covers the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.
One big question centers on working remotely, Berg said. While some employees with disabilities may prefer to continue to work remotely, if there isn’t a disability-related need for the employer to work remotely, the employer doesn’t have to provide that option. One of the benefits of the pandemic is that it has provided a great demonstration that work in general can be performed remotely. And that employees with disabilities who need remote work as an accommodation, those individuals can perform essential job functions remotely.
While technology has changed since the ADA was passed 31 years ago, Berg said there has to be a disability-related need for that reasonable accommodation, for an individual to work remotely.
“It cannot simply be based on a preference,” he said.