Taking steps back on inclusion in the workplace, community

People with disabilities have been shut out of meaningful employment for decades. It’s a frustration to spend one’s career at the […]

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People with disabilities have been shut out of meaningful employment for decades. It’s a frustration to spend one’s career at the poverty level, doing good work and yet being marginalized because of stereotypes and misperceptions. It’s even more frustrating when our people are shut out of the workplace entirely. 

Let us work! Let us be able to support ourselves and make meaningful contributions to our communities. 

We long have touted the potential for working remotely. It won’t work, the powers that be said. 

And then came the COVID-19 pandemic. Workplaces emptied out as millions of people made the shift to remote work. 

And guess what? Working remotely worked for the most part. For some of us with disabilities, the changes opened doors that had been closed before. We could work at home and be productive. 

The pandemic also brought key changes in our ability to participate in our communities. The state’s pandemic emergency declaration allowed elected and appointed groups, ranging from local disability advisory boards to city councils, to meet virtually. While our computer screens looked like the Hollywood Squares or the Brady Bunch TV shows, virtual meetings gave many more people the chance to participate. 

But now we’re seeing the pendulum swing back. And that is just wrong. 

As the dust settles from Covid-19, business leaders must decide if they continue remote work, force employees back to the office, or use a hybrid solution. More companies are dropping remote work. 

For employees who may have relocated far from workplaces, only to be told they must be in the office at least part of the time, that’s a problem. For people with disabilities who have to work remotely at least part of the time due to disability and chronic health issues, that’s a huge problem. We’re not bemoaning the loss of a fancy beach house or place in the mountains. We’re losing our ability to work, period. 

We understand the desire for a workplace culture and for employees to feel like they are part of an organization. Many us who were largely shut out of the job market would like that kind of setting and colleagues, too. Not everyone can successfully work remotely. 

But for those of us with a wide range of disabilities – mobility, sensory and more – not being in a workplace setting helps us be more productive. 

A person who needs 24-hour personal care needs space for staff. Some workplaces are not the best at providing that. 

We appreciate that many companies have gone to hybrid workplaces. That may be the best answer for all. And we’d think that in this day of mass resignations and retirements, wouldn’t companies want to keep valued employees with disabilities? This feels like an Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Act court case waiting to happen. 

Then there is our ability a as community to participate in meetings. In spring 2022 as state restrictions eased, we saw virtual meetings dropped. Some communities still allow people to call in and ask questions at a meeting, or provide public testimony. But as of spring 2022, those of us who want to be on a board, commission, council or committee in many communities lost our ability to participate remotely. 

We’ve seen that cause problems. Let’s use the City of St. Paul as an example. We’ve seen groups in that city unable to muster a quorum to do business. That includes the Mayor’s Advisory Committee for People with Disabilities. 

Not having a quorum for meetings affects your neighbor down the street who needs a variance to add an access ramp to his house. It affects a developer who wants to build an affordable, accessible apartment building but needs zoning approvals. It affects a block club that wants to get a capital budget committee to vote on an accessible playground. Without even enough members to vote on a request, a project or an ordinance or policy change cannot move forward. 

Communities around the state have had to sideline some of their citizen advisory committees because it is a challenge to get new members. Virtual meetings in which members could vote from a remote location would allow that. 

But when St. Paul city officials tried to get changes to the Minnesota Open Meeting Law last this past legislative session to allow broader participation, so-called “public advocates” blocked that effort. And that’s just plain wrong. 

While we realize that the usual public policy gadflies can claim to speak “for the people” we would respectfully call that out and ask that they not speak for us. Until you have our lived experiences as people with disabilities, it’s the same old song and dance of people speaking for us and misrepresenting our interests. 

Disability advocates need to speak out on both of these issues. Our ability to work and be fully involved in our communities depends on change. It took a global pandemic to show that solutions for the disability community worked. We cannot go backward. 

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