Working with a disability? Steps for self-advocacy

Shelly Gigante

By Shelly Gigante
Shelly Gigante specializes in personal finance issues. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications and news websites.
Posted on Oct 27, 2021

With assistive technologies, flexible work schedules, and a persistent shortage of qualified workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the opportunity for people with disabilities to secure their financial future through employment has never been better.

In fact, the Department of Labor has declared workers with disabilities to be the key to America’s economic recovery, selecting the theme “America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion” for National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) in October 2021.

“Our national recovery from the pandemic cannot be completed without the inclusion of all Americans, in particular people with disabilities,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, in a statement. “Their contributions have historically been vital to our nation’s success and are more important today than ever.”1

Despite labor laws that help level the playing field for all who wish to work, however, job seekers and employees with disabilities must advocate for themselves if they want their needs to be met.

The steps to successful self-advocacy include:

  • Knowing your legal rights
  • Participating in a business resource group
  • Requesting accommodations

Keep in mind that advocating for yourself does not suggest that you’re in it alone. A number of organizations, including Easterseals and USA.gov, offer training and job placement services for those with physical and cognitive challenges. Others, including the American Association of People with Disabilities and the Campaign for Disability Employment specialize in helping individuals with disabilities navigate the system to ensure that their quest to earn and save does not jeopardize their eligibility for government services and supports.

Financial independence

Gainful employment for people with disabilities goes hand in hand with financial, emotional, and physical well-being.

Yet, nearly 1 in 4 Americans with disabilities face challenges finding jobs and establishing financial security, according to the Center for American Progress, which reports that the unemployment rate for those with disabilities is more than twice that of workers who do not have disabilities.2

Americans with disabilities also earn significantly lower wages — just two-thirds as much as the average worker without a disability, according to the 2019 Census Bureau.3

That, in turn, can undercut access to housing, nutrition, and adequate health care.

Disabilities include physical impairments that cause mobility, speech, vision, or hearing loss, and cognitive challenges that result in intellectual or communication limitations. But it can also encompass hidden disabilities such as depression, bipolar disorder, asthma, chronic fatigue and illness, and learning differences that are not immediately obvious to others. (Related: Living with a hidden disability)

Know your legal rights

Federal laws prohibit discrimination against — and mandate support for — qualified workers with disabilities. To hold their employers accountable, however, all Americans with a disability must understand their rights.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), for example, individuals with a disability may not be refused employment, harassed, demoted, fired, paid less, or treated less favorably than a job candidate or employee with no disability.

And according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employees with a disability can request, and the employer must provide, “reasonable accommodation” to allow them to perform their job. Reasonable accommodation must be provided to you by your employer unless doing so would cause the employer significant difficulty or expense.4

If you are a job applicant with a disability, the employer must also provide reasonable accommodation during the application process to allow you to apply and be considered for the job.5 Examples of reasonable accommodations can be found on the government’s website.

The EEOC states on its website that an employer cannot ask you if you are disabled or ask about the nature or severity of your disability, nor can they require you to take a medical exam before you are hired. An employer can ask if you can perform the duties of the job with or without reasonable accommodation. An employer can also ask you to describe or demonstrate how, with or without reasonable accommodation, you will perform the duties of the job.

If you think you have been discriminated against due to your disability, contact your local EEOC field office or reach them by phone at: 800-669-4000 (voice) or 800-669-6820 (TDD).

A discrimination charge generally must be filed within 180 days of the alleged discrimination. You may have up to 300 days to file a charge if there is a state or local law that provides relief for discrimination on the basis of disability. The EEOC office can advise.

Participate in a BRG/ERG

Business resource groups (BRGs), also called employee resource groups (ERGs), are an excellent way to advocate from within.

Increasingly popular at both public and private employers, BRGs are composed of workers with similar backgrounds or goals who work together with management to effect positive change. Such groups might represent women, specific ethnic backgrounds, or the LGBTQ community. If one does not exist in your organization for workers with disabilities, start one!

Employers today are actively seeking ways to better support their staff, said Paul Medeiros, president and chief executive officer of Easterseals Massachusetts, which partners with MassMutual to promote inclusivity and deliver specialized financial planning solutions for families with disabled members.

“More than ever, employers are looking to be more inclusive in their hiring and in creating a culture where people with disabilities can thrive,” he said. “There is a wonderful opportunity nationwide to replicate relationships like the one between MassMutual and Easterseals Massachusetts to provide avenues for job seekers with disabilities to find employment and for hiring managers to get the education they need to help these employees be successful.”

He said that in a time where it is so difficult to find workers, the organizations that can be most inclusive of a diverse workforce will have “a big advantage.”

Specifically, a BRG for disabled workers might partner with human resources to develop policies that support their team members with disabilities throughout the employment life cycle, from hiring, to onboarding, to career advancement, and even post-employment.

“When a company disability-focused ERG/BRG develops effective strategies and tools to enable its members to bring their whole selves to work, it will better serve its members and its company,” according to DisabilityIN.org, which offers tips on how disability-focused affinity groups can advocate for inclusion.

Request accommodations

Let’s be clear: You are not legally obligated to share anything related to your personal health (including your disability) with your employer. Many workers choose not to out of a desire to protect their privacy.

But if your disability impairs your ability to perform your job, it is important to ask for what you need. A performance issue might otherwise be misinterpreted, which could lead to being passed over for a promotion or even dismissal.

Assistive technology (AT), a flexible work schedule, a modified office space, or updated systems can be easily implemented and may help you more easily perform your job.

AT might involve computer screen readers and screen magnification readers for the visually impaired, while those with hearing loss might benefit from software that transcribes conversations onto smartphones or tablets, or video technology that enables them to use sign language instead of typed text.

As noted earlier, employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for employees with a disability. But employees must request the accommodations they need.

The Learning Disabilities Association of America notes on its website that it’s best to research accommodation options yourself and come to the table with specific suggestions and solutions, rather than letting your employer decide what might work best for you.6

According to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a free resource for workers with disabilities which is funded by the Labor Department, accommodation requests can be made either verbally (in person) or by making a written request, which may be easier for some. JAN provides sample language for accommodation request letters online.

In many cases, you can make your request for accommodations without disclosing your specific disability by making a business case to your employer for assistive technology or new systems that may help with “productivity” and “quality improvement.”

To assist both individuals and businesses in determining which AT is the best investment, many states offer assistive technology lending libraries that allow users to test-drive such products before they buy. Most offer training as well.

The Social Security Administration’s free Ticket to Work program can also help you learn more about and request accommodations.

Conclusion

Employment is the key to financial independence for all Americans, but the obstacles are greater for those with disabilities. To set yourself up for success in the job market today, you must know your rights, advocate for inclusivity, and ask for what you need.

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1 U.S. Department of Labor, “U.S. Department of Labor Announces ‘America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion’ Is 2021 National Disability Employment Awareness Month Theme,” May 13, 2021.

2 Center for American Progress, “Current barriers to employment and economic security,”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Persons with a Disability: Labor Force Characteristics Summary,” Feb. 26, 2019.

4 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “The ADA: Your Employment Rights as an Individual with a Disability.”

5 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Disability Discrimination.”

6 Learning Disabilities Association of America, “Self-Advocacy in the Workplace: Requesting Accommodations.”

The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual and its subsidiaries, employees, and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel.Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of MassMutual.