National Disability Employment Awareness Month

Written by: Cecilia Poon, Ph.D., ABPP, HSP, on behalf of PLTC’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) Committee

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month #NDEAM in the United States.  This year’s NDEAM theme, “America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion,” highlights the need to ensure that people with disabilities have full access to employment and community involvement as the nation continues to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although more than a quarter of the population has a disability, people with disabilities continue to be the largest minority group that have limited representation in our workforce. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 17.9% of people with disabilities were employed in 2020, compared to 61.8% of people without a disability. Recently, Dr. Kathleen Bogart, current co-chair of APA’s Committee on Disability Issues in Psychology, along with psychologist Dr. Lisa Aspinwall and student Afrooz Ghadimi, wrote a comprehensive article discussing “Why Do There Seem to Be So Few Disabled Psychologists?

Long-term care (LTC) and healthcare settings, by default, are designed with accessibility in mind. With existing tools and equipments available, one would assume that these settings are more welcoming and inclusive of employees with sensory, mobility, and other types of disabilities. While I have seen volunteers, therapists, case workers, nurses, and physicians who use hearing aids, walking sticks, crutches, and wheelchairs in these settings in Asia and North America, they are often the exception rather than the norm.

In the last two decades, I have witnessed dedicated and competent LTC workers with hearing loss, chronic pain, ADHD, and other conditions leave their profession or retire early because their work environment was no longer supportive of their wellness. The American Disabilities Act (ADA) and the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provide a framework and resources to support disabled healthcare workers. However, even when a workplace is able to provide appropriate and reasonable accommodations, there remain a lot of public and internalized stigma, as well as microaggression.

As we acknowledge the devastating impact of staffing shortage on the LTC population, it is high time we considered whether LTC settings are accessible and inclusive places of employment, especially when the lingering effects of the pandemic prevail. Research is beginning to show that a notable percentage of healthcare workers have “long COVID syndrome,” which invovle symptoms similar to ME/CFS and may require certain job accommodations. Others may be coping with complex PTSD, which may warrant reassignment of duties and time-off for mental health treatment.

Ageism and ableism often go hand-in-hand. As more and more of our population are aging with disabilities or becoming disabled as they age, psychologists who serve older adults and disabled adults have the responsibility to combat implicit biases and systemic barriers facing disabled and older clients, trainees, and colleagues. It is up to each and everyone of us to become aware of and help change the potentially ableist culture in healthcare settings.

The issue of a “leaky pipeline” for disabled students in psychology is real. Amplifying, elevating, and centering the experiences of disabled colleagues is a first step. Perhaps we could learn from advocacy groups that support disabled healthcare workers, such as Dr. Lisa Meeks’ social media campaign #DocsWithDisabilities, and the National Organization of Nurses with Disabilities. If you identify as a psychologist or student with disabilities and would like to network, advocate, mentor, or be mentored, the Disability Advocacy and Resource Network (DARN!) for disabled social, personality, and health psychologists and allies is a great resource.

For those of us who are allies and/or have the power and privilege to promote systemic change and provide support to students, trainees, and staff, here are some resources to make our recruitment, training, and workplace more accessible, equitable, and inclusive:

A Brief Disability Accessibility Guide by Haben Girma

APA Committee on Disability Issues in Psychology

JAN: Job Accommodation Network

UK Health, Disability and Becoming a Health and Care Professional

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