July 27, 2020

The Board of County Commissioners renewed its commitment to enriching the lives of people with disabilities on Thursday, July 23, as Multnomah County celebrated the 30th anniversary of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act. This year’s proclamation took place months into the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has challenged the status quo for everyone, including those living and working with disabilities.

Approximately 61 million Americans live with a disability, spanning across all ages, genders, religions, sexual orientations and ethnicities. According to the Institute on Disability, that makes the disabled community the largest and most diverse minority group in the country, representing 19 percent of the population. 

The Americans With Disabilities Act changed millions of lives by requiring reasonable accommodations that promote equal access to employment, schools, businesses, government facilities, and public spaces and transportation. Since its passage, the historic civil rights law has eliminated barriers preventing millions from participating fully in their community.

Multnomah County is a leading service provider for people with disabilities. Employed Persons With Disabilities, a program administered by the County, allows more than 470 people with disabilities to work while continuing to receive Medicaid benefits. The County’s Department of County Human Services has also provided housing to more than 700 households in 2020, with 97 percent of clients maintaining housing for at least 12 months after receiving support. 

The County’s Domestic and Sexual Violence Coordination Office also has a program called McNeff’s Doors for Survivors With Disabilities. The program brings the domestic violence and disability fields together to coordinate services for domestic violence survivors with disabilities. 

“We need to make our cities and communities and workplaces and everything else accessible and inclusive for everyone,” said Commissioner Sharon Meieran, who sponsored the proclamation. Commissioner Meieran also serves as the Board liaison to the County’s Disability Services Advisory Committee, which advises the City of Portland on disability policy and advocates for the welfare of people with disabilities.

Disability advocates discuss change in the era of COVID-19

Members of the County’s Including Disability in Equity and Access (IDEA) employee resource group briefed the Board on the experience of people with disabilities working at Multnomah County. The group, representing Multnomah County employees with disabilities and their allies, promotes an equitable, inclusive and sustainable work environment through peer support, representation and advocacy. 

Ashley Carroll, the disability resource specialist in the Office of Diversity and Equity, focuses on making workplace accommodations for employees with disabilities. In the last year, she has helped convene a work group to enhance equity for employees with disabilities. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she broadened her focus to improve accommodations for workers in the County’s Emergency Operations Center.

“There is so much room for improvement in the way employees with disabilities experience our time at Multnomah County, especially employees of color with disabilities for whom the reasonable accommodation process can be fraught with additional systemic barriers,” she said.

Dawn Martin, a Central Purchasing employee who advocates for employees with disabilities, said the pandemic has created new challenges and opportunities for the accommodation process. For employees who have historically struggled to have their accommodations granted, she said, the County has responded by granting more flexibility in where and how people work.

Martin said she’s received numerous letters from employees after the Office of Diversity and Equity surveyed employees on how the pandemic has affected their work. “It turned out in the midst of all this difficulty that there have been some unexpected positives,” Martin said.

Responses included:

“I am eating better. I am sleeping better. My chronic body pain has lessened. I am able to do my physical therapy exercises on my breaks, and I can focus and be more effective at my job. I can do my job just fine, and I think I’ve been a better employee since the quarantine started.”

“Tele-work has been so good for my mental health.”

“My productivity is greatly increased when I can control scents, temperature, sounds, and distractions in my environment.”

“I often have migraines so it’s really nice to be able to lay down on my lunch break if not feeling well, or close the blinds so that I can work in a dark room when my head is hurting.”

While the Board celebrated ADA’s 30th anniversary, commissioners also acknowledged that work must continue to improve accommodations for people with disabilities — especially in light of the current events. “Amidst the tragedy of COVID, there is also this chance to not just shift practice in small ways, but to have a paradigm shift,” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said. 

Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said the proclamation is an opportunity to celebrate the progress that’s been made and reflect on the work that lies ahead to create a welcoming environment for all -- especially in light of the pandemic.

“The COVID situation and working from home has really shown, I think, in a lot of ways how much more flexible we can be,” Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said. “And I think that’s something among many of the things that we are going to take away with us.”

Chair Deborah Kafoury underscored the County’s commitment to living out the values of inclusion, quality and accessibility at the heart of the ADA. The County’s work to uplift communities with disabilities will never stop.

“There is always improvement that can be made,” Chair Kafoury said. “And I have hope that we can work to be a workplace where employees with disabilities feel supported and empowered to be and bring their full self to work every day.”