Kristen Herbert has invisible disabilities. As a person living with Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, even the slightest exposure to certain chemicals can be debilitating. And despite how significantly it impacts her, she has felt pressure to not disclose it for most of her life.
When a new carpet was installed in her office, a severe reaction prevented her from working in the building for four months. That’s just one example of a barrier that an employee with a disability experiences at work, she said. And as she thinks about the year 2020, she hopes people can reflect on the many ways to improve the experience of employees with disabilities.
“It gives us a great time to just reflect and gives us the ability for a great reset,” she said. “My hope is just that, as the world returns to whatever any sort of new normal becomes, that we remember that we have these skills and we have these abilities, and if we use them and we employ them, we can really just embrace the perspectives and the skills and the talents that those of us with disabilities have.”
Herbert was one of several Multnomah County employees who gathered virtually before the Board of Commissioners Thursday, Oct. 1 to share their experiences living with a disability as the Board proclaimed October National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
The annual event celebrates workers with disabilities and educates about the values of a workforce that incorporates their skills and talents. Multnomah County, which has an active employee resource group called Including Disability in Equity and Access, is committed to fostering an inclusive work environment and recognizes the many contributions of individuals with disabilities.
“It’s so important to make sure the contributions, voices and needs of employees with disabilities are lifted up in our workplace,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said. “Multnomah County is striving to be an employer that sees and treats people with disabilities as the talented, skilled people that we know that they are, and to make it as easy as possible for them to be and to bring their full selves to work every day.”
An estimated 42 million people in the United States are living with a disability. People with disabilities span across all demographic and socioeconomic groups. In July 2020, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 14.8 percent compared to 10.4 percent for those without disabilities.
“Today, we are recognizing National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which is really about celebration,” said Chief Diversity and Equity Officer Ben Duncan, who introduced the proclamation. “It’s a chance for us to lift up and recognize the brilliance, ingenuity, creativity, and contributions of employees with disabilities to our workplace every day.”
Charmaine Kinney, who works on quality improvement for the Department of County Human Services, raised children with learning disabilities, mental health issues and addiction. Kinney, who herself has been in addiction recovery for 40 years, has seen firsthand how those disabilities have created obstacles for them.
One of Kinney’s daughters entered high school at a third-grade reading level, she said. Despite that obstacle, she’s gone on to become successful. She’s had a consistent job, and now she even owns her own house.
Hiding disabilities only creates stigma, Kinney said. She encouraged broader acceptance for people with disabilities so that people don’t feel pressured to hide them. “That doesn’t mean that they are not part of the family,” Kinney said. “It means that we surround them with whatever support that they need, to be as functional as they can.”
Adapting to a COVID-19 work environment
The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the experiences of people with disabilities. Many employees view the crisis as an opportunity to increase accessibility and opportunities for those with disabilities.
After Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s Stay At Home order, County employees quickly transitioned to remote working. While that has given more flexibility for employees to create an environment at home that works for them, it’s also exposed other issues that make work more difficult.
“When I think of how we are working in light of COVID, working from home, I think of it as showing how much more flexible our workplace accommodations can be for people,” Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said. “Because we are so dependent now on technology and digital means, there are also things that we have to put in place to make sure that works well for employees.”
Diana Grappasonno works on digital accessibility for the County. She says the pandemic has made all employees more aware of the obstacles of working from home.
Grappasonno told of one colleague, who’s not disabled, who needed to complete a form. The form couldn’t be filled electronically, and he didn’t own a printer or a scanner. To get it completed, he would need a printer, ink, the ability to hand sign, and the vision to be able to see the document. He would also need the ability to get envelopes and stamps and go to a post office or mailbox. Those steps would be complicated for anyone, she said, but especially for someone who is disabled.
“If you can appreciate the barrier this one form created without disabilities, imagine what it would have been like for an employee who is blind,” she said. “And the county has thousands of documents, any of which are required to access processes, crucial information and services.”
Grappasonno gave several examples of important County documents that lack the digital accessibility needed to meet the needs of employees who are disabled. For example, she said, the County’s non-discrimination policy can’t be read by screen readers for blind employees since it’s an image file. The County’s annual privacy training and birth certificate forms are also inaccessible for blind or deaf employees.
“It’s critical we be mindful of additional barriers and challenges and promote accessibility for employees and members of the public,” Commissioner Sharon Meieran responded. “Those are not trivial. They are truly profound, and there are really important opportunities right now.”
Commissioners agreed that more needs to be done to create a more accessible workplace. Together, they reaffirmed their commitment to devoting time and resources to better meet the needs of employees with disabilities.
“We have to start talking at greater depth about the challenges and the issues that so many of our community members experience, and especially, the ones that are not visible, that are not apparent,” Commissioner Lori Stegmann said. “We have absolutely got to do a better job of increasing access and opportunities for people.”