By Sarah Fowler
October is Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), and we want to celebrate!
Disability Employment Awareness Month was created in 1945 to provide education to society by paying tribute to the accomplishments of people with disabilities. Originally, the first week of October was “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.” Oh, how times have changed! In 1962, the word “physically” was removed to allow more inclusivity. About 25 years later, Congress expanded the week to a month and changed the name to, “National Disability Employment Awareness Month.” 
The theme this year, “America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion” emphasizes the importance of equal access to employment and community involvement since recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a member of the disabled community, I’d love to share my thoughts and opinions with you. It’s important, however, to remember that there are many different opinions within the disabled community. What I say regarding my disability might not be applicable to others with disabilities.
So, let’s get to it!
I very much appreciate the theme this year. However, what seems to be lacking from the informational articles I’ve read is the emphasis on how monumental the change in inclusivity has been as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For background information, when I was in my last year of graduate school, my health was extremely poor. I was in a major flare of EDS and had been fighting to find answers. I was in a car accident the year prior but since I have a disability, most doctors, including specialists, blamed it on my disability or various environmental factors (e.g., stress, mental health, etc).
The summer before our graduate school internships began, I had a weeklong hospital stay. I was very weak as a result and had a lot of anxiety about our upcoming Fall internships. A classmate said something that made me feel as though I had found the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. She said, “I really hope I don’t get the telepractice internship. I highly doubt anyone would want it…”
DING, DING, DING! Bingo!
If no one else wanted the telepractice internship, I sure did! I had been dreading internship placements, worried it would be inaccessible. I spoke with my adviser and requested it. She accepted my request and thus began my journey with Worldwide Speech.
Our Founder/President, Erin Long, was my internship supervisor. And boy did I hit the jackpot! Erin was so kind, understanding, and accommodating of my disability, and still is to this day. Sadly, at the end of the semester, I had to say goodbye and move on to a new internship. I ended up moving back home because I was unable to live independently.
At the beginning of 2020, our certifying board banned students and post-grad clinicians from complete externships and/or clinical fellowship years via telepractice. This saddened me for myself and other disabled clinicians, knowing how it allowed me to continue doing what I loved safely for myself and my clients.
Beginning in January, I nervously began my new in-person internship at a public school, right before the pandemic. At this point, I had started using a mobility scooter because I lost the ability to walk more than a few steps without dislocating my knees, hips, and ankles (don’t we just love EDS?).
When I arrived at the school, I noticed there was no accessible entrance to the school, just an extremely heavy door that I had to attempt to get through whilst scootering. Additionally, I was required to walk students from their classroom to our speech room. Keyword: Walk. Something I could no longer do. I felt like it was unsafe to “walk” with students down the halls on my scooter because if someone decided to run, I couldn’t chase after them. Because I wouldn’t get enough hours with this placement alone, I had to work at a second placement. I was placed in a school for children with autism. Before my accident, I worked at a competing school for children with autism, so I thought I’d be fine. Honestly, I didn’t realize how disabled I was until trying to manage these placements. I was unable to control aggressive behavior, unable to walk with students, unable to use stairs, unable to use my scooter for fear it would get broken, and the list goes on and on.
In the meantime, I was seeing doctor after doctor trying to figure out why I couldn’t walk. “It’s just EDS” they’d say, “It’ll always be like this.” In March 2020, I finally found a neurologist who cracked the case. I had severe brainstem compression from the accident that could have been fatal. I needed surgery as soon as possible.
How was I supposed to continue my career? I knew I wouldn’t be able to work in person again until I healed, primarily for the safety of the children and job requirements such as, “Must be able to lift 50 pounds.” The recovery time for my surgery would be at least a year. How would I complete my clinical fellowship year while recovering from surgery?
I spoke with our certifying board, hoping I could complete my clinical fellowship year via telepractice as an ADA accommodation. Sadly, they denied my request. I had recommendation letters from previous parents, great supervision with Worldwide Speech, and as mentioned above, just found out I would be getting a major brain and neck surgery in a few months. They denied my request again with the rationale that I wouldn’t develop the skills necessary to practice in person (which I never planned to do given my physical restrictions).
In February/March, word of coronavirus started circulating around our school. As a second-year graduate student one semester away from graduation, I was extremely nervous. Shortly thereafter, we were told by administration that the school would close indefinitely. My cohort was worried we wouldn’t be able to get enough hours to graduate, so our supervisors began placing us in tele-placements. And thus came my return to Worldwide Speech, and thank goodness for that!
Once schools were shut down, our certifying board immediately allowed all students and post-grads to complete their internships and clinical fellowship year via telepractice. Once it affected able-bodied individuals, it was easy to provide adequate accommodations. As I continued my conversation with the board, I explained how this felt unjust. They replied that they’d be taking away this allowance at the end of the year, and when they did, they would need a formal letter from my supervisor stating that I had learned all the necessary requirements. Well, it’s nearing the end of 2021, and students/post-grads are still allowed to use telepractice during their internships and clinical fellowship year.
Why was it so easy for them to accommodate able-bodied individuals, yet so challenging to accommodate disabled clinicians?
During the pandemic, people with disabilities have had greater access to healthcare AND employment than ever before. The ability to work remotely has allowed many disabled individuals an opportunity to work and have purpose. Additionally, telemedicine gave us better access to specialists around the country. It showed society what it’s like to be isolated due to external circumstances. While I am in no way saying COVID-19 was a good thing, these are the positives I must remind myself of. Better care, better employment, better understanding.
My biggest fear is, when will it end? Now that we have more equal accessibility, how will we feel when it’s ripped out from under us again? How will disabled individuals go back to life before the pandemic, knowing how easy it was for the country to accommodate us?
These are all great questions with no known answer. I’d like to leave you with one more to ponder: What would the world look like if we continued these practices, thus increasing accessibility to healthcare and employment? If companies were more like Worldwide Speech (e.g., accommodating and accessible to employees with disabilities), so many disabled individuals could find work and feel as though they have a purpose. To feel like they are contributing to society. To feel like they are helping others with disabilities.
The world may never know the answer to this question, but I truly hope one day we will.
- National Disability Employment Awareness Month 2021
- 31 Days of NDEAM
- Disability Data (Tables and Tools)
- Register for the sessions: Webinars hosted throughout October
- America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion Resources
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