While the pandemic has affected nearly everyone around the world, the virus poses unique challenges for people with disabilities. To find help, many are turning to the Northeast ADA Center at ILR’s K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Institute on Employment and Disability.
Technical assistance specialists with strong expertise in the ADA and other disability-related regulations are available through a toll-free information line (800-949-4232) and national web site to provide information, education, training and material in a personalized manner.
“Over the course of the pandemic, there was an initial flurry in calls early on,” said Joe Zesski, program manager of the Northeast ADA Center. “Then in March and April, we had a real sharp drop-off, but after a few months people really began reaching out again with questions and things have gotten very busy since then.”
According to Zesski, business owners, architects and designers, representatives of state and local government agencies, employers, people with disabilities and their family members, service providers, educational entities, and others interested in the ADA can receive individualized responses to questions on how to navigate the pandemic.
Calls have come from individuals seeking guidance in a range of areas.
A county worker in New Jersey, wanting to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread, asked about touchless water faucets for sinks in bathrooms. Jennifer Perry, an access specialist, discussed the possibilities with him. When contacted for follow-up, the worker said the information clarified how he and his staff should administer changes on a large scale. “It is particularly helpful as a worker in the public sector because resources like this one help us know what we should do, rather than just what is required of us by law," he said.
In June, Zesski communicated with an Adult Career & Continuing Ed Services-Vocational Rehabilitation counselor who questioned how the ADA applied when an employee could not wear a face mask due to a disability.
“I explained that because the Centers for Disease Control had declared COVID a pandemic, an employer could require an employee to wear personal protective equipment,” Zesski said. “However, as with many questions related to the ADA, there were more complexities that came down to assessing the situation on a case-by-case basis. An employer had to also consider if another form of reasonable accommodation could work. For example, there are other types of PPE, such as face shields, or depending on the type of work, an employee could perform telework. The key is to assess the individual situation and circumstances, and to look at objective evidence and not stereotypes to think through the process.”
Another request Perry responded to regarded online education. The disability services coordinator of a private university in New Jersey asked if a form that the school was developing for accommodation requests for virtual learning would be required to list all possible accommodations.
“Jen explained that the important thing is that the school is letting students know who to contact at the college if they need an accommodation, and by when, and that the college must be willing to engage in an interactive process to come up with an accommodation that works for the student - whether or not they are listed on a form,” Zesski said.
“There are so many unique things about COVID, and there's been no official guidance from the Department of Justice, so this service is really invaluable,” he said.
“But what it all comes down to in the end, the team at the Northeast ADA is doing what it has done for better than 25 years; assisting the public to understand how the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to their personal situations.”