In a Nutshell: People with disabilities are among the last in the workforce to attain employment. And just like millions of Americans in recent months, many people with disabilities are struggling with debt and finding ways to make ends meet. Thankfully, the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) is there to help. The office, housed within the U.S. Department of Labor, develops and influences policies to bolster the number and quality of employment opportunities for the people with disabilities. ODEP also emphasizes the importance of financial literacy and offers a number of resources in that area. It is also figuring out ways to continue its important work in the post-pandemic workplace.
Each year, millions of Americans who face significant debt struggle to make ends meet. These issues were exacerbated for many households in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic surged throughout the country.
While studies initially showed that U.S. residents were handily chipping away at credit card debt at the beginning of the pandemic, the tides eventually turned as unemployment skyrocketed and debt continued to loom over so many.
These challenges were pervasive across nearly every segment of society, but those with disabilities often felt the impacts even more acutely. Thankfully, organizations like the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) advocates for the people with disabilities in the workplace.
“ODEP is the only non-regulatory federal agency that promotes policies and coordinates with employers and all levels of government to increase workplace success for people with disabilities,” according to a representative from the organization. “Our mission is to develop and influence policies that increase the number and quality of employment opportunities for people with disabilities.”
The office was established by Congress in 2001 as part of the U.S. Department of Labor. With its 20th anniversary just around the corner, we reached out to ODEP to learn more about the organization and how it has continued its important work through the pandemic.
Supporting Americans with Disabilities is Crucial During the COVID-19 Pandemic
“The last nine months have indeed been challenging times for all Americans, including Americans with disabilities,” according to the spokesperson.
At the beginning of 2020, employment numbers were high and economists were even predicting worker shortages in the near future. People with disabilities — who are among the last in the workforce to attain employment — were finding more employment opportunities than had been available in decades, according to ODEP.
Of course, all that changed with the rise of COVID-19 in the U.S.
“But the sudden emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in the first quarter of 2020 hit the American job market hard and rapidly launched the country into an economic recession,” according to the ODEP website. Nevertheless, the organization never strayed from its mission and found numerous ways to continue supporting the people with disabilities through the unprecedented crisis.
“Through the nationwide network of American Job Centers funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, we have continued to serve America’s job seekers, both with and without disabilities, by helping them prepare for and obtain employment,” according to the representative. “We have also worked to ensure that workers with disabilities and their employers are aware of and able to respond to COVID-19-specific issues.”
This includes topics related to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), such as reasonable accommodations and medical inquiries, as well as telework and leave policies.
“For ADA issues in particular, we’ve provided numerous resources through our Job Accommodation Network (JAN). JAN, which is funded by ODEP, is the leading source of free, expert, and confidential guidance on workplace accommodations for private employers, government agencies, employee representatives, service providers, and people with disabilities and their family members.” — The Office of Disability Employment Policy
ODEP also helped employers through its Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN).
“For instance, EARN held a webinar on the ADA in the context of COVID-19,” the spokesperson said. “This webinar talked about balancing public health and safety guidelines with employer responsibilities under the ADA, and reasonable accommodations for telework, among other topics.”
The webinar can be accessed on the EARN website.
“Of course, technology has kept many Americans working during the pandemic, but for some workers with disabilities whose jobs allow them to work remotely, it is essential to ensure that technology is accessible,” according to ODEP.
Given the sudden shift to widespread remote work, ODEP’s Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology (PEAT) has developed a number of resources related to telework and accessibility, according to the organization.
“This helps employers ensure their digital communications and platforms allow all employees to contribute, collaborate, and innovate during these unprecedented times,” the spokesperson said. “These resources are available on the PEAT website.
Emphasizing the Importance of Financial Literacy
Another important component in addressing employment and debt issues among people with disabilities is financial literacy. Experts agree that the U.S. has notably lagged behind other developed countries when it comes to providing financial education, but ODEP is doing its part to disseminate information to its target audiences.
“Financial literacy is very important for all people, and perhaps especially people with disabilities, who we know are more likely to live in poverty,” the ODEP spokesperson said.
The National Center on Leadership for the Employment and Economic Advancement of People with Disabilities, more commonly known as the LEAD Center, offers a variety of resources on financial literacy for people with disabilities, according to ODEP.
These resources take into account related issues such as disability benefits and how they may be impacted by earnings from employment, the spokesperson said.
“LEAD Center resources also include information about ABLE accounts (Achieving a Better Life Experience), which are tax-advantaged savings accounts for youth and adults with disabilities that can be used to cover any qualified disability-related expenses,” according to the spokesperson. ABLE accounts are named after the ABLE Act that created them.
These expenses are not counted when determining eligibility for federally funded means-tested benefits, including Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid, according to ODEP.
These efforts represent just a portion of the financial literacy resources and advocacy provided by the Office of Disability Employment Policy.
“Of note, in recognition of financial literacy month in April 2020, the LEAD Center hosted a webinar series to provide information, financial tools, and strategies in the context of COVID-19,” the spokesperson said.
Gathering Feedback from Stakeholders and Planning for a Post-Pandemic Workplace
“We continuously seek feedback from our various stakeholders in order to inform our work, to make sure we’re meeting their needs, especially this year in the face of COVID-19,” the ODEP spokesperson told us. “To do this, we primarily work with intermediary groups, including those representing employers, workforce service providers, and individuals with disabilities.”
One channel for doing this is the office’s Alliance program.
“We currently have Alliances with six organizations: American Staffing Association; Association of University Centers on Disabilities; Disability:IN; National Industry Liaison Group; Society for Human Resource Management; and the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society,” the representative said.
In addition, by using the ePolicyWorks crowdsourcing tool, ODEP has co-sponsored several national online dialogues on a range of issues impacting the employment of people with disabilities, including COVID-19, according to the organization.
Impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic are expected to be felt in the employment arena for the foreseeable future.
“At the U.S. Department of Labor, we are committed to ensuring that all Americans, including Americans with disabilities, are included in our economic recovery and rebound in the wake of COVID-19,” according to ODEP.
Through the resources mentioned earlier, the organization will continue supporting workers with disabilities and their employers, or potential employers, in navigating return-to-work issues as well as supporting those who may be seeking employment, the spokesperson said.
“We are also embarking on a number of research projects to understand how to best support both adults and youth with disabilities in the post-pandemic workplace. This includes helping employers understand how to support workers’ mental health at a time when we know that rates of conditions such as anxiety and depression are on the rise.” — The Office of Disability Employment Policy
Additionally, ODEP is working with states to improve employment services for people with mental health conditions.
“In fact, we recently announced a new initiative designed to help states align policy, programs, and funding across multiple state agencies to increase competitive integrated employment for people with mental health conditions,” the representative said. “This initiative is called ASPIRE, which stands for Advancing State Policy Integration for Recovery and Employment.”
If you are an American with a disability who has been struggling with the burden of debt or are seeking information on employment issues, visit these resources from the Office of Disability Employment Policy.