By Elaine E. Katz, MS, CCC-SLP

Elaine E. Katz, MS, CCC-SLP is Senior Vice President of Grants and Communications at the Kessler Foundation, where she oversees the Foundation’s comprehensive grant making program and its communications department. The Kessler Foundation drives positive change for people with disabilities through groundbreaking rehabilitation and disability employment research and funds innovative initiatives to provide access to job opportunities.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the U.S. labor market is profound and ongoing. Millions of workers are affected across all sectors, with recovery hindered by resurgent outbreaks in the majority of states. Most severely affected are populations characterized by the intersections of race, poverty, and disability; disproportionally Americans with disabilities who are Black, Indigenous and other People of Color.

As shown in the chart below, all groups, regardless of racial/ethnic group or disability status, experienced considerable job loss in April 2020, then recovered some of those jobs by June (left panel). When looking at the percent change of individuals employed within each group since March, black/African Americans with disabilities experienced the largest declines (right panel).


Used with permission from the University of New Hampshire, Institute on Disability, October 2020

Moreover, the organizations and agencies that support people with disabilities as they transition to competitive employment and maximal independence are facing a different crisis – the inability to continue service delivery to train, place, and support individuals in the workplace – as budgets are slashed, staff furloughed, and remote service delivery either absent or inadequate. In this environment, technology has emerged as fundamental to the viability of businesses and nonprofit organizations, and to the ability of individuals to stay engaged in the labor force.

As the pandemic triggered lockdowns and closures, the advantages for individuals and organizations with technology-based work flows were immediately apparent. In June, a study of more than 600 disability placement and support employment organizations conducted by the National Association for People Supporting Employment First (APSE) found about 30 percent offered virtual supports; this has risen to 85 percent over the course of the summer and fall. Reflecting this dramatic shift, the majority of Kessler Foundation’s recent COVID-19 emergency grants went to organizations with acute needs for computers, mobile technology, and internet connectivity.

Well in advance of the pandemic, the Foundation was aware of the potential for technology to improve the outcomes of disability employment initiatives. In 2017, a Kessler Foundation Signature Employment Grant funded the Just in Time Employment Supports Project, a multi-state project of the University of Iowa Midwest Disability Employment Consortium, funded through the State University of Iowa. The Consortium partnered with the University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities of Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota, to pilot the use of mobile technology such as cell phones and tablets - as well as apps for facilitating direct communication - to create virtual support networks for job coaches, workers, and other stakeholders.

The two-year Just in Time Project yielded valuable information about the many ways that utilization of mobile technology in supported employment can encourage open communication, enable timely interventions, and foster greater independence for people with disabilities. We recognized that the integration of virtual platforms offered through Just in Time Supports could improve employment outcomes. Incorporating communications technology meant trainers and job coaches could maintain close contact with colleagues and clients, providing timely support that benefits workers and employers. This was especially helpful in training, and more importantly, for enabling quick troubleshooting with employers and supervisors after job placement. Boosting capabilities to connect remotely translates into more efficient service delivery, more rapid problem solving for employers, and greater support for individuals with disabilities, including those in rural areas.

The COVID-19 pandemic casts a new light on the findings of the Just in Time Support Project and what it means to interview, onboard and support individuals with disabilities, as the use of technology in disability employment initiatives is no longer optional, but essential. This has broader implications for all workers, as well as for workforce funders striving for ways to keep workers engaged in the labor force. There are three strategies that support workforce funders as agents of change in the COVID-19 era:

  1. Support organizations as they transition current staff to remote service delivery. Funders can provide organizations with unrestricted funding to train staff in this model and acquire or update existing technology.
  2. Support the increased use of virtual technologies in providing job placement, coaching and follow-along supports. Funders can assist in helping organizations create new strategic business models incorporating remote supports that can increase service efficiency and delivery.
  3. Share lessons learned and resources. An important component to successful virtual employment supports requires a continuous feedback loop to define success and understand challenges. Funders can convene like-minded groups and assist in developing best practice models for dissemination.

Acting collectively and with purpose will help shape the changing landscape of work in ways that benefit all workers, especially those from marginalized populations. In light of the intersection of disability with race and gender and poverty, renewing our commitment to the Americans with Disabilities Act and building upon the gains achieved over the past 30 years is fundamental to further diversifying and strengthening the American workforce.