Navigating Virtual Employment Services During the Pandemic

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Navigating the dynamics of difference within the world of employment as a person with multiple disabilities has been a struggle since the moment I prepared to enter it at the age of 16 in 2001. I didn’t become aware of accommodations, self-advocacy skills, or my rights regarding employment as an individual with a disability until my late 20’s. The impact of the stress and energy trying to navigate the employment had an adverse influence on my health.

In July 2013, on the same day I was released from a three week stay at an inpatient trauma disorders program, I received a letter that I had been approved for Social Security Disability (SSDI) benefits. I was 27 years old at the time. I spent the next five years going through rehabilitative therapies. During that time, I learned more about myself, my disabilities, self-advocacy, assistive technology equipment, coping and compensatory strategies, and accommodations, all while engaging with different programs that support individuals with disabilities in independent living and vocational training.

After going through years of rehabilitative therapies, I reached a point where I wanted to try to start working again through part-time or contract work within the parameters guided by my treatment. Because I’d been out of the workforce for so long, I was confused on how to get started with the Division of Rehabilitation Services (DORS). I expended a lot of energy completing paperwork and figuring out the process during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although the overall unemployment rate in the U.S for individuals with and without disabilities increased because of COVID-19, so did opportunities for remote work. There were also shifts in how programs that serve individuals with disabilities in independent living and vocational training/employment are offering and carrying out services.

My experiences with virtual service delivery have varied. It’s been beneficial that I have not had to navigate transportation challenges, building inaccessibility, and the impact of unpredictable medical challenges causing a need to reschedule. All rehabilitative appointments have occurred through video, and my cognitive, speech and physical therapists have connected me to apps to supplement and assist in-home therapy programming. My local independent living center offered limited services virtually including helpful demonstration sessions on video. The greatest challenge for me has been the lack of access to necessary service delivery that is performed in person, such as testing adaptive equipment and manual physical therapy. These services are either on hold until my state enters stage 3 of the COVID-19 reopening plan or not advised until further notice because I am immunocompromised.

Once I was able to participate in virtual service delivery through DORS, I discovered there would be a delay in the evaluations needed as part of my vocational training and employment plan. I was able to complete the initial phases, including intake appointments and a vocational plan, developed over the phone with accommodations and my caseworker. While I am eligible to receive services immediately, I am in the exploration phase of my vocational plan because of the in-home assessments still being on hold due to COVID-19. What in-home assessments look like during COVID-19 and remote home employment opportunities is a new area for me and DORS. It is still a learning process and I hoped I would be further along in the process, but I am looking forward to moving forward and for future vocational opportunities.

My hope has also grown through the increased access to remote mental health resources, art and writing opportunities, community connections, and support services. There has been much progress, but there is still work that needs to occur in providing equitable, accessible, inclusive employment opportunities and environments. I will continue to move forward, fighting for the chance to gain equitable employment opportunities that let me use and grow my skills and talents.

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Kris McElroy is a writer, artist, advocate, human services professional, and life coach. Born and raised in Maryland, he is a biracial black transgender man with multiple disabilities who enjoys cooking, adaptive sports, traveling, creating, and spending time with his wife and family. He received a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from the University of Maryland and a Master of Science in Multidisciplinary Human Services from Capella University.