View over woman' shoulder seated at desk, videoconferencing on computer.

Our New Remote Workplace Culture Creates Opportunities for Disabled Employees

By Arlene S. Kanter

While the COVID-19 pandemic has taken an enormous toll on the nation, it has also opened an unprecedented opportunity to transform our workplaces and offer greater flexibility for employees with and without disabilities.

This shift in our workplace culture presents employment opportunities for disabled people that they may not have had in the past, even with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

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NEW YORK, NEW YORK: MAY 18, 2020: A jogger runs past a banner by the Battery Park City Authority reminding park visitors to please wear face masks.

Negotiating Masks in the Workplace: When the ADA Does and Does Not Apply

By Katherine Macfarlane

Workplaces are, by and large, no longer safe for employees who are high-risk for serious illness or death from COVID-19.

During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was common for workplaces to require masks, at least in shared spaces. Two years later, though the pandemic is still ongoing, mask requirements are now far less prevalent as a result of the politicization of masks, so-called mask fatigue, and new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

This move to relax masking rules presents significant dangers to those most vulnerable to severe outcomes from COVID-19. High-risk employees still need their co-workers to wear masks. They must now negotiate for safe workplaces in a social and political climate that is increasingly indifferent (or actively hostile) to their needs.

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Professional business teleworkers connecting online and working from home for their corporate company, remote working and networks concept.

Introduction to the Symposium: Build Back Better? Health, Disability, and the Future of Work Post-COVID

By Chloe Reichel, Marissa Mery, and Michael Ashley Stein

This week marks the two-year anniversary of World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom declaring COVID-19 a pandemic.

It is at this particular moment that we, in the United States, are beginning to see the sociological construction of the end of the pandemic: metrics measuring COVID-19 transmission have been radically revised to reshape perceptions of risk; masks are, once again, being shed en masse; and remote workers are being urged back to the office. “It’s time for America to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again with people,” President Joseph Biden said during his March 1, 2022 State of the Union address.

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Los Angeles, California, United States. June 23, 2021: #FreeBritney rally at LA Downtown Grand Park during a conservatorship hearing for Britney Spears.

How Adult Guardianship Law Fails to Protect Contraceptive Decision-Making Rights

By Kaitlynn Milvert

After Britney Spears testified this past summer about her struggle to have her intrauterine device (IUD) removed while under conservatorship, many commentators posed a simple, but critical question: Can conservators (or guardians) make contraceptive decisions for those under their care?

Attempting to answer that question reveals an area of state guardianship law where guardians’ authority is particularly murky and ill-defined. Reform is needed to address the restrictions on reproductive decision-making rights that adults under guardianship currently face.

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Photo of doctor's exam room.

Using Health Justice to Identify Inequities Experienced by Employees with Disabilities

By Katherine Macfarlane

Disability discrimination negatively impacts the health of people with disabilities, yet disability law often overlooks discrimination’s health consequences. A health justice framework does not. It recognizes that discrimination impacts health, and then goes a step further, highlighting how legal systems are complicit in perpetuating health injustice. That wider lens better captures the lived experiences of those who experience discrimination, including people with disabilities.

My own work explores disability law’s insistence that disability be confirmed through medical examination. Without confirmation from a health care provider, disability does not exist, and reasonable accommodations need not be provided. A health justice framework has deepened my understanding of the harm those encounters impose. Identifying the full scope of the harm people with disabilities endure is the first step toward dismantling the systems that cause it.

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Empty Classroom In Elementary School With Whiteboard And Desks.

Addressing School Discipline Disparities Through the Health Justice Framework

By Alexis Etow and Thalia González*

As an interdisciplinary legal scholar and public health attorney studying how education policies fit into the broader antiracist health equity agenda, health justice serves as both a conceptual framework for reform for legal academics and an accessible roadmap for change for policymakers and public health law professionals. Health justice functions to extend what has been previously accepted as within the health domain beyond traditional health care settings, systems, or laws. This broad applicability leaves ripe the opportunity to employ it to a broad range of health-impacting laws, policies, and systems that may not be designed or previously conceptualized as public health.

Consider, for example, school discipline and policing. Researchers and advocates have long-documented the disparate punishment and policing of Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) students compared to their white peers. For students with disabilities, especially those with intersectional identities, the risk factors and impacts of such policies are amplified. In the case of Black girls with disabilities, data shows that they experience the highest disparity for rates of referrals to law enforcement: six times more than white, non-disabled female students.

During COVID-19 and school closures, the disproportionality of these practices not only persist, but schools now employ new models of exclusion and police practices. This includes students remaining in Zoom waiting rooms during instructional time, resulting in unexcused absences, learning loss, and eventually truancy prosecution.

Despite evidence of the significant co-influential nature of health and education and specific health-harming effects of school discipline and policing — e.g., negative effect on students’ mental health, diminished health protective factors, disrupted educational attainment, threat to safety and wellbeing, and increased risk for justice system involvement — public health has been largely underemphasized in reform efforts and overlooked by the health law community. This is where a health justice approach is critical: it knits together and affirms that health and public health law professionals have key roles to play in education policy, law, and practice. It also places the health-harming effects of school discipline and policing squarely in the domain of public health law and prioritizes legal and policy responses with health equity at the forefront.

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Top view of white cubicles in modern office with white walls and carpeted floor. 3d rendering.

Challenges Faced by Employees with Disabilities amid the Return to In-Person Work

By Doron Dorfman

Over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, many employers are calling workers who had been fulfilling their roles remotely back into the office.

In May 2021, for example, Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase told employees that by July, they were expected to come back into their offices for at least a few days a week, adding that remote work “just doesn’t work for those who want to hustle. It doesn’t work for spontaneous idea generation. It doesn’t work for culture.” In July 2021, Apple announced its plan to require employees to be in the office at least three days a week.

These calls for getting back to the office raise particular quandaries for employees with disabilities, many of whom have disproportionally borne the brunt of pandemic layoffs.

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Herndon, USA - April 27, 2020: Virginia Fairfax County building exterior sign entrance to Mom's Organic Market store with request to wear face mask due to covid-19 pandemic.

The Current COVID-19 Surge, Eugenics, and Health-Based Discrimination

By Jacqueline Fox

COVID has shown us that the burdens and inequities that characterize everyday life for many Americans are not merely vestiges of an older time, but an honest reflection of our unwillingness to treat everyone with dignity and respect.

We have undergone an ethical stress test in the last 18 months. While many people have exhibited heroic commitments to their fellow citizens, much of our governmental response is indefensible in a society that professes to care for all of its members. This implies we are not such a society.

Rather, we are a society riddled with healthism — discrimination based on health status — and eugenics — a pseudo-science that arbitrarily elevates some human traits over others, much as we do with breeding dogs and horses.

As a result, although we are armed with the power to prevent much harm, we lack the will or inclination to use that power for our most vulnerable. Instead, we place different values on people’s lives using arbitrary definitions of quality, and treat people differently based on their health status. Examples include placing a lower value on a life because a person is older, disabled, or overweight.

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Doctor Holding Cell Phone. Cell phones and other kinds of mobile devices and communications technologies are of increasing importance in the delivery of health care. Photographer Daniel Sone.

Viewing Telehealth Policymaking Through the Lens of Disability

Join us on Wednesday, April 7 for further discussion of these issues during our virtual event, “Triumphs & Tensions of the Telehealth Boom.

By Laura C. Hoffman

As a means for delivering health care, telehealth will only be as successful as it is accessible to our most vulnerable populations.

Although the utilization of telehealth has the great potential to increase access to health care while simultaneously reducing barriers to access for individuals, people with disabilities face multiple barriers to telehealth. The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted these challenges.

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Disability with technology line icon set.

Reflecting on the Struggle for Disability Rights a Year into the Pandemic

By Amalia Sweet

On March 9, the Petrie-Flom Center and Harvard Law School Project on Disability gathered a panel to discuss the extent to which the pandemic has set back progress toward ensuring the rights of persons with disabilities.

Though calls for solidarity in March 2020 declared the emerging pandemic to be a “great equalizer,” the past 12 months have demonstrated how the pandemic has exacerbated existing social inequalities, disproportionately impacting the already marginalized.

The panel discussion, hosted by Petrie-Flom Center Senior Fellow in Global Health and Rights Alicia Ely Yamin and moderated by Harvard Law School Project on Disability Executive Director Michael Ashley Stein, provided voice to the uniquely and acutely devastating impacts of the pandemic on persons with disabilities, who are still struggling to secure protection of their basic rights.

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