Emmanuel Smith is an advocate at Disability Rights Iowa, located in the East Village. He was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease, which affects how his body makes collagen, a protein that helps strengthen bones. His disability also puts him in the high-risk category for challenges with coronavirus. Smith talked to the Business Record about his own experience during the pandemic and the concerns that clients of Disability Rights Iowa are dealing with during this time.

What are some of the adverse effects that people with disabilities are facing due to coronavirus that employers might want to be aware of?
Well, I think one of the big things is a degree of frustration. … A lot of adjustments that were made in just the last month or two months in regards to work culture and how people interact with their jobs … were things people disabilities were pushing for decades – and been told repeatedly that it was impossible or not doable.

And then when COVID came, [employees] had all their requests implemented overnight. On one hand, obviously, the disabled community is grateful that people are staying safe and that they’re able to work remotely when possible. But it is frustrating to see how quickly accommodations are adopted when they’re more universal. 

Smith said this will set an interesting precedent for the Americans with Disabilities Act because courts have gone back and forth on whether the ability to work remotely was a reasonable accommodation or not. Now the accommodation may be less controversial than it has been in the past. 

Have there been any other things, not necessarily related directly to work but obviously that would affect your ability to work that are affecting folks? I know that some of the bus systems have had to change routes, or caregivers might not be able to do the same amount of work.
Well, the unfortunate reality is when you impose all these new challenges on a community, people with disabilities’ old challenges don’t all disappear. … People are struggling with traveling to nursing care and in-home health care because people might be more wary to provide that under these conditions. As you mentioned, the paratransit hours here in the metro have been reduced because of the change in ridership, which could remove your only way to get to work if you have to have an essential job and don’t drive. The list is pretty endless. … If you have a mental illness, for example, COVID could very easily exasperate a lot of the symptoms of mental illness. 

And unfortunately I think it’s going to get more murky – not less. ... Because obviously I work for Disability Rights Iowa, I was not worried about figuring out accommodations with my boss, but other people might not be as lucky. … Slowly but surely I worry that pressure will build for people to come back to work traditionally, and for people who are immunocompromised or are caregivers of people who are immunocompromised, that could be a real life-or-death decision. ...

If you’re part of a population where if you get COVID you could very likely have a medical crisis, employers are going to have to be flexible and human and empathetic to those concerns – and continue to be flexible as we all improvise our way through this crisis. The [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] is clear that just because this is all happening, does not mean employers are exempt from the ADA, or no longer required to engage in that kind of back-and-forth collaborative process.

So what are some of the most common questions that people are asking you all about right now?
A real common question is … am I allowed to work remotely and to refuse to come in at all? ... I think what people are trying to better understand is to what degree their physical presence is going to be required and how far does the ADA go to protect people. And I would say cases where the job can reasonably be done remotely, ... obviously the ADA would protect their right to do so. Particularly if they have a medical condition that may make the office especially risky. But for some jobs, like if you’re working at a grocery store, … being physically present is unfortunately going to be an essential component of that job. …

One of the big questions is on leave and does the ADA entitle you to leave while this crisis kind of plays out. And, unfortunately, I don’t believe that’s the case.

You mentioned the importance of employers being flexible and being human. What are some things that you would tell employers that they can do to make sure that their employees with disabilities are included and have a safe work environment?
Well, obviously, take this seriously. As a person with a disability, my particular disability puts me in that high-risk category. Speaking honestly as somebody with brittle bone disease, if I get COVID and it has a really nasty cough that comes with it, at minimum, I’m gonna break a few ribs. At worst, it could be life-threatening … because I’m already not the most robust when it comes to my respiratory system. 

Employers need to understand that the risks that their employees are taking on by being in the public are not equal. … Their responsibility as employers is to keep their staff safe and fulfill their obligations under the ADA. To understand that they need to accommodate every individual worker’s needs and have those ongoing discussions with staff. Some staff may need to work remotely longer than others if their medical situation merits it. And that’s not their employee trying to get away with something or not fulfill their duties, it’s very likely their employee is trying to stay alive.

Have you seen anything that employers are doing or programs that are going on that you think are doing a really good job that others could be emulating?
Obviously we work 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., most of us. … But for a lot of us, our living situations have changed pretty drastically. We might have kids with us 24/7. We might have different mental health challenges. We might have different schedules. So having flexibility … and obviously we will get the same amount of work done, is very understanding. … That’s a huge help.

Additionally, as we begin to transition back into in-office work … take it person by person as an individual being comfortable making that transition. I may be one of the last people at my office to come back to work in office because of the medical realities I’m living under. So the best-case scenario when [employers] try to transition back, is to act on the side of caution and also don’t make these broad declarations, … but instead make it an ongoing discussion with everyone.

During this time for you personally, what kind of challenges have you run into in going about your day-to-day life?
As somebody who has chronic pain issues and some mental health challenges, taking time to take care of myself and preserve the connections that are so important to all of us. But also disability-specific, just trying to come to terms with the fact I may be in this quarantine a little bit longer than other folks and to take the big-picture view.

I think all of us would love to have that date in our head when everything will be completely normal. And unfortunately, this situation … doesn’t really allow for that. … 

I think every employer right now is going to have to make a very clear decision as to whether or not they value their employees’ health. … That’s going to require us all to display some patience and flexibility in how we may have done things in the past. That’s going to seep into every area of life. Don’t exasperate the situation by prioritizing profits over people’s lives. 

We all have to make decisions together and make the commitment to each other, that we all want each other to be safe. And we’re all going to sacrifice a little in the short term, to make sure that we’re not going to lose people because of our impatience. It’s an ethical decision we’re going to have to get better at making together. And if we don’t, we’ll see some pretty profound human consequences that unfortunately people with disabilities will disproportionately have to bear.