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  4. Written Testimony of Julie Hocker, former U.S. Commissioner on Disabilities

Written Testimony of Julie Hocker, former U.S. Commissioner on Disabilities

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Good afternoon Madam Chair, Commissioners, and members of the public.  As the U.S. Commissioner on Disabilities at HHS from 2018 to this past January I saw firsthand the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly on individuals with disabilities.  I am honored to be here today to discuss what I saw and what needs to be done.

We all agree that our nation’s ideals rest on equal opportunity – bar none. And that our rights are God-given without contingency or exception.  And each of us here today can attest to the dignity in the right to work, pursue our dreams, and live freely.   

In 1990 – when the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law – we as a nation had hopes that it would have a similar impact on labor force participation, unemployment, and pay equity for individuals with disabilities as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had for Black Americans[1] and women.[2]  

It has not.[3]

Last year, we celebrated the 30th Anniversary of the ADA. Tragically, in the past 30 years, the participation rate for the 61 million adults with disabilities[4] in our nation’s work force has not increased.

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only highlighted these prevailing disparities, but further deepened the divide.

Before the pandemic, the labor force participation rate for Americans with disabilities was 21%.  For Black and African Americans, it was 62%.  For the general population it was 63%.[5] 

Anecdotally, it has long been said that individuals with disabilities are the last to be hired and the first to be let go. 

In fact, while the thriving economy of 2019 led to modest improvements in the unemployment rate for Americans with disabilities, those gains were not only erased by the pandemic . . . but last hired, first to be let go played out yet again. One in five workers with disabilities lost their jobs in the first few months of 2020; that is nearly one million individuals from March to April, 2020.[6]  Compare this to the rate of one in seven for the general population.[7] The employment rate for persons with disabilities more than doubled from January 2020 to April 2020,[8] dropping to 17.9% by the end of the year.[9]  We know that this disproportionate impact is likely the result of  upticks in hiring of people with disabilities in the labor force the year leading up to the pandemic.  And, we also know that people with disabilities are more likely to work jobs in sectors hit particularly hard by the pandemic including service, production, transportation, and material moving occupations.[10]

Moreover, even those who retained their jobs were not necessarily spared from being impacted by the pandemic.  It is important to recognize that many individuals with disabilities – particularly those with intellectual and developmental disabilities – both are more likely to work in essential workplaces and are also at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions co-occurring with their disabilities.[11]  While many were able to keep their jobs due to being essential workers, this placed them in the difficult position of deciding whether to continue to work during the pandemic despite being higher risk – and perhaps with fewer supports – or quit and face a more difficult time becoming reemployed post-pandemic.

Why were workers with disabilities disproportionately impacted?  Answering this question in full requires a deep dive into several areas including reasonable accommodations, discrimination, voluntary and involuntary compliance, and long-held low expectations of people with disabilities - more than I can address here in my time before the Commission. So today, I want to highlight a few specific groups of workers with disabilities – namely, students, workers in sheltered workshops, and those wanting to return to work – as well as propose steps this Commission can take to address the barriers faced by all individuals with disabilities.  

Each year, the U.S. graduates nearly three-quarter of a million students with disabilities; all of whom have the right to an effective and executed transition plan to competitive integrated employment.[12]  But we know that thousands – if not more – were denied that right in part or in whole during the pandemic.  As the Commissioner on Disabilities, I heard about the denial of education and educational supports and services nearly every week from stakeholder groups. 

The move to – and sustainment of – remote and distance learning eliminated or greatly decreased the number of hands-on training, support, experiential work experiences for students with disabilities participating in pre-employment and transition services.[13] We know that for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, early paid work experience is a leading indicator of future employment.[14]  It may take us years to fully understand the extent of the negative impacts on the broader student population, but for those with disabilities the lack of educational opportunity and supports as a result of the pandemic is a step backward in moving toward competitive integrated employment.  

We are left to wonder how many – of the 1.5 million students with disabilities who graduated in 2020 and will graduate in 2021 – had meaningful post-secondary education transitions with job readiness and support during the pandemic. And given the still prevailing absence of such support from teachers and schools, we – the Commission, employers, and society at large – should consider what steps employers should be taking to make sure that these individuals are not excluded from the workforce because of the lack of education and supports they received during the pandemic.

As part of its compliance and discrimination prevention efforts, the Commission should ensure employers are aware of this impact on their pipeline of potential hires with disabilities and encourage employers to take steps such as creating Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts at their companies to take into consideration the loss of early work experiences; ensuring that, wherever feasible, applicants aren’t excluded from the hiring process because of a gap year in regards to experience; and encouraging recent graduates with disabilities to apply for open positions. 

It is also worth discussing the 100,000 individuals with disabilities who were working in sheltered workshops or participating in day services prior to the pandemic. These individuals have the right to seek competitive integrated employment with the counseling and supports that they need.  However, it is not clear how many of the 1300 workshops provided such services during the pandemic or are currently doing so. As a result, we do not know how many of these individuals with disabilities have lost supports and given up hope on entering the workforce, or how many currently lack the counseling and training that they need to pursue their employment goals.  What we do know is that in 2020, only three percent of individuals with disabilities who were not in the labor force reported wanting to be.[15]        

As adults with disabilities return to workshops and other day services, it is important that these individuals are not forgotten. I encourage this Commission to take all actions within its authority to ensure that the promise of the ADA becomes a reality for these individuals as well, so that they too may achieve their dreams and reach their full potential.

The pandemic has compounded the disenfranchisement of individuals with disabilities. The more that individuals with disabilities are out of the workplace due to disproportionate layoffs, separation of employment, or the closure of schools, the more this contributes to stigma and the likelihood that an employer will not be as comfortable hiring disabled applicants in the future. It sets back the incremental progress achieved over the past 30 years, including the recent employment gains we saw in 2019. 

The increase in temporary and permanent telework during the pandemic has also had a profound impact on workers with disabilities. For some, including those with disabilities, telework has allowed them to continue working from the comfort and safety of their own homes. But others have faced new barriers to performing essential functions of their jobs.  For example, many online platforms that provide video conferencing and collaboration do not adequately support screen readers, closed captioning, or the support of interpreters.  As employers make decisions about continuing telework policies, I would encourage employers to consider that telework is not a one size fits all solution for its workforce, especially for individuals who are deaf or have PTSD, autism, or other neuro-diverse needs. And telework does not alleviate the need to accommodate disabled employees when their work environment is their home office.

As we look ahead to a post-pandemic economy, we must consider that the past is not encouraging.  During the Great Recession from 2007 to 2009, applications for SSDI increased by 28 percent, the employment rate for people with disabilities fell more than that of the general population and continued to fall even after economic recovery began.[16]  We can – and should – expect a similarly disproportionately negative impact for people with disabilities during this recovery as well. 

I urge the Commission to take a bold step towards moving persons with disabilities into the workforce: create a taskforce to identify the root causes of the persistently low employment rates of individuals with disabilities and propose tangible solutions to help these individuals find meaningful employment and support businesses ready to hire. While the causes undoubtedly span beyond the pandemic’s impact, let this year be the tipping point for all of us to declare such exclusion is unacceptable.

The Commission should also work with its federal agency partners to study and address why workers – including students preparing to enter the workforce – with disabilities were disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Finally, updated guidance for employers is desperately needed. Guidance should address employers’ responsibilities and compliance efforts in terms of reasonable accommodations, including accommodations in light of the impact of COVID-19; anti-discrimination efforts; and the broader changes that we anticipate regarding hiring, training, retaining, and promoting workers amid greater remote working flexibility and the use of technology. 

Madam Chair and Commissioners, my hope today is that I have encouraged consideration of the work left undone since the passage of the ADA in 1990, set back by the COVID-19 pandemic.  We have more questions than answers but we must begin this work on behalf of the millions of Americans relying on us.  

The pursuit of our individual goals and dreams is the foundation of our freedom.  There is dignity in hard work – in being a member of the team, in receiving that paycheck, in getting that ‘great job today’ feedback.  But for far too many Americans with disabilities too many barriers remain.  

I applaud and thank the EEOC for having today’s hearing and for inviting me to speak.  Including workers with disabilities in the discussion is – however – no longer enough.  No group faces greater barriers to employment in our nation today.  We cannot simply be part of the conversation – we must be at the center of it.

I thank you for your time today and look forward to answering your questions.



[1] Freeman, Richard.  “Changes in the Labor Market for Black Americans, 1948-72.” Brookings Institute, 1973.

[2] Beller, Andrea.  “The Effects of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on Women’s Entry into Nontraditional Occupations:  An Economic Analysis.”  Minnesota Journal of Law and Inequality, Vol. 1 Issue 1.  1983.

[3] Stapleton, David and Burkhauser, Richard.  “The Decline in Employment of People with Disabilities.”  Chapter 7.  2003.

[4] National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020. 

[5] The Economics Daily Report.  U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020.

[6] nTIDE Report.  Kessler Foundation and University of New Hampshire.  May 8, 2020.


[8] The unemployment rate for workers with a disability was 7.9 percent in January of 2020 and 18.9 percent in April of 2020.



[11] People with Disabilities | COVID-19 | CDC

[12] Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) as amended in 1997 (with additional requirements in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) of 2014)

[13] Pressure grew so strong that the U.S. Department of Education’s Rehabilitation Services Administration had to issue a ten-page Question and Answer document on May 14, 2020 to clarify that the pandemic was not a reason for denying educational services including pre-employment and transition services.

[14] Carter, Erik et al.  “Predictors of Postschool Employment Outcomes for Youth Adults with Severe Disabilities.”  Journal of Disability Policy Studies.  2011.