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Workplaces Can Be Particularly Stressful For Disabled Americans, Poll Finds

Jason Olsen, a 39-year-old policy adviser for the Department of Labor, uses the Washington, D.C., Metro to commute to work three times a week. On the other days of the week, Olsen telecommutes from home to avoid the challenge of taking the Metro.
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Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

More than 4 in 10 working Americans say their job affects their overall health, with stress being cited most often as having a negative impact.

That's according to a new survey about the workplace and health from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

While it may not sound so surprising that work affects health, when we looked more closely, we found one group was particularly affected by stress on the job: the disabled.

More than 60 percent of people with a disability in our poll say their job has a bad impact on their stress level.

Jason Olsen says he's not surprised by the poll's findings. As I meet him at his home in Gaithersburg, Md., we start trading commuter complaints. Traffic was terrible getting here, I say.

But his story wins out.

"The other day I had to wait 45 minutes to finally get a train where I could get myself and the wheelchair onto the train," he says. Navigating Washington's Metro system is always a challenge, he says.

And then there was the time when someone ran their luggage over his foot, breaking it in multiple places.

But because a car accident left Olsen paralyzed from mid-chest down, he didn't realize his foot had been broken.

Another time — a couple of weeks before our meeting — he suddenly fell ill at work.

"Three hours later, I'm in the ER, and two hours later I'm in the ICU," he tells me. "Some of the stuff, you know, when you don't have the sensation, your body doesn't give a lot of warning signs."

Warning signs, in this case, that might have signaled that a cut on his foot had turned into a septic infection. He was ultimately hospitalized for two weeks.

Our workplace and health survey found that 62 percent of people with disabilities say their job adds to their stress level, compared with 41 percent of the nondisabled.

Perhaps more stark is that over a third (35 percent) of disabled workers say their job has a bad impact on their overall health. That's more than double the rate for their nondisabled peers (15 percent).

Olsen, who works on disability policy for the federal government, says it often isn't the workthat's stressful, but the time, energy and physical toll it takes to get to the office, sit in a chair for hours, and manage the other demands of living with a disability.

Those demands can require specialized equipment and extra time and care.

For example, because he uses a catheter and other equipment, going to the bathroom can take an hour.

And when he falls ill, it also affects his wife B.J.'s work schedule as an emergency room nurse, adding to the stress.

"I think it's a double-edged sword," she tells me. "I want him to go and do work and stuff like that, but then because of his physical problems, it makes it harder to work."

(Top left) Olsen re-enters his van to drive to an alternative Metro entrance after learning that one of the elevators is not working. (Top right) Olsen often leaves for work early to avoid crowded cars during rush hour. (Bottom) Olsen greets Metro station employee C.A. Phang at the Shady Grove Metro station.
/ Ruby Wallau/NPR
The Florida Channel
(Top left) Olsen re-enters his van to drive to an alternative Metro entrance after learning that one of the elevators is not working. (Top right) Olsen often leaves for work early to avoid crowded cars during rush hour. (Bottom) Olsen greets Metro station employee C.A. Phang at the Shady Grove Metro station.

Jason Olsen's main sources of stress relief, he says, are his son, Gunnar, and baby daughter, Scottie. They keep him motivated.

"Your option is to sacrifice some of your own self-care and health or to live in destitution," he says. "For me, that's not a choice."

On balance, the income, independence and social contact that work provides are good for people with disabilities, says Cheryl Bates-Harris, an advocacy specialist with the National Disability Rights Network.

"We have study after study that shows that for people with psychiatric disabilities, work is part of recovery, and it helps them," she says. But she can also see how it adds stress.

"If you're worried about whether your performance is going to be acceptable, whether they're going to keep you beyond your probationary period, whether there's going to be opportunity for advancement, God forbid that you could request some kind of reasonable accommodation, I imagine that could be pretty stressful for people," Bates-Harris says.

When considering whether to hire a disabled worker, employers worry that accommodating disabilities might cost a pretty penny. In fact, the average cost is only about $500 per person, Bates-Harris she says.

Judy Owens says that persistent misconception is one reason she started Opportunity Works five years ago, helping more than 70 people with disabilities find jobs. She says it can be so hard to find jobs, some people might stick with a bad job.

"You might have five other friends with disabilities who don't have jobs at all, so you just kind of deal with the bad environment you're in, because at least you have a job," Owens says.

That was not the case for James Schwonek, who left his previous job in IT after his boss fell ill.

"That actually prompted me to go find a different job," he tells me, "because I didn't have the arranged accommodation that was there previously."

The accommodations in his case were basic: His boss took care to face him when talking, so Schwonek could read his lips. Without the boss around, however, the workplace seemed less welcoming. Co-workers ridiculed him, he says, for trying to teach them basic sign language.

His experience appears to be fairly common. According to our survey, just over a third of disabled workers say their workplace policies helped them. But more than half (55 percent) rated their workplace fair or poor in terms of providing a healthy work environment, as compared with 21 percent of the nondisabled.

Still, that's progress, says Clay Bradley. He's a 51-year-old man who was born missing part of each limb.

He recalls the era before the Americans with Disabilities Act, when buses often didn't come with ramps.

"Now buses automatically have ramps in them," he says. "When I was using buses in the '90s or in the '80s, half of them would have ramps and then half of them wouldn't. So you'd have to schedule your trips for a bus that was going to have a ramp on it."

Bradley, who works in customer service at a health insurance firm, says other than a ramp, he requires no special equipment.

"I use both arms and I can touch the keys individually; I make mistakes but I've used the computer so long, I correct them very quickly, so my typing speed is about 35 words per minute," he says.

And once he's atwork, he says, work is just as stressful for him as the next person.

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Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.