For nearly two years, the home office has been a common workplace for many Americans.
“The students I work with have disabilities, and most work while going to school,” said Fernando Quintero, accessibility advisor at the Disability Resource Center at Salt Lake Community College. “They have been able to work [and go to school] from home which has made life much easier for them.”
He said his students are more productive without having to deal with the overhead of going to school and working in person, like dealing with commuting and traffic. This new arrangement gives them more energy to use elsewhere, making them more productive at work and able to spend more time with their families.
Quintero said his students prefer to work at home because they can work anywhere in the house and take breaks as needed, while having easy access to the bathroom and health management tools.
According to Pew Research, about 71%, of Americans whose jobs can be done remotely have been working from home during the pandemic. For people with disabilities who have jobs that can be done remotely, the pandemic has opened doors to more accessibility and opportunity.
“People with disabilities have been asking for remote work as accommodation for years, and the pandemic shows it’s possible,” said Karolyn Campbell, executive director of the Disabled Rights Action Committee, a non-profit in Salt Lake City.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities, except when an accommodation would cause undue hardship.
“Prior to the pandemic, people with disabilities were told that remote work options were not feasible or realistic, and they were not part of reasonable accommodations in a workplace environment,” Campbell said. “Accessibility isn’t just good for employees, it’s good for employers too.”
Disabled Rights Action Committee board members, as well as people in the disability community that Campbell spoke with, are frustrated, but have a “better late than never” attitude.
“It’s nice that we have these opportunities now, but frustrating that they only came about because able-bodied folks needed it,” Campbell said.
Remote work does not benefit all
Remote work has benefited some people with disabilities who have jobs that can be accomplished from home. Often, however, people with disabilities are more likely to work in service occupations and as essential workers than in office settings that can be more easily adaptable to accommodations.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 8.3% of employed people with a disability work in the leisure and hospitality sector. Employment in this sector fell by 8.2 million jobs in the first two months of the pandemic and is still 3.9 million jobs below February 2020 levels.
“It’s been really hard on people with intellectual, cognitive and developmental disabilities who maybe don’t have the same training and skills to work in professional environments,” said Matthew Wappett, executive director of the Utah State University Institute for Disability Research, Policy and Practice.
People with intellectual, cognitive and developmental disabilities have the highest rate of unemployment in the United States at 70%, Wappett noted.
“People with disabilities often end up in lower-paid positions that are more likely to require that you show up in person,” Campbell said. “There are a lot of folks I know who have not benefited from the transition to remote work that we have seen over the last years.”
Employers are slowly becoming more inclusive to people with disabilities and there are more opportunities for people after they finish school, according to Wappett.
“It used to be when you graduated from high school, you had special education during that time and then there was nothing,” he said. “That’s still the case especially with intellectual, cognitive, and developmental disabilities, but more and more I’m seeing parents pushing to have their kids have job opportunities and supportive employment where the end of school isn’t the end of the support.”
Avery Berschauer lives in Seattle and hosts the podcast Basically Blind where she talks about her experience with visual impairment and accessibility. She changed careers from working as a marketing professional to starting her own business as a diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility consultant. She found it difficult to work in a traditional office without facing discrimination for having a visual impairment, as well as difficulty getting her accessibility needs met.
“When I was in the office environment, there were a lot of people who didn’t know how to interact with me,” Berschauer said. “Having the power to set up my office exactly the way I want, knowing I’m not going to have awkward comments like, ‘Whoa, that screen is huge, you must really be blind,’ are all beneficial.”
Remote work enables some people with disabilities to have more autonomy in the decision to disclose a disability to their employers. When people are working remotely, employers and coworkers aren’t privy to what assistive technologies, mobility devices, or other tools people are using, or if they are using different strategies to get their work done.
In Berschauer’s experience, disclosure is not always a choice.
“I’ve been put in [interview] situations where I feel like I need to disclose that I have a vision condition. I can’t make great eye contact and my eyes shake a little bit,” she said.
Socially, people have made comments to her that they thought she was on drugs because of her eye movement, and she feels like she needs to get out in front of people’s assumptions before they assume wrong.
“Sometimes it didn’t seem to impact things, but other times I could feel a shift in the room,” she said. “You could tell at that point they made up their minds and weren’t taking me seriously.”
Disclosing a disability is a dilemma. It can help someone get the accommodations they need, but it can also open the door to discrimination.
“People have ableist attitudes and you just don’t know,” Campbell said. “It’s kind of roulette with your employer whether you are going to get someone who is understanding, who is going to provide those resources you need to do your job … It introduces a lot of anxiety for people.”
Commutes and “spoon theory”
Transportation and managing commutes are other issues that can be challenging for people with disabilities. Working from home eliminates this barrier.
“It would take me two hours to get to work in the morning, and when I would come back home it would take me three hours,” Berschauer said.
It can take significantly more energy to do a task for people living with a disability than a non-disabled person. Spoon theory, Berschauer said, is used to describe the energy differences between disabled and non-disabled people and to pace out energy usage throughout the day.
“With spoon theory, each measurement of energy is a ‘spoon’. We all start the day with 20 spoons,” she explained. “But, depending on other things that we have going on in our lives, the fact that I’m a woman, and that I have a disability, those compound.”
It might take the average person one spoon to get out the door in the morning, she said, while it might take a person with a disability two spoons.
“While someone might make it through the day and have 15 spoons [remaining], for me I’ve either used all my spoons or I’m at a deficit,” Berschauer said.
The future of work: culture shift
While the pandemic changed how we view remote work, it also catalyzed a larger culture shift. The surge in conversations about race opened the door to talk about diversity, equity and inclusion issues more broadly, including topics around disabilities in the workplace.
For the future of work to be inclusive for all people, a culture shift is needed, Wappett said.
“There has been an increasing focus over the past year, year and a half, around diversity, equity and inclusion, a lot of that being driven by the George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and other racially motivated cases,” Wappett said.
Wappett said it allowed an opportunity for companies and schools to talk about how they are accommodating the needs of diverse populations.
“Because ableism and racism are very much embedded in the fabric of our government and policies and life, overcoming them requires more than having a diversity officer at your company talking about hiring diverse individuals,” Wappett said.
There is cautious optimism that real change will be made as a result, he said.
“The conversation has been elevated, but we’re a little too early in the process to know if any of those efforts are going to result in substantive changes to systems,” Wappett said.
According to Wappett, inaccessibility is a creativity crisis. He noted further that many employers think anything outside of the typical bounds or way of doing things is not a reasonable accommodation, when really an accommodation is a difference between someone being able to be employed or not.
“Reasonable accommodation is a very fungible legal concept … ‘reasonable’ is a messy term,” Wappett said.
Many businesses will hide behind this concept, using it as a tool to disqualify someone for a position, he said. For example, some job applications will list needing to be able to lift 50 pounds.
“Well, what if somebody else helped them pick up the 50 pounds for that part of their job, and they did everything else? What about assistive technology? Driving a forklift?” Wappett said.
He said many companies still have an industrial mindset where employers want employees to be parts of an assembly line.
“We want to be able to go out, pick up a widget, put them in a position, they do what the person before did, and when they leave they go find another person and plug them in,” Wappett said.
When people are properly accommodated, it allows them to do their jobs and be as productive as their coworkers.
“There have been several studies on ‘are people with disabilities less productive’ and it has shown that it’s not true. In many cases, they are more productive,” Wappett said. “There’s a whole list of faulty assumptions that create barriers to hiring and there’s no evidence to support any of them.”
But Berschauer says for a work environment to truly be accessible and inclusive, accessibility needs to be planned for and a priority.
“It’s a matter of attitudes,” she said. “People don’t account for inclusion and accessibility at the beginning of the planning process, and it’s something they try to plug in later. It can’t be an afterthought.”
Workplaces can be changed to be inclusive with an intentional culture shift that places accessibility, diversity and inclusion at the forefront.
“Everyone needs a better baseline understanding of inaccessibility and how it shows up in the world. Most people are well-intentioned, but most people just don’t think about it,” Campbell said.
A concept called universal design can be implemented to help standardize accessibility. Universal design considers how someone will interact with the environment.
“[It’s] flexible in the approach, providing multiple means of engagement and representation, and actions of expression,” Quintero said.
Catering to an array of accommodation needs is important. What one person might need for accommodation, Campbell said, might not be beneficial to another.
“There are a million little ways that environments become inaccessible, and socially we need people who are thinking about building spaces and environments for the widest range of minds and bodies,” Campbell said.
Inclusive from the start
Experts say making a workplace accessible starts with the application and interview process.
“Starting with the format of the job listing online, making it screen reader accessible, making sure you are not including items in your list of qualifications that are not really necessary to the job unless they are really indispensable to the job,” Campbell said.
One barrier presented during a job search, is that job descriptions include requirements that are exclusive and or are not truly needed for the job in question.
“Think creatively as you are drafting the job qualifications,” Campbell said. “Think about how people with disabilities might be able to do that work, and phrase it in a way that’s inclusive of people who have a wide range of experience and backgrounds.”
Holding interviews virtually eases the burden on applicants and attracts more applicants with more diversity on average than interviewing in-person, Campbell said. When she conducts interviews, she checks with applicants to make sure their accessibility needs are being met, that they can see and hear her and that they are able to communicate.
Redefining professionalism and workplace norms can also shift the culture to being more inclusive. Campbell said the norms of professionalism can have ableist undertones, and when someone who looks different, has a verbal difference or completes the same work in a different way, it can clash with traditional ideals that people hold.
“We need to break out of professionalism as bland and boring and think about professionalism in a way that is more inclusive of doing the job,” she said.
In the end, Wappett said, real change requires empathy and compassion, not solely catering to revenue or other metrics.
“There are benefits to [diversity and inclusion] with a healthier company, a more diverse workforce and it may help your bottom line but the real reason should be, ‘just be a good person, damn it.’”