A Lot of Employees Prefer Remote Work, But for Many People With Disabilities, Having the Option Is Crucial

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At some point since March 2020, you've probably heard at least one person say or seen one headline proclaim that COVID-19 has forever changed the way we work. And for many, it's turning out to be true. As we head into 2022, most people in the U.S. who have wanted to be vaccinated have done so, and many have gotten their booster as well. And yet, a number of those who worked in company office spaces pre-pandemic are still working remotely at least part of the time (especially as the Omicron variant spreads).

There's been much discussion about the benefits and detriments of this setup for folks in various situations, like parents, introverts, or extroverts. But the effects a remote working environment also have effects on people who have a disability, whether that disability is physical or mental, and impacts their life greatly or moderately. That needs to change. Yes, people with disabilities are also introverted or extroverted. Many are also parents. But they also experience certain challenges that others do not. These challenges can be just as varied as the vast number of disabilities themselves; everyone's personal experience is different. But in many cases, the challenges are eased greatly by the remote setup, and it's important that employers become aware of this reality as they plan how working remotely may fit into their future policies.

Experts In This Article
  • Sharon McLennon-Wier, PhD, Sharon McLennon-Wier, PhD, is the executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York. CIDNY’s mission is to ensure full integration, independence, and equal opportunity for all people with disabilities by removing barriers to the social, economic,...
  • Tom Cory, Tom Cory is a project consultant at The Arc, the largest national community-based organization advocating for and with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

When employers meet the needs of employees with disabilities, the entire workplace is better for it. But the first step for making change is understanding the experiences of folks who identify this way. Only then can all people really thrive at work—no matter where they are doing their job.

People with disabilities face unemployment at a higher rate than people without a disability

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is more than double that of people who do not have a disability, and the pandemic has made this gap even more pronounced. While it's illegal to terminate someone for having a disability, unconscious bias can come into play, jeopardizing the job of a person with a disability: More than one in three people show an unconscious bias against those with a disability, higher than levels of bias on the basis of gender or race.

Tom Cory, a project consultant at The Arc, the largest national community-based organization advocating for and with people with disabilities, says this unconscious bias can also lead to people with disabilities not being hired for roles they may thrive in. He says people in the community are more likely to work in service-sector jobs, such as food service or manufacturing. "Even though there's nothing against these professions, we're certainly advocating for hiring beyond these areas, especially since the pandemic has shown how vulnerable people in these fields are to being laid off," he says, noting that service-industry jobs may be less stable due to the ever-changing COVID-19 restrictions for business operations at places like restaurants and hotels.

There are several organizations working to change this: Circa connects users with Fortune 500 companies that value workplace diversity and are looking to hire. RecruitDisability is another organization that was created with the commitment to lowering the unemployment rate for people with disabilities; the job-searching site lists roles at a wide range of experience levels and career fields.

In January 2021, President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Ensuring an Equitable Pandemic Response and Recovery, which includes explicit consideration of the needs of people with disabilities, who are "often obscured in the data, [and] are also disproportionately affected by COVID-19." This includes creating a post-pandemic recovery plan that is inclusive of hiring them, though the order does not specify exactly how this will be put into action. Cory says it's too early to tell how impactful the order will be. "These types of [government] policies take time, but we do think it's starting to help," he says.

The unique ways remote work is benefitting many people with disabilities

People with disabilities experience many of the same pros (and, at times, cons) of working remotely that people without disabilities experience. The difference is that they are often more pronounced: Sure, everyone working from home can benefit from being able to rest when they need, but for someone with depression or chronic pain, for example, that opportunity can be much more impactful. However, there is one notable drawback: Working from home can feel isolating to all people, but for a population that already feels isolated at a higher rate, this, too, is often felt to a higher degree.

Holly, 47, (whose last name is withheld as she has not yet told her workplace about her disability) was diagnosed with major depressive disorder 20 years ago and shifted to remote public relations work during the pandemic, after being laid off from her previous job. "I haven't actually seen my depression as a disability until recently," she says. "I am a high-achieving person, but my major depressive disorder can make my productivity drop, lead to trouble concentrating, or make it hard to remember things. It also impacts my creativity."

For Holly—who expects she will be required to go into the office a few days a week in 2022—the remote setup is mostly positive: As a single mom, the flexibility working from home has afforded her has been helpful. She is also able to take breaks when she needs, whether to go for a walk or rest. "A big part of managing major depressive disorder is self care," she says. And since, to her, a big struggle of working while navigating an invisible disability is the worry that an employer may see her as lazy, the ability to take a break when she needs without worry of who can see her is helpful.

"The isolating symptoms of the pandemic make my depression worse." —Holly, a public relations professional

Still, she misses the human interaction office life brings. "The isolating symptoms of the pandemic make my depression worse," she says. For this reason, her dream scenario is the hybrid one she anticipates; being able to go into the office a few days a week but still having the flexibility to work from home.

Many who had to commute to work before the pandemic may prefer the time saved working from home, but for some people with disabilities, not having to commute eliminates a major stress. Sharon McLennon-Wier, PhD, the executive director for the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York, says that as a blind person, this certainly is the case for her. "I used to have to get up at 4:30 a.m. to get my paratransit [a public transport van for people with disabilities, where the commuter pays a fare] to get the train," she says. "Now, I can just shower, get dressed, and head over to my computer."

When it comes to actually doing her job, Dr. McLennon-Wier says the remote arrangement has also streamlined certain processes. For example, her home computer is outfitted with assistive technology that allows her to speak-text notes and emails, as opposed to typing, which is more difficult for her. This, she says, comes in handy, especially during video-conference meetings because she can speak text notes or emails during meetings at home while her own microphone is muted. It would be impossible to the same during a meeting in a live conference room full of people. In this way, she says she's actually able to work more efficiently at home than in the office.

How workplaces can support people with disabilities—no matter where they work

A major part of Dr. McLennon-Wier's job is advocating for people with disabilities and educating the public on their values and civil rights. She wants all employers and employees to know that when a workplace serves the needs of a person with disabilities, it serves the needs of everyone. For example, all workers can benefit from saving time commuting or being able to take a break when they need to rest.

It's also important to recognize when someone with a disability requires accommodations that those without a disability do not need because they don't face the same barriers—something managers and human resources departments, in particular, should be mindful of. For example, Holly says part of managing her major depressive disorder involves seeing a therapist once a week. After she disclosed her disability to her previous employer, she no longer had to covertly use her lunch breaks for her therapy sessions, something she had to do before.

"Needs can be easily addressed. [Hiring managers should] focus on getting to know the person as an individual and what special qualities they bring," Cory says. "Employers should also know that there are avenues to get support through government resources." These resources are outlined on the U.S. Department of Labor's website and include but are not limited to the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (a free, nationwide service that educates employers about effective strategies for recruiting, hiring, retaining, and advancing people with disabilities), the Workforce Recruitment Program for College Students with Disabilities (a free resource that connects private businesses and federal agencies nationwide with qualified job candidates), and the Job Accommodation Network (which provides free, expert advice on workplace accommodations that may be necessary to assist qualified individuals with disabilities to apply for a job and maximize their productivity once onboard).

State legislatures are also working to support both private and public companies in hiring people with disabilities through several initiatives. This includes Employment First (available in almost every state), which ensures people with disabilities are given equal opportunities and pay, and States as Model Employers (active in 20 states), which supports accommodations and special technology for those who can benefit.

Cory says managers should be mindful of what accommodations people with disabilities need to do their jobs well whether they're working in an office or at home. This, Holly adds, requires employers to be more perceptive, as not all disabilities are visible, making them even easier to miss in a remote working environment. "It requires asking more questions instead of just assuming," she says. "For example, if someone's productivity drops, it's worth a conversation instead of just assuming that person is lazy and isn't working as hard from home," she says.

Really, it all boils down to empathy. Incorporating that into the workplace would be the greatest post-pandemic shift of all.

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