The Coronavirus pandemic has changed many facets of society, including where and how we work. Despite the many negative impacts of the pandemic, some positive outcomes have emerged in the workplace. Out of necessity, employers began offering more accessible employment options, including the ability to work from home.
Remote work suddenly an option
Many people with disabilities have been asking for the option to work remotely for years. In the past, businesses may have been unable or unwilling to accommodate remote work. COVID restrictions forced many businesses to find ways to make it possible.
According to Debra Ruh, CEO and Founder of Ruh Global IMPACT, “Luckily, some of those changes are happening, and with a rapid shift to remote work during the pandemic, teleworking made previously unviable jobs available to people who have disabilities. Emerging technology has played an essential role in the employment sector and workplace. The new use of technology for the social inclusion and employment of people who have disabilities opens new doors for those trying to make a living during the pandemic.”
Sarah Rose, a journalist with Endometriosis, Adenomyosis, and Crohn’s Disease had been previously denied the opportunity to work remotely in the eCommerce sector. However, the pandemic allowed her to comfortably work from home. “It was like suddenly overnight working from home was accessible.”
Of her previous uncomfortable commuting experience she says, “I requested it in previous jobs but found working from home even with a declared disability was very hard to access… Prior to the pandemic, I was always exhausted and overwhelmed; I was always worried about work. How would I manage the exhausting commute and perform in pain? I always felt like I was running on empty.”
Now that she has the option to work remotely, she says, “It has given me more opportunities as I’m able to work. Without being able to work from home or with a flexible model, I would not be able to commit to full-time employment.”
Employers can do better than “returning to normal”
Many employers are reopening offices and encouraging employees to return. However, rushing to return to “normal” as quickly as possible means ignoring some valuable lessons. Maintaining remote and hybrid learning and working models adopted during Covid can help businesses create a better work environment for everyone.
Britney Wilson is an associate professor and director of the Civil Rights and Disability Justice Clinic at New York Law School. She has cerebral palsy and uses crutches and a motorized scooter as mobility aids. To get to the law school, she used a paratransit service to commute across the city to work. Frequently, the service was late or never showed up. Now, Wilson works from home several days per week and only commutes when her class meets. She points out that employers have learned that employees can often work just as successfully from home as they can from the office. Of the experience, she says, “We’re hearing a lot about the ‘return to normal,’ and I think the entire disability community has critiqued that notion because normal has never been accessible,” says Wilson, who has cerebral palsy. “I don’t want to see the lessons we’ve learned from this pandemic just be ignored. I hope that we can incorporate them into our return to normal…We realized that we never needed to be in an office, sitting next to one another, to do that… You’re at your computer, whether it’s at home or in the office. The technology is there, and it has always been there.”
Olivia Norman resides in D.C. and is blind and suffers from chronic asthma. She works as a web and product accessibility tester. During the pandemic, she was able to work remotely to reduce her risk of exposure to the virus. Previously, she commuted on crowded public transportation or used ride-share services, which often denied her service because of her guide dog. When her last work contract ended, she struggled to find work that allowed her to continue working remotely at least part of the time.
Norman was particularly frustrated because she had been able to find appropriate remote work during the pandemic only to have it vanish once restrictions eased. “It’s harder when you see what is possible and what you can do — and then you’re back down here again.”
Rhian Stangroom-Teel of disability nonprofit Leonard Cheshire Cymru believes a remote or hybrid style of work should be part of the future of the workplace, allowing significantly more people with disabilities to obtain profitable employment. “It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to show some of the positive opportunities for employers to allow and enable remote and flexible working…We need to make sure that doesn’t go backwards.”
Flexible work options set employers apart during the “Great Resignation”
As offices continue to open and allow employees to return to work in person, employers who continue to allow flexible work options including remote work will set themselves apart. This is especially beneficial as employers compete for top talent during this time of “The Great Resignation.” Remote work options can encourage employees to stay with a company, and also broaden the talent pool from which companies can draw candidates to include more people with disabilities.
Charles Catherine, the associate director of special projects for the National Organization on Disability, prefers remote work because it gives him the option not to keep his disability confidential when he chooses to (he is blind). He says, “Everywhere I go, my cane discloses my disability for me…But if I met someone on the phone, or on Zoom, I choose to disclose my disability or not and people can’t tell. if I were interviewing (for a job), I don’t know how it would affect the decision on either side. But certainly, I’d have more cards in my hand.”
Catherine believes the option to continue working remotely will certainly benefit employers looking for top talent. He says, “There will be companies where people will have very little choice, and there will be a lot of peer pressure…And there will be other companies for which work culture is a top priority, where there will be more leeway. And so the question is, do you want to be an employer of choice?”
Because of the number of employees resigning recently, many potential employers would require DC resident Olivia Norman to do the work of an entire team of employees, which included work outside of her ability. Norman says, “Everyone wants someone who can do everything my team did.”
Billie Alexander of Pittsburgh is a part-time graduate student who has an autoimmune condition that physically and mentally affects her health. She was previously employed at a public library where she provided administrative support. From the beginning of the pandemic until June 2021, she worked remotely. During that time, she says, “There were measurable results, too — we had some pretty major events I organized.”
However, when restrictions eased in June 2021, her employer refused her accommodations, including her request to continue working remotely. She had to use paid leave for medical appointments. Returning to the office was so difficult for her, and she says, “I ran out [of leave] pretty quickly as the adjustment back to in-person work was so hard on me physically.” Out of frustration, she resigned from the library job and now works for en employer who provides accommodations including the option to work remotely.
Disability advocate encourages others to share #MyAccessiblePandemic stories
Ruby Jones has a connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. It often requires her to use mobility aids such as a wheelchair or crutches, and causes fatigue. Jones works at the Student Union at the University of Exeter. When pandemic lockdowns caused Jones to work remotely, she experienced less fatigue and discomfort, and it allowed her to keep her job. Noticing this silver lining, she wanted to find out if other people with disabilities also benefit from increased accessibility due to the pandemic. She started the hashtag #MyAccessiblePandemic on Twitter to find out. She tweeted: “I’m starting a hashtag to highlight how the pandemic has improved accessibility for disabled people. I’ll start: Working from home means I am able to work a full-time job without exhausting myself to the point of hospitalization.”
Another contributor to #MyAccessiblePandemic said the ability to work and learn remotely had benefitted them significantly. “Online classes meant I was able to attend all my university classes and actually take things in and learn, instead of my disabilities getting in the way. And if I needed to, I could rewatch them, and my grades have never been better.”
The future of remote work
The Coronavirus pandemic made life difficult in many ways, but many employees benefitted from suddenly having the option to work remotely. People with disabilities frequently found working from home to be a more accessible option to commuting to and from an office. In many cases, they had been asking for remote work as an accommodation for years and the pandemic suddenly made that possible. People with disabilities who prefer working remotely hope that remote or hybrid work options will become the new normal as restrictions ease. As companies scramble to retain and recruit top talent, offering remote work options may set them apart as more preferable employers. It also broadens their talent pool to include more people with disabilities.
Ruby Jones moves past her frustration that remote work could have been offered easily years ago and reiterates the importance of continuing the option even after the pandemic.
“The last 12 months has just normalized digital access, despite it being quite frustrating that these provisions have only been put in place when it benefits the mass population – despite many disabled people asking for these things for years…It has been really beneficial and I think we’ve got this now – we’ve proved it works, let’s carry it on.”
Nina comes to Onix with years of sales and marketing experience from a variety of industries, and holds a BS in Language Arts Education. Nina has a passion for words, storytelling, and information, which she believes everyone should have access to regardless of ability. After spending time as a teacher with a blind student, she became much more aware of the limitations and abilities of web accessibility, and how essential it is to those experiencing disabilities. “Being able to access information equally ensures that everyone has an equal opportunity for education, employment, and success in life.”