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Ableism and accessibility
The rise of remote work has disabled workers wondering: where was this flexibility before the crisis?
During a recent group video chat, where my friends and I gathered to virtually celebrate my birthday since we couldn’t be together in person, we discussed the sudden normalization of remote work. The majority of my friends who don’t work in essential fields, like medicine or food retail, now work from home. Though I felt grateful that some employers are taking this pandemic seriously, I also felt frustrated that, in the past, when asking employers to work remotely as an accommodation for Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and autism, I have been refused.
In the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic, a sudden pivot towards remote work is happening across the board in a variety of professions—both those that have been historically remote-work friendly and those that usually require on-site work. But this move has made me (and a lot of disabled workers) wonder: where was this flexibility before the COVID-19 crisis?
Disabled employees already know that offering remote work options make workplaces more accessible because workers can control their environment. If I’m in a lot of pain, I occasionally work from my couch or even my bed. Other workers might have wheelchair accessible homes that are optimized in a way that an office isn’t. Working from home is a reasonable accommodation for disabled and chronically ill people. But allowing more people to work from home would be life-changing for so many—regardless of ability. So why had these accommodations previously been so difficult to achieve?
Only 19 percent of people with disabilities in the United States are employed and disabled people are legally paid a subminimum wage for their work. Working from home may not be possible in every industry or job and might not be the right accommodation for every disabled person, but it can be incredibly helpful to many. The ability to work remotely can have an immense impact on people with disabilities’ professional pursuits, affording them more control over their working environment. And yet, these options are not always made available.
The sudden spike in remote work accommodations during the coronavirus pandemic is making it clear that many businesses that previously balked at telecommuting are actually amenable to it—when it suits them. It seems many workplaces were always capable of figuring out a way to accommodate those of us who need to work from home, but they chose not to when it was disabled employees asking.
Emily Ladau, the editor-in-chief of the Rooted in Rights blog and a communications consultant, says that working remotely allows her to customize her work environment and offers more flexibility than an office. “The reality is that my home is the place that’s most accessible to me,” Ladau tells Supermaker. “It’s the place where I have access to comfortable seating [and] a wheelchair accessible bathroom.” Working remotely also means she is able to have physical therapy three times a week in her own home— something that would be difficult to fit into a rigid 9-to-5 office schedule.
Currently, about 25 percent of people work from home at least sometimes but 56 percent of workers have jobs where they could work from home if their employers allowed it. And yet, I have previously worked in jobs in advertising, publishing, and communications where I requested to work remotely at least one or two days a week as a disability accommodation and was denied—even though all of my work was done on a laptop and my employers were already using tools like Asana, Trello, and Zoom to manage projects and host meetings.
A lack of flexibility can negatively affect workers’ lives. One-third of workers have left a job because their employer didn’t offer flexible work policies like working from home or flexible scheduling, according to FlexJobs’ 2019 Annual Survey. Inflexible workplace policies keep employees from taking time off to go to medical appointments or to take care of their mental health. Nearly 80 percent of employees from FlexJobs’ survey said that having a flexible job would allow them to live a healthier life and over 85 percent said they’d be far less stressed.
“Flare-ups of my anxiety and bipolar disorders are often triggered by stress, and working in an environment that isn’t my own can contribute to the already-existent stresses of a job,” says Kate Sloan, a journalist who specializes in sex and relationships. “The flexibility of working remotely also means that if I’m having a terrible mental health day, it doesn’t have to derail my entire work day.”
This sentiment is echoed by Irina Gonzalez, a freelance writer and editor based in Fort Myers, Florida who is able to better manage anxiety and alcohol addiction thanks to a remote set-up. “[Before] I was drinking in order to calm my anxiety but remote work provided a lot of relief from that anxiety,” she tells Supermaker. “It has been extremely helpful that I can take a day off or have a slow day or take a midday break when anxiety strikes. That is not something that I could have done when I was a full-time editor in NYC.”
Though some employers distrust remote work, claiming that people won’t get work done if they’re not in an office, remote arrangements can actually help to create a more trusting environment. “Remote teams are built on the basis of trust because managers and organizations cannot track exactly what team members are doing, which should ultimately create stronger relationships,” says Dr. Rishi Desai, chief medical officer for Osmosis. “Working remotely makes us more human and more compassionate toward co-workers because we get a glimpse into their lives that we may not otherwise get.”
Remote work supports workers with disabilities—but it has benefits for everyone. Working remotely makes it easier for parents and caregivers to care for their loved ones. “Rather than taking half of a day off of work, remote working allows a person to take care of these personal needs without missing a beat,” says Dr. Desai, noting that most medical appointments get scheduled during the workday. “There’s also a huge mental burden that’s removed in terms of dealing with situations that may come up during the day, like taking care of a sick child.”
The ability to work from home can also have potentially far-reaching socioeconomic impacts as moving towards remote-friendly workplaces can mean employers are able to hire qualified candidates who might not be able to physically come to an office. Such flexibility holds the potential to address diversity gaps in industries rooted in expensive cities, such as the New York-centered publishing industry, where 76 percent of workers are white, 89 percent are nondisabled, and one-bedroom apartments cost $3,000, on average. Though telecommuting options alone may not solve diversity issues, allowing employees to work from anywhere might help to attract qualified candidates who could not otherwise afford to live in these cities.
What’s more, working from home can actually make employees more productive, according to a two-year study conducted by Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University. A working paper by the Harvard Business Review found similar results: people’s work output increased by 4 percent after transitioning to the ability to work from anywhere, which represents up to $1.3 billion of annual value added to the US economy. Employers could save about $11,000 every year for every employee who works remotely at least part-time.
It has been upsetting for many disabled, chronically ill, and other marginalized people to watch as employers shift to remote work options amidst this pandemic. These moves signal that remote work—at least in many jobs and industries—was always possible, it’s just that employers didn’t want to make their workplaces more accessible. Still, this shift also brings great opportunity. This moment demonstrates more to us than just the potential for telecommuting options. It offers a chance to recognize the facility with which entire offices can switch to more remote-friendly office styles that will accommodate and uplift more people.
Global Workplace Analytics predicts that the United States will see 25 to 30 percent of the workforce working at home on a multiple-days-a-week basis within the next two years as employers begin seeing firsthand the positive impacts of remote work. Given this, if employers are to take just one lesson away from this pandemic, I hope it will be this: Allow your workers to work remotely if they’re able to, and work to create a more flexible and accessible workplace, for all. Because, ultimately, accommodating your employees is always a good idea—whether it’s making sure your team stays safe during a global pandemic, letting a disabled person Skype into conference calls from home, allowing a caregiver leave early to bring their parent to a medical appointment, or just giving someone the option to stay home with their dog while they wait for the plumber.