Working remotely for the past year has brought feelings of isolation and anxiety, yet it has also brought relief. Such is the case of some people that are living with a disability and now have the opportunity to work remotely.
Before COVID-19, disability advocates had asked employers for the possibility to work from home, since it is more accessible for many with a disability or chronic pain. Such requests were often refused. Now with COVID-19 restrictions, working from home has quickly become the norm for many.
“The fact that that happened, what felt almost overnight, was just a little bit bittersweet, for those of us for whom this has just been something we’ve been wanting and asking for, and for so long,” said Moeena Das, Chief of Staff at the National Organization on Disability (NOD).
Now, after over a year where remote work became the norm, many companies and CEOs are pushing for a return to in-person offices. But for many employees that still isn’t accessible.
Last week, President Biden commemorated the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all aspects of public life. The act guarantees equal opportunities, but inequality prevails.
Last year, only 17.9% of people with a disability were employed, down from 19.3% in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In comparison, 61.8% of the people without a disability–over three times the number of disabled hires–were employed in 2020.
In the US, 26% of adults have a disability, according to the CDC. Non-Hispanic Indigenous people are the most likely to have a disability, with every two out five of them having some type of disability.
“For many folks who are disabled, the chance to work from home was also one that allowed so many of us to feel safe in so many ways,” said Das. “There’s a whole variety of reasons that might go into how, when you are going to work in person, [there are] many steps that have to be taken.”
Before working remotely, activist and advocate Paula Carozzo had to take hours off from her day just to prepare to work, besides the usual time to anticipate traffic or to get food. She mentioned that employment is low, so it’s necessary for work opportunities to become more accessible.
“Arrange my body, myself, my equipment and just also there’s like a huge mental preparation, you know, that comes with having to face certain things. Like if I’m walking into the office and I fall, that’s already like a 10-minute thing added to my schedule that I didn’t plan for but that I need to plan in advance,” said Carozzo.
Das described this as “additional gymnastics,” adding how remote work has helped “leveled across” the workplace.
A job is naturally going to come with some stress, said Carozzo, but when she started working remotely at the beginning of the pandemic the “physical stress did settle down.”
For those who had been advocating for remote working opportunities, this past year provided some relief.
“As a person with chronic illnesses myself, my job search a year ago was focused on permanent remote opportunities,” said Jen Bokoff, Director of Development Disability Rights Fund. She continued: “Cutting out commuting and adding in some flexibility and proximity to my couch, fridge, medicines, and supplements, and bathroom has made a huge difference for me. While I’m a total extravert and miss being in person with people dearly (and will look forward to that again soon), I do not miss going into an office at all.”
Other benefits include the facilitation of schedule modifications as well as the access to assistive technology such as captioning, diverse equipment, as well as the possibility where one can work from a place that is familiar to them and adaptable to their needs.
Working from home could mean not having to deal with physical barriers like inaccessible office spaces or restrooms, it can mean working from a quiet and private place.
Although the perks are there, it took a pandemic before it became true for many. The pandemic is not over, yet the possibility of things returning to their pre-pandemic state is coming closer.
“What I can say from a disability and from an employment context, I think the first is just the concept of return to normal, quote, unquote, is one that does cause a lot of anxieties,” said Das. “For those who are disabled, it potentially represents a loss of the flexibility that we have had, it potentially represents a return to inaccessibility.”
One thing that activists advocate for is not only that the accessibility of remote jobs prevails but also that it is adapted to a larger scale. “The new normal,” according to Das.
“We’ve seen a lot of folks during COVID [who] not only work successfully from home, but also for some folks [it is] even an opportunity to grow in their jobs,” said Das.
Nevertheless, working from home is not for everyone.
Throughout the duration of the stay-at-home orders, different countries saw a rise in violence towards women and girls. An international survey found that women and girls with disabilities were being disproportionately affected by this, as there were reports of sexual assault and violence.
“The disability community is not a monolith,” said Bokoff. “While many persons with disabilities are in favor of remote work and want to see this practice as the norm, there are also many persons with disabilities who are eager to be back in person with people. Being in an office helps with feelings of isolation, and can also be helpful for certain communications styles and types of work.”
But advocates maintain that the decision to work remotely or not should be open to employees, and flexibility in accommodations should always be there,
“Try to sit down and ask for, you know, what kind of accommodations do you need? What kind of accommodations do you like to have in a workplace? What is something that we can incorporate, to make you work better and to make your work at ease?” said Carozzo.
She explained: “As people with disabilities, we’ve been living in a fight, where it’s like, I need to prove myself to get this job. I need to go above and beyond to do things that people without disabilities don’t have to do to make an income. And I think a lot of it, besides like, just hiring me, a lot of it is switching the mindset and being open to having a diverse workplace.”