For many years, people with certain disabilities advocated for the right to work from home. These advocates presented this alternative arrangement as a reasonable workplace accommodation. However, companies frequently denied such requests. Then, the pandemic hit.
Businesses around the world made rapid and extreme modifications to their work processes. Suddenly, remote work was the norm, and those who’d requested such arrangements wondered why they’d been told that such accommodations were impossible.
Additionally, when the number of professionals with work-from-home positions tripled, job seekers with disabilities did, in fact, benefit. For instance, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of employed people with disabilities rose to 5.7 million in late 2022. In April 2020, that number was just 3.7 million. Researchers believe that the ability to work remotely helped drive this massive increase in employment among people with disabilities.
Another positive side effect some professionals noticed was a tendency to offer certain accommodations to everyone rather than just individuals who request them. For example, many companies started offering captions to all virtual meeting participants.
“Over the pandemic, companies were thrust into a situation where everything had to be remote. They just couldn’t handle the workflow involved in addressing individual requests, so they said, ‘just do everything.’ I feel like that has been a huge boon for people,” said James MacPherson, VP of Sales at VITAC, a Verbit company.
Now, as many businesses are implementing full return-to-the-office policies and others commit to hybrid environments, questions remain. For instance, what have we learned about remote work and how it applies to team members with disabilities? Also, will the widespread accommodations, such as captioning all content and meetings, continue now that so many are back in the office?
Why remote work might be beneficial to people with disabilities
Remote work is popular and preferred by many employees. One survey indicated 87% of those offered the option for full or part-time remote work take advantage of that arrangement. However, it’s important to examine the impact on team members with disabilities. Individual experiences and preferences vary, but here are a few ways work-from-home arrangements support people with disabilities.
No need to commute
The lack of a commute is especially helpful for many people with mobility-related disabilities. Taking public transportation can be exhausting, time-consuming and inconvenient for anyone, but for those who need accommodations to even board, the process can be even more draining.
Without the need to commute, many people with disabilities are able to take jobs they couldn’t have assumed otherwise. As a result, work-from-home arrangements opened doors.
The ability to work in already adapted environments
Some individuals explain that their physical disabilities make it exhausting for them to sit in an office, potentially in a wheelchair. These people have typically already adapted their homes to meet their needs.
Being able to work from home lets them find more comfortable ways to position themselves and even wear clothing that’s more comfortable. Such small changes are enough to make a major difference in a person’s life.
Greater chances of avoiding illnesses
For people with certain disabilities, viruses and contagions have always been huge risk factors in going into the office. Individuals with compromised immune systems and other health concerns can improve their safety by working from home.
While people may show up to the office with “just a cold,” there are people who can face severe health problems from catching a virus. Working from home gives these individuals more opportunities to protect themselves.
Setting individuals with cognitive disabilities up for success
People with autism spectrum disorder, ADHD or sensory disabilities, among others, often find working in an office overwhelming or overstimulating. Open floor plans and hot desks have become the norm in many hybrid environments. However, they often create an environment that might not be conducive for these employees.
Allowing people an opportunity to work from home lets them decide where and how they work best. Without distractions, some of these individuals find they’re able to be far more productive.
Although these benefits help many individuals, remote work also creates some drawbacks and challenges worth considering for team members with disabilities.
Work from home challenges & ways to overcome them
The massive transition and incorporation of new technologies that fueled remote work also created challenges for everyone. However, work-from-home arrangements may present specific obstacles for employees with disabilities.
Obstacles for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing
During the Zoom boom, virtual meetings filled the calendars of employees worldwide. However, for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing, these meetings could be challenging. Those individuals who relied on reading lips often lacked the right viewpoints to do this over a video chat.
“If having that collaboration was a hurdle when you were in the office, that’s just magnified a lot from working from home,” said MacPherson.
According to MacPherson, he gets a lot of positive feedback for Verbit’s solutions like relay conference captioning (RCC), which help people who are Deaf or hard of hearing communicate better in virtual work settings.
“Having conversations is crucial for building bonds with your coworkers,” said MacPherson. Those connections don’t happen through email chains.
Adding live captions to meetings can instantly offer better access. However, if the captions are inaccurate, this can often prevent coworkers with disabilities from feeling included. Also, flawed captions can’t offer equitable workplace experiences. Much of the free built-in captioning and transcription software that’s available within video conferencing platforms, for example, can have so many errors that it creates constant confusion.
To ensure a more equitable experience for those who are Deaf or hard of hearing, Verbit is one company that can help to provide quality live captions with higher accuracy rates.
Events and presentations that leave out people with vision loss
Fortunately, popular platforms like Zoom include accessibility features to support team members or participants who are blind. However, when people plan presentations, webinars and virtual or hybrid events, they don’t always consider these individuals.
For example, imagine a presentation that includes charts, diagrams and other visuals. If the visuals are important points of reference for a presentation, much of the context is likely to be lost on those who can’t see them well or at all.
Additionally, if those visuals are part of a live stream or video, screen readers can’t access them.
In such cases, it is possible to boost accessibility and allow a better experience for those who are blind or have low vision. Audio description technology provides context in these situations. Audio description involves a narrator who describes the visual aspects of a video or event to give context for those who are blind. Live audio description is becoming more popular, especially for large events. It was even offered for the Oscars this year.
Considerations for keeping work-from-home arrangements intact
In sum, for companies to retrain and attract employees with disabilities as part of their ongoing initiatives to create more inclusive workforces, offering the possibility to work from home can be a game-changer. Work-from-home options open doors for these individuals to take on more roles and work in a way that meets their individual needs.
Additionally, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that telecommuting arrangements are one form of reasonable accommodation. Presenting this as a solution, especially now that many companies have some experience with remote work, is one strong option.
Verbit is working with many businesses and non-profits to help them make their work environments more accessible and inclusive to as many employees and consumers as possible. Reach out to Verbit today to learn more about accessibility solutions that can make your workplace more accessible for employees who are virtual, in-person or hybrid.