Accessibility at Work: The Pandemic’s Silver Lining

Citizens and workers with disabilities have been fighting for their rights in these United States for decades. In 1990, activists won a hard-fought battle, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in the U.S. Congress and became law. This was a seismic piece of legislation that would change the future for countless marginalized Americans. The bill made discrimination based on race, religion, sex, national origin, and later sexual orientation, along with other characteristics illegal. In addition, the ADA also required employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” to all of their employees working with disabilities. This last piece is why of any single group of workers in the United States, those with disabilities were the most ready for the pandemic, quarantine, and a future built on location independent remote work. Leaders in accessibility at work are leaders for all of us.

According to an article in the Washington Post, “guidance issued in 2002 under the Americans With Disabilities Act specifically identified remote work as a reasonable accommodation employers are required to offer to their employees with disabilities, as long as it doesn’t impose an undue burden on the employer, such as cost. However, it wasn’t until the past decade, when new technology made remote work more feasible, that employers began to widely offer the accommodation.”

This combination of both 1. the ADA passing and 2. platforms for asynchronous remote work being developed in spades around the turn of the century, resulted in an unlikely demographic of perhaps the most experienced remote workers: those with disabilities who were allowed to work from home. Now we have to ask: What can we learn from them and what can great leaders do? And, perhaps most concerning, what are we still getting wrong a year into the pandemic? 

What can we learn from advocates of accessibility at work: 

As Lavoie, a remote worker with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome puts it, “All my energy before, when I worked in an office, was spent on trying to be physically at work. It was spent on the commute and not having my symptoms get so bad that I’d have to leave midday.” The Post article goes on to say,  “While some workers scramble to adapt to remote work, Lavoie has perfected it. She sets deadlines for herself so her colleagues know when to expect her work and creates a hard end to her workday.”

Remote workers know the importance of over-communicating, and of setting both boundaries and deadlines for themselves. Furthermore, they have an easier time controlling their environment. For someone with mobility issues or chronic pain, this is more of a necessity than a “nice to have”. According to an article by SuperMaker, “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.”

We can learn from shifts towards more accessibility at work from the disabled population of workers who fought for it. They’ve been happier and more successful in home-office remote work set-ups. It turns out, that can translate to the majority of the workforce. A workforce forced to adapt without warning or a runway to prepare for the transition. The most prepared amongst us, turns out to be, are those who asked for and earned this freedom through legislation. How it actually played out when they asked their managers—well, that’s a different story that we’ll get to eventually.

Why This Matters

The experience and wisdom gained by this population gives some workers with disabilities a long head start. Many have had years of trial and error, home-office experimentation, and remote-work days. They honed the art of remote work more than any other population. We should be asking them to help lead the charge in this transition period. A win for accessibility at work is a win for all of us.

Even if you aren’t certain, there’s a strong chance that your organization employs someone with a disability. There’s a good chance someone on your team has been directly impacted by the ADA. Maybe they’ve been trailblazing remote-work culture for years. They gained experience while you sat in your office, or stuck in traffic.

It’s a far higher percentage of people than one might guess. According to an article by business.com, “more than 1 billion people around the world live with a disability, including roughly 25% of American adults”. With that scale of impact, it’s not hard to see why this matters. You might be able to look within your organization and find a “remote work expert.” 

What can forward thinking organizations do better: 

Don’t simply allow remote work, support it. The best and most forward-thinking employers have accepted that remote work is here, and they’re leaning into the myriad upsides. The savings from eliminating air conditioning, office chairs, and free coffee are more than a blip on the end-of-year report. It’s real savings. What leadership decides to do with those savings is where you tell who truly gets it. Which organization’s leaders can envision the future of work?

The most forward-thinking organizations commit to their employees’ remote work success and accessibility at work. These organizations are setting up processes, tools, and workflows that make remote work easy. They’re navigating to short async video platforms that keep a human face front-and-center without piling on the zoom fatigue. They’re hiring across time zones. Their leaders aren’t tucking away the savings that come from shutting down the office or turning it around to their investors. 

Rather, they’re investing in their employee’s home office setup. Many future-thinking employers have incredibly generous “home-office budgets” or a “tech budget,” as well as a “wifi budget”. These extended benefits allow employees to create a professional environment that works. One where the wifi is strong, the microphone is crisp, and the video is high-quality. 

Home-office improvements have numerous cascading benefits. They allow employees to feel more confident in their equipment and to take more pride in their work. Calls with clients and partners have a more professional appearance and feel. The entire culture of the organization is perceived to be accommodating, flexible and trailblazing—rather than nostalgic for the stuffy offices of old.  

What can truly great leaders do in this moment:

Beyond putting money behind it, the main thing truly great leaders can do is listen to their team. This especially means listening to those with experience in remote-work. Unfortunately, a business.com article reports, “According to Bloomberg Law, 70% of employees were denied telework as an accommodation for a disability over the last two years. In many cases, employers reject these cases because they fear it will be too hard for employees to coordinate or stay productive at home.” So, while the population of disabled workers has greater remote-work experience then the general population, the sad truth is—it could have been so much more. The old guard, for the most part, was afraid of remote work.

They turned down the overwhelming majority of telework requests by disabled employees. Now that it’s been forced on us, the floodgates are open, and the old guard might have a bit of egg on their face. Accommodating for remote work setups is now the norm which is a huge win for accessibility at work. Great leaders and forward thinking organizations aren’t looking back, they’re planning for the future of work. An article in Supermaker frustratingly claims, “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.”

Next Steps:

If your organization opposed letting disabled employees work from home just two short years ago—it seems as though a great leader would admit this error of judgement. A company-wide statement of apology might even be in order. Fortunately, no one needs to ask for the opportunity to work from home anymore. Anyone can skip the commute, and those who need to can manage their pain and disability from the comfort of their home. The pandemic pushed us all over this imaginary line, which greatly benefits all of us—but most significantly—the disabled population. They’re a population we should listen to and learn from at this moment. They’ve been fighting for this freedom to work from home for years, and some have been gaining remote-work experience for decades.

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