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April 16, 2020

The reality of working from home for people with disabilities

Talia Chudacoff Head of Communications
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Due to the coronavirus pandemic, more than half the world’s population is under some kind of quarantine. For millions of people, work-from-home has gone from being a rare exception to the norm. 

The myriad of digital tools enables most enterprises to adapt to a remote work situation. But the coronavirus brought such swift changes that many companies had to rush into work-from-home mode without much time to research the best tools or practices. This made the transition difficult for all, but particularly for employees with disabilities.

Disability activists often promote remote work to help employees with disabilities succeed. They feel a combination of frustration and relief over the switch to WFH, as they see the flexible working practices and remote work accommodations that they had to beg for — and were often denied — rolled out to support able-bodied employees affected by Covid-19. 

In a world where the default mode is fully able, employees with disabilities are frequently the last in line to have their needs considered. As workers settle down to a new remote work reality, some employees with disabilities are still struggling to work outside of the office.

Workplaces could do more to support employees with disabilities

For people with disabilities, finding work is a major challenge. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 74.6% of able-bodied Americans aged 16 to 64 are employed, but only 30.9% of those with a disability. 

However, there are signs that businesses appreciate the benefits of employing people with disabilities. Enterprises recognize the value of a diverse workforce. In a high-employment market, which the US had until the coronavirus hit, companies can’t afford to overlook a talented applicant just because they have a disability. 

Employers are also realizing the skills that employees with disabilities bring to the workplace. They had to learn early on to be organized and stay focused amid the distractions of pain. As Laine Yuhas, who has a chronic illness, writes “The coping skills you learn to deal with your disability often translate into valuable professional skill-sets.” 

Businesses frequently need to make accommodations for employees with disabilities, but these usually cost almost nothing, and rarely more than $500 in total. One of the most important accommodations is to support flexible and/or remote work so that workers can skip a tiring commute, remain in a safe environment, and maintain self-care without sacrificing productivity. A GitLab survey found that 83% of professionals with a disability or chronic illness said that working remotely helps them be part of the workforce. 

Tech plays an important role in supporting remote work; project management platforms, collaboration and communication tools, and cloud storage all make it possible for employees to work remotely. The rise of these tools parallels a steady growth in the number of companies that are fully remote, like Buffer and Hubstaff, or partially remote like Rackspace and Red Hat. 

Despite the benefits of remote work for employees with disabilities, the sudden switch to a 100% WFH workforce has opened up new difficulties that employers might not notice. 

Moving to WFH risks excluding employees with disabilities

In-office accommodations for employees with disabilities often disappear when the entire company shifts to remote work. 

Some vital accommodations are physical: for example, an employee might have an ergonomic chair, accessible monitors and keypads, and a stand/sit desk in the office, but nothing similar at home. 

Others relate to workflows and digital tools. For example, meetings move online to video meetings and calls. For someone who’s deaf or has hearing loss, virtual conversations are much harder to follow than those that take place in person. 

Emails and written chat may replace face-to-face conversations but can be hard to read for people with low vision or dyslexia, for example. Also, many people express themselves more clearly when they speak than when they write, making it difficult for anyone who is neurodivergent to follow the thread of discussion when it’s in text. 

Many more colleagues send around written resources that aren’t prepared according to accessibility guidelines. Videos without subtitles, images without captions, hastily-typed notes in a tiny text and cramped font, and PDFs that have no tags to guide screen readers can exclude employees with disabilities from the flow of work. 

Finally, not every remote work tool is equally accessible. If a business is rushing to switch to WFH, there’s a risk that they’ll skimp on research and choose platforms and tools that have confusing interfaces, bewildering displays, non-intuitive workflows, and fail to meet accessibility requirements. 

How to improve remote working for employees with disabilities

Choosing the right tech solutions can improve the WFH experience both for employees with disabilities, and the entire workforce. 

Collaboration tools

Choose collaboration tools that are accessible and easily usable by every member of your team.

Asana has a color-blind mode, as well as a gesture-based screen reader that supports Asana for users with low vision. 

Mural is another good option for virtual whiteboarding and planning sessions since it’s fully keyboard-navigable. 

MS Teams is free during the corona pandemic, and it has many accessibility features including an immersive reader that reads texts aloud. 

Virtual communication

A number of employees could struggle with virtual communication. The most important step is to find out what works for each employee; some might prefer audio-only calls because video is too distracting, but others might need video to help them follow the discussion. Whatever medium you use, make sure that communication is clear, concise, and repeated as many times as necessary. 

MS teams, Zoom, and Skype video-conferencing software all have the option to blur your background, which helps lip-readers to focus on speakers’ mouths.

Google Hangouts Meet (free till July due to Covid-19) and MS teams automatically generate live captions and also support screen readers and another assistive tech.

Zoom has a similar option to add closed captions, supports screen readers, keyboard-only navigation, and generates transcripts of conferences. 

Krisp is another useful tool that deletes background noise during calls on most video-calling software so that people with hearing loss can hear more clearly. 

Work from home can be a dream or a nightmare

Rushing hastily into a remote work situation without enough forethought can lead employers to disadvantage employees with disabilities, even though working remotely is usually desirable. However, the right tech tools and physical accommodations help more people with disabilities to serve as valuable and productive remote workers, both during and after the Covid-19 pandemic

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