“My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn't prevent you doing well, and don't regret the things it interferes with. Don't be disabled in spirit, as well as physically.”
- Stephen Hawking
Though many disabilities aren’t visible, living with one or more disabilities is fairly common. Twenty six percent of adults in the United States have some kind of disability, as do 22 percent of Canadians over the age of 15.
Unfortunately, people with disabilities are being precluded from job opportunities they’re fully capable of doing. An experiment found that companies were 26 percent less likely to be interested in resumes that mentioned disabilities, even if the disabilities were irrelevant to the role. In the United States, 17.9 percent people with disabilities were employed in 2020, compared to 61.8 percent of people without disabilities.
This lack of opportunity leads to occupational segregation and a disability-related pay gap. The most common occupations for people with disabilities are janitors, drivers, cashiers, retail salespersons, laborers, and freight, stock and material movers. Full-time, year-round workers with a disability earn 87 cents for every dollar earned by those with no disability—but people with a disability are less likely to earn a full-time wage. When looking at all workers, those with a disability earn 66 cents for every dollar those with no disability earn.
Remote work is finally breaking down some barriers for people with disabilities, though there have been some new hurdles to face as well.
More controlled work environment
The modern workplace isn’t always inclusive for people with disabilities. For example, a man with dysautonomia and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome suffers from chronic pain. His office-based call center job would often leave him so fatigued that he’d go right to bed when he got home from work. Since the pandemic opened up a remote work option, he’s found that lying down on a mattress during his shift leaves him with enough energy to enjoy the rest of his day.
Remote work allows your team members to create a work environment that’s most conducive to their needs, productivity, and work styles. These can vary by person. One person might need a work environment that’s comfortable for their service animal. Another might need a quiet space because their hearing aids amplify sounds, such as someone else typing.
Fewer unconscious biases and less outright discrimination
People with disabilities report facing discrimination, bullying, negative attitudes, and a poor understanding of disability. They also often face workplace ableism, or the devaluation of people with disabilities. This may happen if candidates or team members have a visible disability or if they need to disclose their disability because it requires accommodation.
Remote work can allow candidates and team members to have more control over disclosing their disabilities. For example, nobody would know a remote team member used a wheelchair unless that person wanted to share that information. This can reduce those unconscious biases and outright discrimination—though it certainly doesn’t make for a very inclusive employee experience. Team members should feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work without fear of negative consequences.
Lack of commute
Commuting can be challenging for people with disabilities. A woman with ADHD-related stress would often forget things at home and have to go back for them, making it a struggle to get to work on time. Another woman who used an electric wheelchair due to spinal muscular atrophy would feel unsafe commuting during major storms, and have to decide between her safety and a paycheck. Remote work eliminates the need to commute for many, saving precious time and energy that some people with disabilities already lack.
The same can be said for candidates with disabilities. Some candidates can leave their homes for a job interview 20 or 30 minutes before it begins, but it might take a candidate with a physical disability two hours to navigate their public transportation system. While one candidate shows up well-rested and relaxed, the other may arrive more sluggish, disheveled, or agitated from a more arduous journey. A remote interview can even the playing field for both candidates.
Remote tool accessibility
Despite the benefits of remote hiring and remote work for people with disabilities, there are some downsides as well. Many remote tools lack inclusive design and present obstacles for people with disabilities. For example, many job applications are not dyslexia-friendly, and captioning abilities can vary by video conferencing tool. If a person can’t understand what they’re being asked, they’re not going to be able to interview or perform their job well.
It can be helpful to ask people with disabilities which tools they prefer to use, and to always evaluate solutions with accessibility and inclusion in mind.
Lack of structure
Another downside of remote work can be the lack of structure. Without the commute to the office, there is nothing separating home from work and vice versa. On one end of the spectrum, this can lead to slacking off and poor performance at work. A woman with ADHD finds that a lack of structure in her day leaves her easily distracted and feeling unaccomplished at the end of her day. On the other end of the spectrum, a lack of separation between home and work can lead to overwork and burnout. Many people are working longer hours than ever before, which can be detrimental to mental health.
As companies consider back to work plans, it will be useful to provide flexible work arrangements to accommodate different types of needs.
Remote work has the potential to make a positive impact on people with disabilities, but we still have much room for improvement. Inclusion and belonging will be key to improving ability diversity, and encouraging people with disabilities to come forward with suggestions that will improve their candidate and employee experiences.
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