What we can learn from the disabled community about adapting to a more remote way of working

“We know how to stay in touch remotely, be socially connected while physically distant, make limited resources work in tight situations, make plans and adjust on the spot, build care webs that support each other, and work through challenging circumstances,” says Elizabeth McLain, Instructor of Musicology at Virginia Tech and disabled activist who spoke at Guardian’s webinar Embracing disability wisdom during COVID-19. “We can help you innovate, survive, and thrive.”

As businesses adapt their policies for remote work and paid leave from the pandemic to more hybrid working arrangements, they can learn from the disabled community on navigating work remotely and improving accessibility. Here’s how their wisdom can apply to today’s workplace.

Leveraging platforms for inclusion

Many of the platforms and accommodations like conferencing technologies and staggered work hours embraced by businesses during the pandemic are the same ones that people with disabilities have already been using or have been asking for in order to take part in the workplace. Businesses are transitioning to more remote work, offering flexible schedules, and expanding paid leave. Restaurants and stores have increased delivery and online shopping, and telemedicine services are more available.

These resources and adaptations are not new to the disabled community — but wide adoption of them is. People with disabilities seek workforce benefits that promote flexibility and offer adaptable work arrangements more than employees without disabilities. Six in 10 employees report that they want to work remotely in some form, yet a quarter of employers still don’t offer that benefit.1 As businesses learn that they can operate with adaptations like remote work and flexible schedules in place, they have a unique opportunity to include people with disabilities.

“Since many employers, schools, and government offices aren't thinking of us or prioritizing us in decision making, we can be left behind,” says Elizabeth. Now more than ever, there is a chance to include people with disabilities as businesses make changes that address the rapidly evolving needs of their employees and consumers.


An untapped workforce

While there are more than 4 million Americans with disabilities who are employed in the US, they only account for about 3% of the US workforce.2 Moreover, of those who are employed, about 3 in 10 work part time.3 “You should hire people with disabilities because adding our perspective to your diverse team of employees will bring new perspectives and strength to the team,” says Alex Gossage, Executive Director of the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living, who spoke at Guardian’s webinar. With added capacity to support employees with disabilities through offerings like remote work, employers can tap into this large network of workers bringing diverse, creative perspectives.

Additionally, employees with disabilities report greater loyalty to their employer. People with disabilities who strongly agree that their employer is making adequate accommodations are twice as likely to prefer to stay with their employer for at least 10 years compared to those who don’t feel supported.4

And including people with disabilities in your workforce can put employers in touch with a larger consumer group. “People with disabilities are a significant portion of our country’s customer base that cannot be ignored” says Alex. “Having people with disabilities on your staff team may aid your organization in better accessing this customer base.” Research demonstrates that companies that advocate for disability inclusion perform better financially than companies that don’t.5

What employers should know about disability

Supporting accessibility

When planning for continued operations in the post-pandemic world, businesses can consider these tips to support inclusion and accessibility for disabled employees:

  • Listen to your employees to understand their unique needs. “Your employee is the expert on their abilities,” says Reveca Torres, founder and Executive Director of BACKBONES, a nonprofit committed to promoting awareness and providing community for people with spinal cord injury or disease. “Sometimes making the workplace accessible is really simple.”
  • Build diversity inclusion into systems, policies, and procedures. Make sure that remote meeting technologies support all employees and don’t only rely on visual or auditory elements. Provide resources to support navigating assistive technologies like auto captioning, live transcription, or other access needs. “Having a supportive supervisor, who understands they may have some challenges and assists with working through them, will enable the employee to feel more comfortable asking for assistance when they need it,” says Pam McGuinty, a member of the disability community and activist who spoke at Guardian’s webinar. “We take pride in our work and want to do our jobs well, and having a supportive environment will allow us to thrive.” 
  • In addition to following policies under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employers can make disability a specific part of diversity and inclusion strategies. “This is a population that intersects all identity groups,” Reveca notes. Two-thirds of employers report that they believe they effectively support and accommodate employers with disabilities, yet just over one-third of workers with a disability strongly agree.6
  • Adopt workplace systems like remote work, flexibility, and extended leave as long-term benefits strategies. Plan for more work offsite and consider flexible or shifted schedules. Three in 4 employers updated their unpaid leave policies to paid leave during the pandemic, which not only helped those with disabilities, but it benefited all employees.7

By incorporating accessible adaptations, businesses make room for all. More than one in four of today’s 20-year-olds will experience a disability before they retire and with vulnerable populations increasingly at risk from COVID-19, responsiveness to the needs of the disabled community are even more important.8 “If you live long enough, you will become disabled,” says Elizabeth. “Disability is the one identity category that is truly universal.”

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