Has Remote Work Enabled Disability Inclusion in the Workplace? – Toolbox

August 25, 2020

All this while, inflexible work practices have been a significant challenge for people with disabilities. Because remote work is now a mandate in most companies, individuals with disabilities are finally finding their place at work. But is it great for all?

For some employees with disabilities, avoiding commuting to work every day can open up a range of jobs they can now perform from home. Having a setup conducive to their disability at home also encourages them to get more meaningful work they can perform productively. With everyone working from home, they can feel as much a part of the workforce as the rest of the team.

For others, the commute may not have been as much of a problem. Instead, employers’ reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities at work enabled them to do their jobs efficiently. For some, working in person allowed them to understand social signals and messages that may not be apparent in online communication. 

So has remote work enhanced or undermined disability inclusion in the workplace? The jury is still out on this.

Employment Levels of Workers With Disabilities Have Dropped During the Pandemic

The Bureau of Labor Statistics report from May 2020 found that “the number of working-age people with disabilities who were employed decreased by 950,000 between March and April (from 4,772,000 to 3,827,000), a 20 percent reduction,” as reported by Disability Insider.

The BBC reported in July 2020 that in the U.K., pre-pandemic employment numbers for those with disabilities stood at 4.4 million. However, these individuals are more than twice as likely as non-disabled individuals to be unemployed owing to the pandemic.

In an economic crisis – the kind that is sweeping across the world – the competition for work is often intense. This can very well put individuals with disabilities on the backburner for recruiters. And according to a recent report by Guardian Insurance, only 11% of employers engage in exclusive recruiting of individuals with disabilities. And only 1 in 8 recruiters say that targeted hiring for workers with a disability is a priority.

This can further be a challenge, considering some employees are not even comfortable disclosing disabilities to their employers for the fear they may not get the job. One survey found that 50% of HR professionals said they would be very or somewhat uncomfortable disclosing a disability at work.

Inclusive recruitment would have to first account for this challenge before hoping to make headway with candidates with disabilities.

But Remote Work May Offer Some Hope for Employees With Disability

In a GitHub study of 3,000 adult professionals above the age of 22 released in January 2020, 14% of remote workers surveyed said they had a disability or chronic illness. 83% of those workers said they were able to work because of remote work. This means the accommodations that have finally been made available en masse can open up a talent pool of employees for organizations.

And the future of work for employees with disabilities can indeed be promising. This article by Workplace Initiative, a social impact program dedicated to creating inclusive workplaces where people with disabilities can thrive, presents an encouraging picture for individuals with disabilities in the throes of the pandemic and their future. It finds that flexible work and the growth of accessible software allow employees with disabilities to work as efficiently as their non-disabled counterparts. This may create a more inclusive workplace in which they thrive.

Also, increased paid time off and flexibility in terms of the four-day workweek are likely to level the playing field for employees with disabilities.

The BBC report cited earlier shares the story of one individual with a disability on finding work in the pandemic. He says that because interviews are now virtual, he can use the make notes on screen to remember to use specific keywords that he might forget or find challenging to mention owing to his speech disability. So, virtual hiring can further simplify the inclusion of individuals with disabilities at work.

Making Remote Work Inclusive for Employees With Disabilities

What is likely to support remote disability inclusion at work the most is having leaders with disabilities representing this group. Having a diverse workforce can improve business, and having diverse leadership can help this workforce thrive. Like most other challenges in the workplace, addressing this one, too, begins at the top.

While the move to remote work has been great for a lot of employee groups, employees with disabilities are disappointed that it took a pandemic to get them the benefits they’ve been asking for since they entered the workforce.

In this eye-opening article that talks about the reactions of individuals with disabilities on the transition to remote work, one employee with a chronic pain and fatigue condition shares her thoughts. “I feel a combination of pain and hope,” says Laura, 29. “I knew already how many jobs in this world could be made accessible if a company decided accessibility was important to them, and the pandemic seems to be proving that. So it’s difficult to watch. But I also feel hope— perhaps this will open some eyes and show that more jobs can be made remote, and therefore accessible, moving forward.”

And the hope is that the pandemic will do precisely that with support from inclusive recruitment measures and leadership. Here are three ways disability inclusion can be promoted at work.

1. Enforce inclusive hiring

A lot of charities are supporting the pursuit of jobs that individuals with disabilities can perform from home. Organizations that don’t have disability hiring as a priority must consider it one and tie up with these charities to support employees with disabilities at a time when they need this support the most.

For instance, in 2019, HireVue, a video interviewing and assessment platform that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to help recruiters assess personality fit, partnered with Integrate Autism Employment Advisors. This nonprofit organization offers recruiters access to professionals on the autism spectrum. Integrate will use HireVue Assessments technology to help such professionals predict their performance and potential in a job

Skill-based assessments must be given priority over traditional recruitment methods.

2. Enforce disability inclusion training

The shift to remote work and the ensuing inclusion of individuals with disabilities may also result in a more positive attitude toward them because it shifts focus to their work. And it can start by providing a formalized disability awareness and inclusion training program. A 2019 research report carried out by SHRM and Workplace Initiative by Understood found that most HR professionals and employees were not receiving disability inclusion training at work. This needs to be addressed immediately to ensure an unbiased and inclusive hiring process and workplace.

3. Take advantage of technology, the enabler

Michael Klazema, the chief marketing technologist at VODW, writes about upcoming technologies that can support workplace disability inclusion. And eventually, these technologies may be able to support a remote workforce with disabilities.

For instance, speaking about inclusive virtual meeting technology, he writes, “Another potential source of support is virtual meeting technology that would allow someone living with a speech impairment to communicate more clearly and effectively with colleagues via in-app voice translation. Such technology could be a significant source of professional support not only for employees who have always struggled to communicate but also for those who are facing an unexpected medical challenge later in life due to a stroke, an ALS diagnosis, or a chronic illness that affects speech.”

But this requires companies to make reasonable accommodations or adjustments regardless of where their employees work through a combination of flexible work and assistive technologies.

Use this guide to get started with making your workplace more disability-friendly.

Why You Need a Disability-Friendly Workplace

A 2018 Accenture report said, “The GDP could get a boost of up to $25 billion if just 1 percent more of persons with disabilities joined the U.S. labor force.” That’s a significant number,

COVID-19, the great equalizer as some call it, has presented the opportunity to shake things up in the world of work. The “new normal” is poised to look radically different from the “old normal.” Organizations have the opportunity to create a productive, diverse, and inclusive workplace comprising all groups and create a diverse and inclusive workplace for those with disabilities.

What are your thoughts on the effect of the pandemic and ensuing remote work on disability inclusion in the workplace? Tell us on LinkedInTwitter, or Facebook.

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