For Emma Alda, co-founder of fish-care and aquarium blog ModestFish, being able to telecommute has been a lifesaver.
Alda, who lives in Florida and is legally deaf, lost her position at a pet store during the pandemic and took a remote job.
“Remote work might seem like a holiday for some, or a punishment for others. But for me, it was a blessing in disguise. A gateway to a new career,” she said.
Indeed, for many people with a disability or chronic illness, who may be unable to work in an office, the pandemic-induced shift to telecommuting has opened the door to an improved work-life balance and new job opportunities.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 60 percent of the U.S. population has a chronic disease — and 40 percent have two or more. The agency reports that 26 percent of American adults have some type of disability.
Remote work has “evened the playing field” for people with disabilities and chronic illness, said Jess Stainbrook, the Colorado-based executive director of the Invisible Disabilities Association, an advocacy group for people with disabilities.
Telecommuting can take the burden off people who might need considerable time to get to a work location because of their ailments, or who might need breaks or other accommodations, she says.
Remote work removes obstacles
Being at home may allow disabled or chronically ill workers to feel more comfortable than if they were in an office and allow them to deal with their disability with some privacy, Stainbrook adds.
Hannah Rose Olson, the Texas-based CEO of Chronically Capable, which helps job seekers with disabilities and chronic illnesses to find employment, agrees that remote work is opening opportunities for those “who have been left out of the job market long before the pandemic.” Olson herself lives with chronic Lyme disease.
Heather Kamper, the Colorado-based director of core services for the Center for People With Disabilities, says remote work eliminates many of the obstacles faced by those with disabilities and chronic impairments.
“Not commuting to an office is helpful [for people with disabilities],” she said, especially on days with heavy snowfall, when “getting to an office ranges from challenging to dangerous.”
Sharon Koifman, founder and CEO of DistantJob.com, a remote-worker placement agency who lives in Montreal, says remote work is facilitating companies’ “access to amazing people” who wouldn’t have the opportunity to succeed in an office environment.
“What prevents disabled people from performing on an equal or even better level is the lack of a work environment that caters to their needs,” he explained. “Remote work gives them the opportunity to work in the most optimal environment for them.
“This is not true just for handicapped individuals, it’s also for members of the LGBTQ community, of different religious groups and anyone that has or could be undervalued in a physical office,” he said.
Organizations that embrace remote work also may benefit from a more diverse workforce, experts say.
Path to broadening diversity and inclusion initiatives
“Businesses that embrace remote work are not only opening themselves up to a wider talent pool geographically, but it can also be a more diverse and inclusive talent pool,” said Brie Weiler Reynolds, a career-development manager and coach at FlexJobs.
Remote workspaces are often inherently more accommodating for some people with disabilities because they can be customized to fit a person’s needs, she adds.
Even if only a small percentage of those who are unemployed enter the job market because of the ability to work remotely, it provides an unprecedented opportunity for organizations to tap an entirely new workforce.
In addition, organizations also can broaden their diversity and inclusion initiatives by hiring those with disabilities and chronic illnesses.
Bryan Reese, director of human resources at virtual-work platform Virbelawho is based in Washington, says his company is taking advantage of these opportunities.
“It allows us to extend our diversity and inclusion initiatives because we can hire from a wider talent pool with more diverse backgrounds — not to mention that these individuals can work from anywhere to accommodate their needs and lifestyle,” he said.
Still, just offering remote work doesn’t mean a company is necessarily doing enough to include, or accommodate, this population, Olson of Chronically Capable says.
“Remote work is one small piece of the puzzle. Companies should start by looking internally at their policies, practices and technologies to ensure that they are inclusive and accessible,” she said.
Ensuring support is in place
The shift to remote work has improved job accessibility, but businesses still have work to do on inclusion, Olson says. Organizations must educate all employees — not just company leadership — about the challenges and injustices that this population faces.
At the same time, companies also should ensure that their technology supports those with disabilities and chronic illnesses, she says. Adding closed-captioning to calls or evaluating the accessibility of file sharing and collaboration tools is important as well, Olson suggests.
When it comes to considering a candidate with a disability, hiring managers should focus on the individual and whether he or she embodies the organization’s values, Olson says.
“Recruiters need to pay attention to the varying needs of these populations, as their talent pools are now much more diverse,” Olson said. “Employers need to consider if they have the benefits and support in place, as well as education and resources to truly include these employees.”
In addition, she says it’s vital for companies to explain their disability accommodation process so job seekers understand when and how to disclose an ailment or disability. In fact, 84 percent of the job seekers on her site would like to see an explanation of a company’s policy regarding accommodations included in job descriptions.
“Since it is up to the job seeker to disclose and ask for accommodations, it’s important that companies are specific about their process so that potential applicants feel comfortable asking for support,” Olson noted.