How remote work welcomes workers with disabilities

person working at home on a laptop

This year, the U.S. celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Passed into law on July 26, 1990, the ADA banned discrimination by employers, schools, transportation services, builders, government agencies, and other institutions against individuals with disabilities. Since its debut, the ADA has protected people with permanent or temporary disabilities from losing their jobs or access to important services. 

The relationship between remote work culture and workers with disabilities has been positive from the outset. People who may struggle to adapt to traditional working environments, even ones with the reasonable accommodations guaranteed by the ADA and international disability laws, often find it easier to work from a home space where they have greater control over their environment. 

That’s not to say that remote work is always easier for people with disabilities, though. Even with the rapidly increasing prevalence of remote jobs, many people with disabilities continue to face challenges at work. Companies with remote workforces can offer unique opportunities to people with disabilities around the world, but those same companies must recognize and address the challenges their employees face.

What challenges do today’s remote workers face?

The same disabilities that affect workers in traditional workplaces affect remote workers as well. While the nature of remote work means that colleagues see one another less frequently, that does not mean people working remotely with disabilities no longer require accommodations.

For example, neurodivergent people face unique challenges with remote work. A person who is on the autism spectrum could struggle with unique socio-technical issues when attending video meetings. People who must make a deliberate effort to adapt to traditional social settings can experience burnout quickly when overstimulated. In a remote work environment, where social cues hide behind screens, those stresses become more complex.

people attending a video conference

Although much of the conversation on neurodiversity focuses on individuals with autism, they are far from the only ones in the neurodivergent category. By most common definitions, people with ADHD and OCD fall under the same banner, as do those with dyslexia and dyscalculia. These individuals often experience different challenges relating to remote work.

People with anxiety, depression, and other mental health struggles frequently fall outside the accepted definition of neurodivergence. However, depression and anxiety meet the definition of psychiatric disabilities under the ADA in many cases. Those who deal with issues of mental health can struggle with physical isolation, unstructured environments, and other challenges when working remotely. Now that the taboo around mental health has begun to lessen, employers must be ready to acknowledge and support employees who face psychiatric barriers.

Remote work can make life easier for people with physical disabilities, but by no means does the ability to work remotely negate their experiences. Someone who uses a mobility aid may find it more comfortable to move around their home than to commute to a physical office, but not everyone has the resources to create a home office that is 100% disability friendly. People with disabilities also make less on average than people without, so many have less money available to create or move into spaces to suit their needs.

People with chronic conditions, like chronic pain and Crohn’s disease, face challenges regarding both physical spaces and time. Individuals with these conditions may need to rest or use the bathroom more frequently, which is easier to do at home but can still make it difficult to keep a rigid schedule.

Unique obstacles while working remotely

No one who struggles with aspects of remote work life should be made to feel that remote work is a sufficient accommodation in itself. Physical, neurological, and mental disabilities can still make life more difficult for remote workers.

Allowing employees to work from home saves employers money on office space, but that burden transfers to the employee. Workers with disabilities must furnish their own offices within their homes, and not all living spaces are made to accommodate work spaces. This is especially true for people who need more room to maneuver, such as people who use wheelchairs.

Remote workers spend much of their time online. Although the ADA mandates website accessibility, most websites continue to prevent navigational challenges for people with certain disabilities. WebAIM discovered that a staggering 97.8% of pages from the top 1,300 websites in its 2020 study had accessibility failures detectable by automated review.

The challenges in remote work common to all remote employees sometimes affect people with disabilities more significantly. For example, the “water cooler problem” describes the difficulties remote workers face to be included in casual conversations with colleagues and management. These conversations, while frivolous on the surface, affect relationships, opportunities for promotion, and business decisions. Remote workers who don’t feel comfortable sharing their screen or who take frequent breaks to rest or use the restroom may miss out on important conversations, even when remote organizations make a point to facilitate casual banter.

These challenges all assume that remote work is an option, which is unfortunately not the case for many. Some people work in industries where remote work has yet to become the norm, even in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many companies still insist on physical offices and refuse to allow employees to work remotely. People with disabilities who would prefer to work from home do not always have the option to do so.

How employers can welcome remote workers with disabilities

The most obvious way for employers to make remote work easier for employees with disabilities is to offer remote work as an option for everyone. People with disabilities may feel called out or shamed for working remotely if no one else has the privilege. When companies embrace remote work as a general policy, people with disabilities do not feel forced to make a choice between appearing “normal” and prioritizing their well-being.

two people with a heart on a string between them

Businesses should also work to ensure their internal systems and tools adhere to ADA guidelines. Accessibility issues can frustrate people with a wide range of disabilities. When people have trouble reading text, differentiating between images, and keeping up with conversations, they become understandably frustrated.

These changes don’t necessarily require new tools or code. A simple policy that makes it OK for people to leave their cameras off during meetings can make more people feel welcome. Actions speak loudly, so encourage everyone to take advantage of screenless meetings sometimes to ensure people who prefer the option don’t feel like outcasts.

Solving the “water cooler issue” is tough for any remote organization. We host an all-hands meeting every day to ask a fun question and catch up on departmental progress (and we make it work in different time zones, too). Our hangout channels allow people to spend time together, video or not, while they work. We also prioritize documentation and recording, so that people who miss meetings (even fun meetings) don’t feel left out.

Making remote employment work for everyone

The ADA and disability accommodation laws around the world provide the foundation for remote organizations to welcome workers with disabilities, but truly inclusive companies don’t stop at the bare minimum. Remote work has already begun to reshape collaboration and community. Organizations must take care to ensure workers with disabilities feel just as welcome to join the remote work movement as everyone else.

If you plan to hire a remote worker, we would love to help. Our complete payroll, benefits, taxes, and compliance solution guarantees compliance with local labor laws, including laws regarding disability accommodations. We also make sure that your employees receive a superior experience working for your company no matter what their individual situations may be. Click “Get started today” and complete our short form to learn more.

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