August 27, 2020 · Alex Hickey
For many workers with mental or physical disabilities, being “last hired, first fired” is an all-too-familiar story—and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in the worst unemployment crisis in decades.
But the pandemic also presented a unique opportunity: a tectonic shift to remote work. Have those opportunities been realized for people with disabilities or chronic illnesses?
A rough few months
In 2019, even with record-low unemployment (3.5%!) that had companies scrambling for talent, disabled workers weren’t making meaningful gains. The employment rate for disabled workers with a college degree was less than half that of adults without a disability who held a high school diploma or less.
And then COVID-19 happened. In the last few months, tens of millions of Americans have been put out of a job, and people with disabilities continue to face higher levels of joblessness.
- The unemployment rate for workers with a disability peaked in April at 18.9%. It was 14.3% for workers without a disability.
- By July, unemployment for workers with a disability had fallen to 14.3%, while it hit 10.3% for workers with no disability.
Now, competing for limited open positions, disabled workers have to combat misperceptions that they are higher risk and more expensive.
Can remote work close the gap?
“There’s no question that more people with disabilities will be able to work when telework becomes more routine,” Carol Glazer, president of the National Organization on Disability, told the Brew.
Eighty-three percent of workers with a disability or a chronic illness surveyed by GitLab said remote work allowed them to participate in the workforce. And over half said it gives them an opportunity to contribute to company direction, values, and processes.
Remote reduces or eliminates time spent on commuting, which can take longer and be more logistically challenging for some people with disabilities. In New York City, only 25% of subway stations are accessible for travelers who require mobility devices or service animals. Remote work also gives employees more discretion to set up physical workspaces that suit their needs, avoid workplace stressors or sensory overload, and have extra flexibility to schedule appointments and care as needed with less disruption to their work.
When COVID-19 forced offices to close, many employers extended WFH arrangements, equipment, technology, and other resources to employees. But the nearly overnight spin up of telework exposed a painful double standard for some workers with disabilities.
- “Many of us have long asked, fought for, and have been denied these reasonable accommodations, and have even lost their job as a result,” journalist Danielle Campoamor writes for Teen Vogue.
- “It can feel painful to watch policies we’ve been told were impossibilities, unfair work arrangements, or somehow detrimental to the energy of the workplace, be so widely and effortlessly implemented.”
Even in the best of times, remote work is not accessible to all. It’s often extended to workers with more education and in higher-earning roles, Brookings analyst Nicole Bateman told the Brew. BLS data shows workers with disabilities are more likely to be employed in roles like production, transportation, and non-professional services, which typically provide less opportunity for remote work.
Plus, many leading platforms for workplace communication and collaboration aren’t fully equipped with features for visually or hearing-impaired workers.
Employers can also be slow to implement accessibility initiatives. It was an uphill battle getting employers to invest in accessibility programs before the pandemic. During hard economic times, new initiatives for accessibility, training, and recruitment are often not prioritized, Glazer and Bateman said.
- State and local governments, which often create incentives for firms to make accessibility investments, have seen the pandemic decimate their budgets even as they’re being asked to do more than ever, according to Bateman.
The current national conversation about barriers facing marginalized communities has brought more attention to issues of workplace discrimination, but people with disabilities still face a tougher road to economic recovery even with increased flexible working arrangements.
- During and after the Great Recession, employment levels for people with a disability recovered more slowly than for workers without a disability, according to Bateman.
What can companies do? The National Organization on Disability created a scorecard to help companies benchmark their inclusion policies. Employers who successfully hire and retain workers with disabilities frequently have policies such as mentorship programs, employee resource groups, clear explanations of accommodations, and training for staff about disability to demystify it, according to Glazer.
Workers with disabilities can help companies rebound. As businesses undergo a period of unprecedented economic and social change, hiring managers would be wise to team up with “people who are much better at dealing with fear and uncertainty. People who are great problem solvers, who are undaunted by challenges,” Glazer said.