61 million American adults have a disability. Experts say an intentional approach to accommodations can help companies ensure these workers feel valued.

Rachel DuRose, Madison Hoff, and Catherine Henderson | Feb 20, 2022, 7:30 AM

A woman uses sign language to communicate over video call.

Josh Basile knows that people with disabilities make up a substantial pool of untapped talent. He has a law degree and serves as the community-relations manager for AccessiBe, a company trying to make websites more usable for people with different disabilities through artificial intelligence and an accessibility interface. He’s a C4-5 quadriplegic, so he knows firsthand what it takes to make a successful career with a disability.

“Employment is so important to make sure that persons with disabilities have a voice not only in the home but in the workplace and within their communities,” Basile told Insider. “Having a job is really important in today’s world to be able to have a purpose, to be able to have buying power, to be able to dictate what your life looks like.”

Bringing more Americans with disabilities into the workforce means companies must ensure that their workplaces, whether remote or in-person, are accessible and accommodating.

In the US, about 61 million adults — or about one in four — have a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Basile said there’s plenty of room to improve their employment situation. Even before the pandemic, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities in the US was higher than the unemployment rate for people without disabilities.

The labor-force participation rate — the share of the population either working or actively looking for a job — for people with disabilities has also been lower than the rate for people without disabilities. That rate was 22.8% for Americans with disabilities in January, 44.4 percentage points lower than the 67.2% rate for Americans without disabilities.

“​​People with disabilities have to navigate a world that is still largely built for and reinforced by nondisabled individuals and norms,” Moeena Das, the chief operating officer of the National Organization on Disability, told Insider.

Das added that increasing the labor-force participation rate for people with disabilities starts with “really reinforcing and acknowledging that people with disabilities are as valuable of a talent pool as nondisabled.”

Small changes to the workplace can make a big difference

The first step in accommodating workers with disabilities is consulting with those workers, said Corey Anthony, the senior vice president and chief diversity development officer of AT&T. The company employs 7,000 workers with disabilities and uses a system, called iCount, to allow employees to self-identify their disability, Anthony said.

“We have an employee group that now has well over 3,500 members that focuses on issues that are unique to our employees with disabilities,” Anthony said. “We partner with them very closely — they are our eyes and ears about what is happening inside of our business with respect to this community.”

The accommodations that workers need may vary. Companies should listen and respect people’s knowledge of their own bodies and health.

The Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion describes reasonable accommodations, or “adjustments or modifications that enable people with disabilities to perform the essential functions of a job efficiently and productively,” as “important retention and advancement tools.”

Tad Asbury, the executive director of Bridges From School to Work, a nonprofit connecting young adults with disabilities to meaningful work, provided an example of a simple but effective accommodation that JPMorgan made at one of its security facilities in Chicago after hearing from its employees.

The company required employees to use a locker to store personal belongings before entering the facility, but some new hires from the nonprofit struggled with the combination lockers. So JPMorgan switched the lockers to ones that used keys that were easier to handle.

“Recognize that accommodations can be inexpensive,” Asbury said. “It can be as simple as getting the lockers with a key instead of ones with combinations.”

Employers need to consider accommodations for workers with disabilities after the pandemic

While some people may be eager to return to offices, many workers with disabilities may prefer remote jobs and other flexible work situations that became more popular during the pandemic.

“When it comes to the experience of people with disabilities during the pandemic, it’s been a bit of a bittersweet experience,” Das said, because people with disabilities had been advocating flexible work models long before companies enacted such policies during the pandemic.

Companies have learned that they can continue operations with flexibility. Even when the pandemic ends, these work models can benefit people with disabilities, Das said.

She noted that not every worker is in a job that can be done remotely. For instance, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 18% of workers with disabilities in 2020 were in service occupations, which include many in-person positions.

In addition to offering accommodations during recruiting, employers need to consider how inclusive their workplaces are for their existing staffers with disabilities. They can take an assessment like the National Organization on Disability’s Employment Tracker, a free and confidential assessment tool of six disability- and veterans’-inclusion focus areas like talent sourcing, to evaluate how they’re doing.

“So I’m deaf, for instance,” Das said. “Whether it’s myself, whether it might be somebody who has an auditory-processing disability, somebody who might have a cognitive disability, mask-wearing can be tremendously challenging. So what are some other adjustments that an employer may also need to make to your physical workspace as we’re really thinking about how we all move forward as a collective and make sure that our places are inclusive?”

Published in Business Insider

How Remote Work Has Made Working Accessible for Millions of People

remote work disability

BELINDA HOWELL/GETTY IMAGES

Until 2020, working from home was usually viewed as distraction-prone and unproductive, but as the pandemic forced people to stay home, everything changed. The Pew Research Center found 62% of American workers with a bachelor’s degree or more education say their work can be done from home. Similarly, the United States Census Bureau found more than a third of U.S. households reported working from home more frequently than before the pandemic. In fact, working from home can now be argued to be a better working style to make the most of your employees, especially those who are disabled. As someone who falls into this category, working from home has been a positive step for me, enabling greater accessibility that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

I completed a short stint at a local paper while enrolled as a university student in 2019. To get to the office I had to catch two buses, and the commute took an hour each way. As someone whose condition makes her extremely tired after physical exertion, I’d come to work sleepy and unfocused, and I’m sure I failed to do my best work under these circumstances.

I graduated in 2021, and since offices shut down to contain the spread of COVID-19, I found remote freelance work — the commuting difficulties I once faced immediately vanished. I was worried about my working setup when I was diagnosed with antiphospholipid syndrome, but since offices closed, I had no choice but to work from home. I had never even considered it an option before the pandemic. I now had an accessible alternative, and it was freeing — I feel more at ease in my own space and confident and more productive.

Disabled people make up 15% of the global population, meaning greater accessibility can improve millions of lives of the 1.3 billion people who identify as disabled. Remote working is an accessible option for these people, and the greater population.

Sarah Rose, a journalist from Belfast has Endometriosis, Adenomyosis and Crohn’s Disease and says that she could never work from home full time in the e-commerce sector. “I requested it in previous jobs but found working from home even with a declared disability was very hard to access,” she told The Org.

The pandemic changed things for the better for Rose, however. “It was like suddenly overnight working from home was accessible,” she said. “Prior to the pandemic, I was always exhausted and overwhelmed; I was always worried about work. How would I manage the exhausting commute and perform in pain? I always felt like I was running on empty.”

Rose recalls feeling “exhausted” when she arrived at work, but she feels capable of working from home now that she can manage her fatigue and pain alongside her career. She adds that working from an office would be unmanageable, especially since working from home has opened doors for her career. “It has given me more opportunities as I’m able to work,” she said. “Without being able to work from home or with a flexible model, I would not be able to commit to full-time employment.”

This presents just one instance that demonstrates working from home can produce better workers and should be kept for the future.

Keryn Seal from Devon works in sales for a SaaS startup. He says working from home has given him back more energy. Seal is completely blind and has been since the age of 20. Now 39, he feels the pandemic has made the workplace more approachable to disabled people purely by accident. “Everything became more remote and online focussed because a predominantly non-disabled workforce required it to be that way to remain productive,” he told The Org.

He adds that these changes gave “disabled people the things they’ve been asking for over the past decade.” The difficulties that in-person working presented to Keryn were vast, including the lack of flexibility given to him to account for his disability.

The former athlete adds that working from home was commonplace in his athletic endeavors. Still, when his career changed, he felt “constant scrutiny” on where his time was spent and “borderline micromanagement.” This feeling of being observed closely stemmed from the nature of Seal’s workplace. “I had to justify my daily activities and was questioned why I said certain things to clients in an email.” These seemingly small things became draining for Seal, and led him to ultimately feel micromanaged.

Disability advocate Nana Marfo works with those who have special educational needs and is the director of Unique Abilities. He gives an alternative view to COVID-19’s effect on disabled people: “The pandemic has highlighted the issue employers have regarding recruiting disabled people,” he told The Org. “It is at an all-time low due to companies thinking of liability insurance and how effective disabled people can be as an employee.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2020, 17.9 percent of people with a disability were employed, down from 19.3 percent in 2019 in the U.S. For people without a disability, 61.8 percent were employed in 2020, down from 66.3 percent in the prior year, showing Marfo’s trend.

Felicia Nurmsen, Managing Director of Employer Services at the National Organization on Disability (NOD) told The Org: “People with disabilities have been asking for accommodations but have been denied working from home opportunities.” She adds that she thinks this change was “one of the best things that may have occurred as a part of the pandemic — a silver lining if you will.”

NOD has worked on a Disability Employment Tracker for the past nine years, a free tool that tracks now close to 500 companies specifically to see how they’re progressing with their disability inclusion practice. The tracker internally focuses just on the workplace, and employment. Nurmsen said that it has shown progress in disability employment practices, including talent outcomes which measure the progression of disabled people in their careers.

“If we really don’t know where our people with disabilities are in the workplace and how we’re supporting them, then we really can’t say that we have a disability-inclusive culture,” Nurmsen said, highlighting the importance of the tracker.

She adds that workplaces are moving in the right direction regarding inclusivity. The employment tracker contrastingly shows a significant increase in new hires of people with disabilities as well as the number of people that are unemployed with disabilities is decreasing.

According to the 2021 NOD Employment Tracker report, employers demonstrated self-identification rates three times higher than those that only examined self-ID.

It is clear the workforce was always adaptable, though it took a pandemic to afford the opportunity to people with disabilities. This is sadly indicative of how society values the contributions of people like me.

Shifting the Talent Paradigm | Crossroads of Compliance, Disclosure and Trust

September 26, 2019 – More than 200 diversity and inclusion leaders from companies around the country gathered at the National Organization on Disability’s (NOD) Annual Forum and Dinner, entitled Shifting the Talent Paradigm: Inclusive Culture for a Modern Workforce. Sponsored by Lead Partners PwC and Spectrum, the all-day forum explored the best change management tactics that corporate leaders can deploy to create a more diverse and inclusive culture. Senior managers heard from executives and experts on the most effect tools and tactics to create an inclusive culture, as well as the leadership skills and personal attributes needed to lead a culture change.

Featuring: Craig E. Leen, Director, OFCCP, U.S. Department of Labor; Candee Chambers, Executive Director, DirectEmployers Association; and Karen Brown, Bridge Arrow

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