Mar 23, 2021 - Economy

A lockdown silver lining for workers with disabilities

Illustration of a computer covered in various disability awareness ribbons.  

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The pandemic normalized working from home, and that could open doors for America’s workers with disabilities.

The big picture: All sorts of hurdles — like getting to work if you’re in a wheelchair or adjusting to office environments if you’re a person with autism — are eliminated by remote work. This new future could be a more inclusive one for all Americans.

The backdrop: Just four in ten working-age adults with one or more disabilities are employed, per Brookings.

  • Education isn't a factor. The employment rate among college-educated adults with disabilities is 59%, compared with 69% for college-educated adults without disabilities.

What's happening: Drivers of this troubling trend include rampant discrimination in the hiring process as well as the fact that most cities' central business districts – where all the jobs are — are very inaccessible.

  • Everything from out-of-order elevators in the subway to closely-packed tables at coffee shops and uneven sidewalks can make cities unnavigable, the Guardian reports.
  • But when remote work took off during the pandemic, a lot of these barriers melted away.

Case in point: Kristen Parisi, a writer in New York who uses a wheelchair, has always wanted a remote job so she can focus on her work and not worry about her commute. But "working from home was looked at as a privilege, and none of the really desirable jobs were remote," she says. "Remote work was part of the discussion, but not a realistic part of the discussion."

  • The pandemic changed everything overnight. Now Parisi has a remote job and will never have to leave her home to go to work.

There are so many other examples of disabilities or chronic illnesses that can be addressed with telework, experts tell Axios.

  • Blind and deaf workers can do their jobs within their own environments without stressing about getting to the office.
  • Employees with autism can choose to stay home if they'd rather avoid difficult office spaces.
  • Workers with conditions like Crohn's disease or irritable bowel syndrome can work from their own areas with reliable access to a bathroom.

The remote revolution could help college students with disabilities, too, says Michelle Nario-Redmond, a psychology professor at Hiram College and author of Ableism: The Causes and Consequences of Disability Prejudice.

  • Too often, students with disabilities choose lectures and seminars based on whether or not they can access them instead of whether or not they're interested in the course material. The inclusivity of virtual learning could fix that problem.

"It’s been so difficult for disabled people to get their employers to consider remote work," Nario-Redmond says. "This is a silver lining. For so many disabled workers, you’re more efficient, you can attend more meetings and your home environment is already tailored to you."

What to watch: Surveys show that most Americans want remote work to stick around after the pandemic is behind us.

  • But "watching some companies call their employees back breaks my heart," Parisi tells me. "My fear is that companies are going to have a very short memory and go back to the way things were."
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