‘There’s no excuse for not offering remote work.’ The coronavirus-induced work-from-home revolution feels like vindication for some workers with disabilities

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Robert Kingett, a 30-year-old freelance writer, author and accessibility consultant in Chicago, Ill., is blind. He also has cerebral palsy, which makes standing for long periods of time difficult. But Kingett has had trouble finding jobs where he can work remotely, he said, because positions like editor gigs or internships would be only partially remote — for example, still requiring applicants to attend on-site meetings.

“When I was applying for internships, I was told that I could never work remotely, even if it was for a publishing internship position in the editorial department,” Kingett told MarketWatch in an email. “I really didn’t understand why. I thought, do I really have to sit in an office to open up email attachments? I don’t get it. Why is this so restrictive? It just didn’t make sense to me.”

Hector Matos, an Austin, Texas-based senior iOS developer for Dropbox DBX, +0.19% whose attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) makes it hard for him to focus in the open-office environments favored by many tech companies, said that the cloud-storage company had been the first employer in his career to offer him a stable, permanent work-from-home opportunity. He received the offer in late February, before the pandemic forced U.S. businesses to go remote, and began working there at the end of March.

“Working from home is the best thing that has ever happened to me,” Matos, 30, told MarketWatch. “I have been trying for years in tech to get to a place where I could permanently work from home. … I have had the most uphill battle just to get to this place.”

Hector Matos, of Austin, Texas, is a senior iOS developer for Dropbox.

Courtesy of Hector Matos

Many businesses across the U.S. have cobbled together work-from-home programs to comply with COVID-19 social-distancing measures. And some workers with disabilities, having struggled to find remote work prior to the pandemic, are hoping this moment could be a turning point that makes telework options more widely available.

Even with a yawning unemployment rate and essential workers’ continued need to report to their jobs, remote work has become increasingly common: The share of workers reporting that their employers were offering remote-work or flex-time options rose from 39% in mid-March to 57% in a poll conducted March 30 to April 2, according to Gallup. The percentage of working Americans who say they’ve worked from home due to the coronavirus doubled from 31% to 62% over the same period.

To be sure, workers’ access to remote-work benefits in the time before COVID-19 was fairly limited. Just under 29% of U.S. workers could work from home in the period from 2017 to 2018, while nearly 25% actually did work from home, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. People in management and professional occupations were far more likely to have work-from-home privileges than those in the service sector, construction and production, according to the estimates, which included workers aged 15 and older but excluded self-employed workers.

Workers with a disability, meanwhile, are more likely than those without a disability to work in service jobs and transportation, production and material moving jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They are less likely to work in “management, professional and related occupations.”

‘This recent shift, especially in the publishing industry, proves that they can actually do most work-from-home, given no other option.’

— Robert Kingett, a freelance writer and accessibility consultant in Chicago

“They do tend to often be in positions where telecommuting is not possible,” said Rachael Langston, a senior staff attorney for Legal Aid at Work in San Francisco. Langston, who uses a mobility scooter and typically commutes into her office, began working from home due to her asthma prior to her city’s stay-at-home order.

But for those who do have access to remote work opportunities, the benefits appear to be substantial: Among adults aged 21 and older who can or do work remotely in “roles that have digital output,” 14% say they have a disability or chronic illness, according to a survey of 3,000 adults by the all-remote software-development startup GitLab. Of those workers, 83% said remote work had enabled them to work, according to the survey conducted Jan. 30 to Feb. 10.

The recent COVID-19-induced shift to businesses operating from home, Kingett said, “has proven that there’s no excuse for not offering remote work.”

“I think this is a great middle finger to the excuse of, ‘We just don’t have the technology to do remote work,’” he said. “This recent shift, especially in the publishing industry, proves that they can actually do most work-from-home, given no other option.”

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has identified telework as a form of reasonable accommodation, though employers don’t have to provide specific accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act if they will result in “undue hardship,” such as high cost. Through an interactive process, the employer and employee are supposed to identify “essential functions” fundamental to that job and determine whether some or all of those duties can be done remotely, according to the EEOC.

“Employers sometimes tend to be reticent to allow someone to work from home 100% of the time, so that can be problematic,” Langston said. An individual is also not necessarily entitled to the work-from-home accommodation they prefer if the employer provides a different type of accommodation that meets their needs, she added.

Tina W., an accounts-payable specialist in Mesa, Ariz., says she feels vindicated by the increase in companies offering work-from-home setups.

Courtesy of Tina W.

Tina W., a 41-year-old accounts-payable specialist in Mesa, Ariz., who has complex regional pain syndrome and fibromyalgia, requested one work-from-home day per week from her former employer to mitigate her on-and-off back pain. But her employer raised concerns about data security, she said, even though others in similar roles were able to work from home and access the same data through a VPN.

“I was very perplexed,” said Tina, who asked that her last name not be published. “I didn’t know why they were fighting me so hard on it.”

After she missed a day of work in November due to the pain, she said, her employer of five and a half months fired her. She has begun the process of filing an EEOC complaint against the company.

Tina said she feels vindicated by the increase in companies offering work-from-home setups now — as if what she had requested from her employer “wasn’t so horrible” after all. “It made me feel like it was something they could’ve done without it being a burden,” she said. “They just didn’t want to do it.”

‘I think some are just twiddling their thumbs and just waiting for things to be OK and go back to business as usual.’

— Vilissa Thompson, a disability-rights advocate and social worker

Employment attorney Paula Brantner, the president and principal of the firm PB Work Solutions, said that the difficulty in some circumstances “lies with the manager’s discomfort in managing in a situation where they can’t physically look over someone’s shoulder” or “constantly check in with them, interrupt them, go to their desk, bring them into face-to-face meetings.”

But workplaces have been forced to become far more flexible during this pandemic, Brantner said, and “we’re getting an opportunity to see just how much people can do without that physical proximity.” “I think it’s really going to break open some of the excuses and reasons why people have not been given that accommodation,” she said.

Of course, workplaces need to ensure that any technology they use to work remotely is accessible to people with communication disabilities, Langston said. And one potential downside to a mass shift toward remote work, Kingett said, is that “discrimination may take new shapes and forms.”

Robert Kingett, a 30-year-old freelance writer and accessibility consultant in Chicago, has had trouble finding remote jobs.

Courtesy of Robert Kingett

“Employers may say that in order to become accessible, they have to use an inferior software product that leaves them vulnerable to more viruses. People may not want to use Zoom ZM, -7.72% , even though it’s fully accessible to disabled users in every way, because they believe that Zoom isn’t secure,” he said by way of example. “I think more people will try to use privacy as a shield to avoid accessibility compliance, which utterly terrifies me.”

Not everyone is convinced that America’s current acceptance of remote work will translate to long-term change after the pandemic is over. Vilissa Thompson, a disability-rights advocate and social worker in Winnsboro, S.C., who has osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease), said she had turned down a position this month because the employer — a disability-centered organization, no less — had unrealistic expectations of how long remote work due to the pandemic might be necessary. The organization seemed to be under the assumption “that this whole stay-at-home thing is going to be a quick deal,” she said.

“I think some are just twiddling their thumbs and just waiting for things to be OK and go back to business as usual,” Thompson, 34, told MarketWatch. “Maybe for some employers in some industries, there may be more telework opportunities. But honestly, I think that many employers are just looking to just go through the motions of this pandemic and then go back to normal … normal being in the office.”

Vilissa Thompson, 34, is a disability-rights advocate and social worker in Winnsboro, S.C.

Courtesy of Vilissa Thompson

Some others are more optimistic. Brantner said that while some workers are certainly struggling with remote-work life and eager to return to an office, the months-long “test run” of remote work in many locations is paving a path forward.

“I think employees themselves will be more likely to be advocates for it,” she said. “We’ve had to find ways to make it work, so I think there are going to be a lot of people who go back and say, ‘Look, I want to do this all the time,’ or ‘I want to do this more often,’ or ‘I need as an accommodation to do it in this particular way.’”

‘For years, I’ve been trying to get this work-from-home opportunity — and the minute I do, suddenly the rest of the industry is now working from home.’

— Hector Matos, a senior iOS developer for Dropbox

Companies looking to establish a more permanent telework program should seek input from their workers, including in employee resource groups, said Jill Houghton, the president and CEO of Disability:IN, a nonprofit advancing corporate disability inclusion.

“You can’t create the path forward without engaging the people that are going to be impacted by it,” she said. “If it’s going to impact people with disabilities … it’s going to be really important to engage with people with disabilities to help you plot that path forward.”

Matos, acknowledging the death and suffering caused by COVID-19, said the pandemic had spawned at least one silver lining. “For years, I’ve been trying to get this work-from-home opportunity — and the minute I do, suddenly the rest of the industry is now working from home,” he said. “It’s going to make this so much easier to maintain after COVID lifts.”

And Kingett, for his part, said he hoped “that people will get over themselves and start working with people more.”

“I get it that certain companies have to comply with security standards, but there’s a lot of ways to make something work,” he said. “Will it cost a little bit more? Sure. Maybe. Will it possibly benefit your other workers’ productivity? That’s a very strong possibility.”