by Kayla Schwoerer:
Whether navigating a new work environment at home or developing a greater reliance on technology to meet, manage, and coordinate work-related tasks and responsibilities, the COVID-19 pandemic forced many people to adapt to new ways of working.
But, for many of the 10.9 million workers in the U.S. with a disability, working from home helped break down the barriers people with disabilities face in the workplace, enabling them to engage with their work in new ways thanks to advancements in technology that enhanced accessibility and provided greater control over their work environment.
A 2017 study found that 30% of college-educated workers report having a disability, yet only 3.2% disclosed their disability to their employers. Of the 30% of people who reported having a disability (according to the Americans with Disabilities Act definition), 62% said their disability was “invisible” to others, and 26% said it was “sometimes visible” depending on the circumstances. Invisible disabilities, also known as hidden disabilities, refer to the spectrum of physical, mental, or neurological disabilities (or challenges) not obvious to the eye. Some of the most common hidden disabilities are anxiety and depression, diabetes, chronic pain or fatigue, and neurodivergence, including ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, and dyslexia.
While the Americans with Disabilities Act mandates reasonable accommodations for those with physical and mental impairments, visible or not, people with disabilities still encounter many obstacles to accessing accommodations in the workplace. For people with disabilities, working from home might mean increased access to helpful and often necessary accommodations that they may not have had access to previously. Not to mention, employers are only required to provide accommodations if workers have disclosed their disability formally, which in many cases, requires people to provide “proof” that their disability significantly interferes with their ability to do certain things. This is undoubtedly a product of ableism in the workplace and society at large. Still, as disability activist Mia Mingus argues, it also subjects disabled people to “forced intimacy” by placing undue burden on people to disclose personal and sensitive details about themselves as a requirement for the access and accommodations they need to be successful. In reality, there are many reasons why someone would make the choice not to disclose their disability. Cultural and personal attitudes and beliefs as well as fear of or past experiences with discrimination, disparate treatment, or not being believed because their disability is not visible to others have a profound impact on whether someone chooses to disclose (or not).
There is a vast spectrum of disabilities, visible, invisible, and somewhere in between. The ways in which disability impacts one’s experience navigating life and work is unique to everyone, as is the “work from home” experience. However, for many, the ability to work from home has meant they no longer have to navigate inaccessible workplaces or inaccessible transportation and infrastructure to even get to work in the first place. They also might find that they have greater control over designing an environment that supports and accommodates their disability or greater access to new resources and supports not previously available to them. Additionally, for those with invisible disabilities or fear of disclosing a disability, it might even mean reduced stress from the time and effort spent concealing or working extra hard to compensate for one’s disability.
The new and ongoing developments in telework technology, including video platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet, offer a number of accessibility features, including live closed captioning, screen readers, as well as downloadable transcriptions of meetings. Microsoft Teams even provides speech to text, chat translation, and the ability to magnify and adjust the color contrast of the screen and interface. These features increase accessibility for the deaf and hard of hearing community, the visually impaired, and they also aid neurodivergent folks with information processing, comprehension, memory, and attention in ways that were not previously possible.
As workers return to the office or perhaps transition to work from home arrangements permanently, it’s important for organizations and managers to take this opportunity to re-think access and inclusion for individuals with disabilities. Disability accommodations are not one-size-fits-all and most workplaces are not equipped to adequately accommodate the wide range of disabilities and lived experiences of people with disabilities. There are many excellent technological tools and resources such as those mentioned above, and the technology is continually evolving with more and more accessibility features added regularly. Leveraging these tools in the workplace can be crucial for access and inclusion but technology is not the only answer. One of the best, but often overlooked, places to start is empathy and understanding by asking people what they need to feel supported and be successful, regardless of disability status. Organizations can begin to break down the barriers that exist by signalling support, making available accommodations transparent and easily accessible, and proactively pursuing and promoting inclusive and accessible tools and policies with or without individuals having to disclose a disability. Lastly, leaders can look to the Principles of Universal Design, a framework developed to guide the process of designing usable products and environments. Doing so can help to inform the design of accessible, inclusive, and equitable environments, policies, and communications for all in the workplace.
 The Center for Universal Design (1997). The Principles of Universal Design. Accessed from: https://projects.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_ud/udprinciplestext.htm
About the author:
Kayla Schwoerer is a Doctoral Candidate at Rutgers-Newark in the School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA). Her research focuses broadly on the intersection of public management, science and technology policy, and social equity. She is particularly interested in understanding the ways that public and nonprofit organizations leverage science, technology, and design to engage the public, enhance equity, and provide public value.