Gholami: #DisabledAndSaltyAF: COVID-19 Effects on Workers with Disabilities


Librarian Dale Larsen working showing how to do research online at the J. Willard Marriott Library in Salt Lake City, UT on Wednesday May 23, 2018. (Photo by Curtis Lin | Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Samira Gholami, Opinion Writer


In recent months, working from home has been a blessing for some and a curse for others. Researchers at MIT took an early look at remote working in the U.S. during the pandemic and estimated that over one-third of the workforce shifted to telecommuting. Many employees like this change: one poll found that most U.S. adults actually enjoy working from home and that overall productivity has been up. A 2017 study tracked work-from-home employees for nearly two years and reported a 13% improvement in performance and a 50% drop in employee resignations. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the paradigm of the traditional workplace has shifted to remote work, but one community, in particular, has been struggling to secure these accommodations for years.

People in the disability community need remote work options as they face a significant disadvantage in the workplace. Disability activists have fought for these accommodations and often are denied such opportunities from their employers. One in four U.S. adults live with a disability — that’s 61 million Americans who have to live and work in a world that is not always accessible to them. Hashtags like #AccessibilityforAbleds and #DisabledAndSaltyAF went viral exposing the once ‘impossible’ accommodations that disabled workers were denied pre-pandemic which suddenly became available to all once able-bodied people demanded it. The drastic changes in work-from-home employment strategies are bittersweet: it’s great to connect with coworkers virtually and host meetings online, but it’s also devastating that people in the disability community have been denied these accommodations for years. We have collectively witnessed how the workforce was able to evolve, adapt and become more inclusive to their employees working from home — when the world opens back up again, employers should not have an excuse for providing these same accommodations to people with disabilities.

Research has shown that people with disabilities are more likely to be let off by employers when a crisis strikes — making the Coronavirus era a travesty for workers in this community. There is a history of denied accommodation requests from employees with disabilities who request remote work options, as well as a general distrust in the ability of disabled employees to be productive from their home environment. An analysis of court rulings on authorizing telework as a disability accommodation shows employers won 70% of cases to reject workers’ bids for this workplace adjustment, despite the fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act permits telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation alternative. Without even mentioning what a person with a disability may or may not need as a workplace accommodation, employers are already hesitant to hire people from the disability community due in large part to the harmful stereotypes about accommodation requests. For a 2015 study, researchers sent out 6,000 fake job applications that listed applicants as having Asperger’s syndrome, a spinal cord injury or no disability at all. They found that applicants who mentioned a disability were 26% less likely to have an employer reach out to them.

Remote working options are proven to help employees with disabilities work better. Having the flexibility to attend doctor’s appointments and control pain management from home boosts employee happiness and overall health. It can alleviate the burdens put on people with disabilities to get dressed and transported to work, which can be far more time consuming than it is for able-bodied individuals. Granting workplace accommodations is not only helpful for the disability community, but it can also be helpful for a variety of actors: namely, people who take care of sick family members, people who are immunocompromised or experience social anxiety, employers themselves and even the environment can benefit from remote workers. Telecommuting employees decrease their carbon emissions by cutting their morning commute and companies which offer remote working options can save nearly $2,000 per employee by reducing office space rental.

There are instances where providing a separate working environment is actually more equitable for the disability community than the alternative. Choosing to endorse an absolutist interpretation of ‘integration in the workforce’ does a disservice to disabled people. Allowing telecommuting work options creates a more inclusive and accessible workplace. Ruth Colker, a leading scholar on disability discrimination wrote that we should instead adopt an anti-subordination approach towards equity for disabled people to “offer a more nuanced discussion of the appropriate remedies in the disability context to redress a history of profoundly unequal treatment in our society of individuals with disabilities.” Less than a third of working-age people with disabilities were employed last year. Millions more could have been if the workforce was willing to adapt to the needs of the disability community. When employers accommodate their disabled employees with adaptive technologies and trust, employees are able to do great work.

People with disabilities have been told that remote working options and online-adapted classrooms were not possible. Even though adjusting to work from home conditions was not easy for all, we have now proven it is within reach. Employers should work to accommodate disabled people the same way they worked to accommodate the abled during this pandemic in addition to authorizing these accommodations into their permanent hiring policies.


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