Has Work From Home Closed the Employment Gap for People With Disabilities?

When the COVID pandemic hit, people found themselves thrust into a work-from-home mode en masse. Those who could do their jobs remotely did. It felt like a new frontier of Zoom calls for many. But for people with disabilities, it meant that everyone was now getting an accommodation they’d been requesting for years—often unsuccessfully. Now, more than a year later, this broadening of flexible work arrangements is back in the spotlight as we collectively re-evaluate what it means to make work more accessible. Will the lessons about inclusivity and flexibility stick, for employees of all ability levels?

WFH Is The New Normal—But Not For All

Long before the pandemic, disabled employees were calling for a more inclusive workplace. Many found it difficult to get these accommodations, like working from home, flexible work hours, and more inclusive work tools, from their employers. Infrastructure was often cited as a stumbling block to being more accessible. And then suddenly in March 2020, employers found themselves scrambling to implement these kinds of accommodations across the board in order to keep things afloat during a global pandemic.

For disability advocates like Kate McWilliams, that move merited a bit of side-eye. Now accommodations were important, now that non-disabled employees needed them? To help raise awareness for a group of workers that had been striving for this kind of accommodation all along, McWilliams set #AccessibilityForAbleds in motion on Twitter. On social media, McWilliams’s movement aimed to draw attention to the reasons this new flexible work culture can and should help level the playing field for abled and disabled workers alike.

This dialogue about accessibility at work has helped to show how all workers can benefit from accommodations that used to feel specialized or rare. What was once deemed unnecessary for most workers has become an imperative for almost all workers who can work remotely. Now that companies have a WFH infrastructure in place, many organizations are including these arrangements as part of their long-term workforce planning.

Still, some are finding walls still in place. With companies preparing to bring more and more employees back to an office, disabled workers are often still left out of the conversation. Many companies are looking to roll back these WFH rules or declaring the pandemic over enough to bring people back into the traditional workplace.

Even with WFH being the norm, about 20% of disabled workers had their remote work requests denied in 2020, according to a study by disability advocacy group Scope. Jobs that were previously out of reach for disabled employees are often still out of reach, especially as companies look for more normalcy and moving employees back to the workplace.

There’s also a danger of WFH “hour creep,” where a lack of traditional workday boundaries (commute, lunch hour, breaks, etc.) can lead to unrealistic standards for disabled employees—even with a WFH arrangement.

Flexible Work Arrangements Has Softened Some of the Stigma

One of the most equalizing factors of the past year was seeing workers struggle with balancing working from home, supporting family members doing school online, and managing health concerns during a pandemic. When you can see a colleague’s kids videobombing a meeting, or email with a manager who needs to reschedule work around a Covid diagnosis, the idea that everyone struggles a bit sometimes becomes more normalized. People are more comfortable bringing themselves to work now, the good and the bad.

This kind of empathy doesn’t fix everything, but it does help build support for the idea that everyone deserves support and flexibility as part of their job. Again, the call for baseline dignity and support is nothing new to workers with disabilities, but visibility and broken boundaries can help inform long-term change.

But There’s Still Work To Be Done

Throughout 2020, people with disabilities were one of the groups hit hardest by pandemic unemployment. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for disabled people rose from 7.8% in January 2020 to a peak of 18.9% in April 2020. And as unemployment in general trends down in 2021, the unemployment rate for disabled workers continues to be significantly higher than it is for non-disabled people.

This means that accommodations alone—even with a changing attitude about what it is to have a more flexible work world—is not enough. Perhaps more tellingly, the workforce participation rate for disabled workers stayed steady at around 20 percent throughout 2020. Large numbers of people with disabilities are still excluded from the workforce. Despite changing attitudes about the nature of remote work and greater awareness that flexibility isn’t necessarily a barrier to productivity, the disabled working community is not necessarily making the strides that had seemed possible when everything changed in 2020.

As companies look to rebound or rebuild after a devastating global event, it’s crucial for inclusivity to be one of the driving factors. Employees with disabilities aren’t requesting special treatment—they’re still just seeking parity with their non-disabled peers. The conversation doesn’t just need to happen when it’s time to bring everyone back into the office (or not). The most lasting change will come when companies prioritize flexible accommodations and bring a more expansive diversity mindset when recruiting and hiring as well.

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