Disabled workers discuss the return to office

If there’s a single positive word that can describe the ways in which the workforce responded to the pandemic over the course of two years, it’s “accessibility.” With the transition to remote work, COVID-19 indirectly achieved a notable rise in accommodations for the one in four Americans with a disability—whether their non-disabled counterparts realized it or not.

Back in March 2020, the labor force participation rate for working-age people with disabilities was only 34.9%,” says Philip Kahn-Pauli, the policy and practices director at disability advocacy nonprofit RespectAbility. “The participation rate for working-age people with disabilities is now at 37.8%. This means that people with disabilities are engaging with the labor force in higher numbers than before the pandemic.” As a reference, the rates for non-disabled workers stayed close to 80%.

With office workers’ transition to remote work, many of the barriers tied to office settings—including inaccessible commutes, painful chairs, binding clothing, social cues in break rooms, and even the inherent focus needed to move through a building—were removed. (The same can’t be said for customer-facing roles, where more employees with disabilities are hired, since one million of them lost their jobs nationwide.)

“I never realized how uncomfortable I was in a traditional workplace prior to the pandemic,” says Chelsea Bear, a content creator with cerebral palsy who worked at a public relations agency until September 2021. “Throughout the day I had a lot of meetings that required me to gather my laptop and notebooks and relocate into conference rooms. I was in constant fear that I’d trip or fall.”

And yet, people with disabilities who have benefited from workplace flexibility are currently witnessing it disappear under the guise of “returning to normal”—despite the fact that the majority of million-plus Americans who died from the virus were disabled. As bosses call employees back to their offices either entirely or part time, and rules around masks and vaccines that protect disabled people vanish, Many people with disabilities are being put in a vulnerable position.

“We are worried that employers will move away from offering any flexibility around remote work, cutting budgets for assistive technology, or denying reasonable accommodation requests,” Kahn-Pauli says. “Second, there is a concern that workers with disabilities who wish to continue teleworking will be treated as second class, and potentially lose out on opportunities.” That said, Kahn-Pauli notes, “remote work should never be an excuse to avoid making workplaces fully accessible.”

The vast majority of disabled people want to work. They want to contribute to households, support relationships, and fulfill dreams, just like anyone else. Accessible solutions are not only required by law under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but they could also very well increase productivity and profits across entire businesses. After all, it wasn’t just non-disabled workers who benefited from meeting expectations remotely.

“I think the pandemic and the Great Resignation has hammered home the message that caring for your people are business imperatives,” Kahn-Pauli says. “Furthermore, advocates estimate that the pandemic has disabled more than 1.2 million Americansand we are just starting to understand the consequences of Long COVID. As such, society must actively understand disability in new ways, and the value of inclusion is now clearer than ever before.”

Here, three disabled workers describe what’s at stake when a “return to normal” pushes up against the specificities of their employment, and how employers can ensure that disabled people aren’t left behind:

“I have exactly 44 minutes of sick time left”

Amanda Clark oversees administrative duties in a state office near Pittsburgh. She has chronic pain and anxiety disorders. A month into the pandemic, Clark’s team began returning to the office a half-day per week to open mail, and in July 2021, everyone was required to work in-person until a hybrid model was introduced that September. “As such, I have had at least partial telework since the pandemic began,” she says. “But two days of remote work per week, which is what my agency allows across classifications, does not feel like enough for my disability.”

Clark is able to manage her symptoms better from the controlled environment of her home, where the right temperature, lighting, and loose clothing lessen her pain. It also helps that she can rest on her lunch break with a nap, and devote most of her energy to what has to get done. “Being in the office, people feel they can come to me at any time for any reason, and my job suffers from all the interruptions,” she says. “When I’m at home, people know to send me a quick text, email, or chat message, and I can triage those much more effectively.”

Lately, Clark’s been dealing with a flare up of symptoms, and it’s made her miss work. Her job doesn’t offer unlimited paid leave, so the medical appointments she has during the week cut into the time she’s accrued. “I have exactly 44 minutes of sick time left,” she says. “It’s pushed me into crisis mode, and I’m trying my hardest to hold on. I want my employer and my coworkers to see my best self.”

Clark says that having unlimited paid leave would be the first step in a more equitable workplace, as well as laws “Limiting how much your employer can question you for using it,” she says. Clark notes that it would also be easier if ADA protections were more widely enforced, and qualifying for disability benefits didn’t take months (or come with poverty-level restrictions on saving). But perhaps the most straightforward suggestion Clark has for employers is to value the output drawn from remote work.

“In an agency where some staff don’t even visit the office once a week, and where our jobs were done effectively from home for over 16 months, why are we unable to select full-time telework?” she asks.

“My body can’t keep up with a full-time service job”

Rebecca Anderson lives in Brooklyn, and she is mostly in remission from chronic fatigue syndrome, which she was diagnosed with at 12. “I still cannot live my life the way able-bodied people can, and have setbacks,” she says. Anderson also has a connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and ADHD.

Anderson is an actor who makes most of her living from bartending, catering, and pet-setting. She’s time part employment a bachelor’s degree, too, with the hope that “I won’t always be dependent on in-person.” She stopped working in restaurants during the pandemic’s first wave to support her family, who are also disabled, while protecting herself. “My mom and brother are extremely vulnerable, so being able to get unemployment made it possible for me to run errands for them,” she says. After her workplace reopened, she was glad that guests and employees were made to feel as safe as possible with air filters and supplied masks.

“When it was announced that the mandates would be lifted in NYC, it knocked the wind right out of me,” she says. “A regular at my bar said to me, ‘Oh, my friend in Jersey is going to be so excited! He is unvaccinated and can’t wait to eat and drink again in NYC,’ and I couldn’t believe it. Of course, I don’t want unvaccinated people to have to stay away forever. But it feels like a new kind of eugenics at play.”

It was already difficult to spend 8 to 10 hours on her feet, but now Clark is worried about taking off her mask at all—even during breaks. “My body can’t keep up with a full-time service job,” she says. “Just keeping my body going at work is more of a challenge now.” She wishes more service jobs paid a living wage, and offered the type of flexibility where rest and caring for family were understood as necessities. “This is about people’s lives, and we cannot go back to how things were before,” she says. “The longer our leaders refuse to accept that, the harder it will be on all of us, especially the most vulnerable.”

“The culture of the office was based on in-person meetings and team-building activities”

After graduating from college, Bear worked at a Tampa, Florida public relations agency five days a week for six years. The company went remote at the start of the pandemic, and in June 2021, leadership required at least 60% of the office to be together in person. Bear has difficulty balancing and walking long distances, so she sometimes uses a scooter. The only accommodation she had prior to working from home was a disabled parking spot near the office’s entrance that she didn’t have to request, by law.

“I didn’t feel empowered to ask my employers for accommodations for a few reasons, but overall, I didn’t want to give the impression that I was less than my non-disabled colleagues or unable to fully perform my job,” she says. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but 2020 ended up being my most successful year in my PR career. It’s because I finally had accommodations I didn’t know I needed.”

Prior to working from home, Bear felt a lot of anxiety around not drawing attention to her disability by potentially falling. “If I needed to use the restroom, refill my water bottle, or head to the kitchen for lunch, I’d feel anxious,” she says. “If a meeting was coming up soon, I’d stress over it and be unable to do my work until I was settled back at my desk.”

Allowing the agency to virtually come to her was a major reduction in stress and a motivator to accomplish tasks. “The culture of the office was based on in-person meetings and team-building activities, so it was important for me to be there at times,” she says. “When we returned, my anxiety rose to levels it never had before. My quality of work decreased, and I was much more exhausted at the end of the day.”

The interior design of an office can prioritize aesthetics over accessibility, and a slippery floor is a slippery floor, regardless of disability. Team-building done remotely requires creativity, but doesn’t mean people can’t get to know one another. And, Bear says, the time it takes to commute can be used for exercising, stretching, or cooking a healthy meal, rather than eating whatever takes the least amount of effort. Last fall, Bear decided to become self-employed for her flexibility, but she doesn’t think office work is a lost cause.

“Ultimately, employers need to listen to employees, understand their wants and needs, and make accommodations for those who need it,” she says. “Disabled people face adversity continuously and persevere. We can bring unique perspectives to the table, while showing coworkers that interacting with a disabled person is completely normal.”

Kelly Dawson is a writer, editor, and disability advocate based in Los Angeles. Visit her consulting agency At the Crosswalk, and follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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