For those with disabilities, shift to remote work has opened doors
The COVID-19 pandemic has created many challenges, but disability advocates are welcoming one societal shift that has huge benefits for many with accessibility needs: the ability to work from home.
WATERBURY, CONN.; AND CAMBRIDGE, MASS.
As desk jobs went from in person to online during the COVID-19 pandemic, Kayle Hill’s prospects opened up as she took on a new telework position. Her previous employer was resistant to providing remote work accommodations, even though Ms. Hill could perform her administrative job better from home. “There’s often a sense that disabled people should just be grateful for what they have,” says Ms. Hill, who is diagnosed with multiple chronic illnesses and often needs to work while lying down. “There is always a sense that asking for something else makes you burdensome.”
Ms. Hill is among the 1 in 4 U.S. adults with disabilities, many of whom face barriers in traditional workplaces. Federal law requires businesses to provide “reasonable accommodation,” but many employers assume such measures – such as allowing remote work – would give disabled workers an unfair advantage, or be costly to implement. As office work becomes virtual in 2020, many disabled people are seeing an unprecedented level of accessibility in their employment.
“We have seen entire corporations pivot to work from home in a matter of weeks,” says Matthew Cortland, a disabled lawyer and policy analyst. “It really does give lie to the notion that [remote work accommodation] is an undue burden, when you have done it for everyone as soon as the abled needed it.”
This story is meant to be watched in video format, but we understand that is not an option for everybody. For those who are unable to watch or listen, we have provided a transcript of the video below.
In the opening scene, a young white woman lies in bed with two large pillows propping up her head. She types on her laptop. One sticker on the laptop reads: “disabled and proud.” Another reads: “ambulatory wheelchair users exist” and shows a cartoon figure getting up from a wheelchair and walking. The woman wears glasses, a striped sweater, and jeans. The sound of her typing mixes with the video’s marimba soundtrack, which evokes a sense of curiosity. Then a female voice fades in, as the video cuts to an interview with the woman. She gives the interview lying in the same bed. Text near the bottom of the screen indicates her name as Kayle Hill, and her job title as "Community outreach associate at Public Allies."
Kayle Hill: For the longest time, ableism has told me that I can't hold a job. And if I can't do that, then I'm not “good.” But when COVID happened, everybody started adjusting to remote work, and my prospects opened up.
The video cuts to a scene of Kayle getting ready to work in her bedroom. She puts a large jug of water on the bedside table, next to numerous pill bottles. Then she arranges the pillows. As she works lying down, a close-up shows her right hand controlling the mouse and her left hand resting on her stomach. The voice of Jingnan Peng, the video's narrator and producer, fades in.
Jingnan Peng: Kayle Hill has just started her first work-from-home job with a social service organization in Connecticut.
Kayle: It's especially draining for me to sit up. I’m able to do my job better from home.
Video cuts to Kayle working on her laptop at the dining table in her living room. She sits with her back against a cushion-like back support fastened to her chair. Jing's narration fades in.
Jing: Kayle is diagnosed with arthritis and other chronic conditions. For her and millions of other disabled Americans, COVID-19 is having an unexpected and profound impact.
The video cuts to a four-way split screen, showing Kayle and three other disabled people interviewed for this story: an Asian American woman, a white woman, a white man.
The video then shows shots of the Asian woman working in her home office. She sits in a power wheelchair, facing three monitor screens on her desk. The camera pushes toward her and circles around her, conveying a sense of excitement. A female voice fades in as the video cuts to an interview with the woman. She wears a black shirt with a colorful Google logo printed across the chest. The first “o” in "Google" is replaced by a symbol of an eye, and the second “o” is replaced by the symbol of an ear. The two symbols represent blind and deaf people. Text near the bottom of the screen indicates her name as Dianna Hu, and her title as "Programmer at Google and disability advocate."
Dianna Hu: The ability to work from home, that's been an accessibility accommodation that the disability community has been asking for for a long time. And for a long time, the answer has been: "No.”
The video cuts to an interview with the white man from the four-way split screen. The interview clip, apparently from a recorded video call, plays on a laptop placed on a grey sofa – a setup created by the video's producer. A white face mask and a bottle of hand sanitizer stand next to the laptop. Text near the bottom of the screen indicates the man’s name as Matthew Cortland, and his title as "Lawyer and policy analyst."
Matthew Cortland: Disabled folks in this country have been told for decades that: “The core of this job requires that you have to be in this particular office, these particular days.” And that turned out to be a lie.
A new soundtrack starts, evoking a sense of intrigue, as the next section of the story begins. We see Kayle lying on the sofa in her living room and typing on her laptop, which rests on her thighs. Her small Shih Tzu dog, Oreo, wanders around the sofa. An audio clip from Kayle's interview fades in.
Kayle: Going to the office for nine hours a day was not good for my health.
Jing: About one in four US adults is disabled, and many need remote work in order to do their job. The commute to work may already be inaccessible or overtaxing. The office space may lack accessible paths and bathrooms. And the work environment can cause physical and mental distress for people with a variety of disabilities.
As Jing lists the reasons for remote work, the video shows cartoon illustrations of corresponding scenarios. The three illustrations, drawn on paper with a black highlighter by the video's producer, are placed on a black desk.
The first image depicts two separate scenarios of inaccessible or overtaxing commute. On the left of the page, a figure in a wheelchair moves toward a bus. A question mark between the figure and the bus suggests that the vehicle might be inaccessible. On the right, a figure climbs up a long flight of stairs.
The second image depicts potentially inaccessible elements in the layout of an office. Two figures, one using a cane and the other a wheelchair, are positioned at one end of a u-shaped corridor. The width of the corridor is indicated by arrows, and a question mark between the arrows suggests the space might not be wide enough to meet accessibility standards. Further down the corridor, the path is partially blocked by a potted plant. The width of the remaining space is also marked with arrows and a question mark. At the other end of the corridor, a door opens to a bathroom. The open space inside the bathroom and the length of the grab bar next to the toilet seat are too marked with arrows and question marks.
The third image depicts various elements of the workplace that could cause distress: two colleagues talking loudly, a desk phone and a mobile phone ringing, an overhead light and a desk light, and a chair with a hard back.
The video then cuts back to Kayle working on her sofa. We see close-ups of her elbows resting on the couch, and her neck resting against a large pillow.
Jing: But before the pandemic, remote work accommodations were often met with resistance. That’s what happened to Kayle in her last job, an administrative position at a daycare center.
The video cuts to Kayle working at her desk in her study, sitting on a black wheelchair. Her dog Oreo wanders in the room. An audio clip from Kayle's interview fades in.
Kayle: I would always get a promise, but then nothing happened. It was like every day there was another reason why we had to push it off another day. I was getting sick a lot. It also just ruins your self-esteem not being able to perform your job at the level that you know you should be.
Jing: The Americans with Disabilities Act says an employer has to provide disabled employees “reasonable accommodation” – unless accommodation requests are determined to be unreasonable, such as causing “undue hardship” for the business.
As Jing explains the law, the video shows related sections from the Americans with Disabilities Act, printed out and placed on a black desk. A hand uses a yellow sharpie to highlight the phrase “reasonable accommodation,” as well as two examples of it: “job restructuring” and “modified work schedules.” Then the hand highlights the general definition of undue hardship: “an action requiring significant difficulty and expense.”
The video cuts back to Kayle working in her study. In the foreground of the shot, a black book with “Disability Rights” printed on the spine protrudes from a row of books on her bookshelf.
Jing: Kayle knew her rights, but something stopped her from bringing it up.
Kayle: There's often a sense that disabled people should sort of just be grateful for what they have. My boss was great at letting me go to doctor appointments. There is always a sense that asking for something else makes you burdensome.
The video cuts to an interview with the white woman from in the four-way split screen near the piece’s beginning. The interview clip, apparently from a recorded video call, plays on a laptop placed on a white bed, with a window in the background. A blue microphone stands next to the laptop and points towards it. Text near the bottom of the screen indicates the woman’s name as Rebecca Cokley, and her title as "Director of disability at Center for American Progress."
Rebecca Cokley: A lot of times employers have this perception that hiring and employing disabled people is nothing but unending bills and unending expense. There’s still a stigma that disability rights are “extra.”
The video cuts to an interview with Matthew Cortland, lawyer and policy analyst, in the same setup used to show his first interview clip.
Matthew: We have seen entire corporations pivot to work from home in a matter of weeks. It really does give lie to the notion that, "That's just unreasonable. It's an undue burden. We can't do it for anyone," when you have in fact, done it for everyone as soon as the abled needed it. And I would expect, going forward, employees would be able to make the legal argument in court.
The video cuts back to Kayle working in her bed, with her dog Oreo bedside her. Kayle scratches Oreo's stomach, and Oreo snuggles next to her.
Jing: Kayle eventually left her previous job when a slight pay raise disqualified her from affordable health care. And then COVID-19 hit.
Kayle: A lot of people who wished in the past that they could work from home, they’re now able to do that without even technically getting that accommodation.
Video cuts to Dianna Hu, the programmer at Google, typing code in her home office. She sits in a power wheelchair and wears a blue mask. Small and colorful paper umbrellas hang from the ceiling. On the door to her office hangs a small decorative gourd with a traditional Chinese knot symbolizing luck and prosperity, tied in red string.
The video cuts to a scene of Dianna tilting the back of her wheelchair backwards until it is almost horizontal. She reclines for a while to alleviate the numbness and fatigue caused by sitting up. She explains to the camera: “Back in the office I wouldn’t have done this very much. I get a little bit self conscious. It’s a good physical break, and a good mental break too.” The video then cuts to an interview with Dianna.
Dianna: I can get more stuff done now than I could before. And that's because I'm in the most perfect environment for me.
The video cuts back to Dianna working, typing rapidly as the camera circles her work station. A new, energetic marimba soundtrack fades in.
Jing: Dianna Hu helps Google handle incoming web traffic. She’s high risk to COVID-19 according to doctors, and her job went remote during the pandemic. Dianna’s apartment is customized to provide maximum accessibility.
The video shows various shots of accessibility features in Dianna’s apartment. An arrow points to each accessibility feature, and text on screen names the object indicated. The first shot shows a blue wrist rest connected to Dianna's keyboard that supports her wrists as she types. The second shot shows the height booster for her table: small, square pieces of wood placed under each foot, raising the table to the right height for Dianna in her wheelchair. The last shot shows her cup resting on a cylindrical height booster filled with marbles. This allows her drinking straw to reach just the right height. Dianna takes a drink and relishes.
Jing: Back in her office, she was still sometimes left at the mercy of passers-by when she couldn’t open a door on her way to a meeting, or couldn’t reach the control panel in a video conference room.
The video cuts to Dianna having a remote video conference with a male colleague. He remarks: “You’re in a different location.” “I am. The ultra awesome home environment,” she replies. An audio clip from Dianna's interview fades in.
Dianna: I don’t have these physical barriers in the way. I'm able to attend more meetings as a result.
The video cuts to an interview with Rebecca Cokley, Director of disability at Center for American Progress, in the same setup used to show her first interview clip.
Rebecca: There is a real suspicion that people with disabilities, if given accommodation such as telework, will actually not be working. And yet we know that people actually put in more work.
The video cuts to two news headlines on the productivity of remote workers. Both headlines are shown on the screen of a laptop placed on a desk. One headline, from Computer Business Review, reads: “77% of workers say remote working boosts productivity.” The other headline, from Inc, reads: “A 2-Year Stanford Study Shows the Astonishing Productivity Boost of Working From Home.”
Jing: Which is shown by various studies.
A new, pensive soundtrack fades in. The video shows various shots of high rise buildings in a financial district. An audio clip from Dianna's interview fades in.
Dianna: COVID is closing down lots of buildings. I think a lot of people are understanding what it means for structures to not be accessible, and for the need to have adaptation and have accommodations in place.
Jing: In fact, remote work flexibility can have wide benefits beyond the disability sphere, aside from being an essential accommodation.
To illustrate this point, the video cuts to a New York Times article on remote work, shown on a laptop placed on a desk. The title of the article reads: “What if you don’t want to go back to the office?” A hand scrolls through the page, showing various bullet points on the benefit of telework: less time on the road, money saved, more job satisfaction, and less sickness.
The video then cuts to Kayle, petting her dog Oreo in bed.
Jing: And while remote work removes various employment barriers, it’s important to recognize that many disabled people still have to limit their options, in order to maintain essential healthcare and benefits.
The video cuts back to the interview with Dianna.
Dianna: Over one billion people across the world have some form of disability. So I hope that, as society returns to a new normal at some point, that new normal allows for work from home.
The video ends. The logo of The Christian Science Monitor appears, followed by the end credits. End credits: reported by Jingnan Peng and Laura Kiesel; shot and produced by Jingnan Peng; color correction by Vincent Lomascolo; production supervised by Samantha Laine Perfas; special thanks to Boston Center for Independent Living, National Telecommuting Institute, Institute for Human Centered Design, Patricia Barbeau, Kathy Flaherty, Sandy Ho, Sernia Richardson.