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Remote work is commonplace now, and workers with disabilities could benefit from the change

Architectural designer Erica Shannon, front, works at a computer as accounting manager Andrea Clark, top, speaks with a colleague at the design firm Bergmeyer, Wednesday, July 29, 2020.
Steven Senne
Now that remote work is more common, people with disabilities more professional opportunities.

A silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic is that people with disabilities might now have more employment options since the prevalence of and attitudes around remote work have shifted.

A 2021 study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that 19.1% of people with disabilities are employed, compared to 63.7% of people without disabilities. This stark contrast isn’t surprising; chronic pain or inaccessible environments can make it difficult to work in an office. But many workers haven’t been going to the office for the past couple of years.

“It has just shown and opened businesses’ eyes to the fact that their employees, and particularly their employees with disabilities, can actually be more productive if they have that flexibility to work at home,” said Rocco Iacullo, staff attorney for Disability Rights Pennsylvania.

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While the law protecting people from discrimination has not changed since before the pandemic, it may be harder for some employers to convincingly argue that remote-work accommodations are unreasonable.

Changing tides

Disability advocates say some employers are changing their outlook on accommodations. .

“The way employers used to deal with work-from-home requests, [it was] just a knee-jerk reaction that, ‘Oh no, it's going to cause an undue burden on us, or you're not going to be able to do your job from home,’” said Iacullo.

Responses to these types of requests have always varied depending on the employer, employee and job type – some jobs can’t be done remotely. But Mason Ameri of Rutgers Business School said that the pandemic has shown managers that a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t the best.

“[Working from home] allows employers to boost the morale of employees with and without disabilities,” he said. “It’s not a trend. It’s here to stay.”

Still some managers will be less open to remote work than others. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, while employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities, what qualifies as reasonable is up to interpretation, and experts say it's ideally a collaborative solution reached between a worker and their manager. But ultimately, an employer is not required to comply simply because a request is made, and the employee must still be able to perform the functions of their job.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.