How COVID Made Remote Work Possible for Disabled People (And Why It Needs to Stay That Way)
In my mid-twenties, I secured my first nine-to-five office job: a prestigious internship with a reputable environmental nonprofit in Washington D.C. I then rented a room in a lovely old house in nearby Silver Spring, Maryland.
Every morning, my alarm went off at seven. I would then dress, eat breakfast, and walk the mile and a half to the red line subway station to take to DuPont Circle. I did this whether the weather was searing, swampy heat, bone-deep cold, drenching rain, or snow. Thirty minutes later, I would be deposited about five blocks from my office. At the end of the day, the trip would be reversed and I would return home utterly spent, my head pounding from a vicious headache that blurred my vision and made my stomach churn.
When the contract for the position ended over eight months later, I needed two months just to physically recover from the ordeal. After completing graduate school five years later, I again attempted a nine-to-five work-life. I again failed miserably. My fragile body — burdened by connective tissue disorder and its attendant ailments that had progressed as I aged — -couldn’t adapt. The grueling commutes, migraine-inducing fluorescent lights, and the agonizing pressure on my spine from sitting upright over eight hours a day at a desk for five days a week — was simply too much. Instead, I worked part-time office jobs with flexible schedules that allowed at least some telecommuting. I tutored a couple of hours a week in the early evenings. I accepted freelance assignments I could complete from the comfort of my couch with natural lighting in loose-fitting, casual clothes and with my own private bathroom nearby. I felt much better and could actually function somewhat outside of work.
In my early thirties, I finally gave up any aspirations of the traditional work life I had once so fiercely held onto. I accepted I was disabled. I also understood that most jobs were not designed for people like me. In fact, they were explicitly designed to exclude me. I saw this in the frank unwillingness of dozens upon dozens of organizations and companies I applied for to even consider some telecommuting, or a work-share situation that would enable me to work part-time. This unwillingness wouldn’t waiver even if the position could be done mostly or entirely from home, or if the actual duties could be completed in half the time they were demanding of me. This resistance endured despite the fact that telecommuting can be considered a “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year.
When COVID came along, it shattered the facade that employers simply weren’t able to consider telecommuting as an option. It also revealed the deep ableism in the US work sector’s refusal to be more open to remote work to those of us with chronic conditions prior to the pandemic.
Suddenly, millions of non-disabled people were converted to telecommuting almost overnight. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey even told his employees early on during the crisis they could remain remote workers if they wished when the pandemic ends. In response, disabled Twitter lit up with umbrage, sharing stories of all the times we had been deprived of similar options, even though our lives and livelihoods were on the line. Stories abounded from disabled folks denied telecommuting at their jobs — forced to push their bodies past their boundaries, to now finally be granted the right to work remotely, but only because everyone else was doing it. And likewise, mainstream media outlets — such as the Christian Science Monitor, which I recently partnered with to produce a video on the topic of telecommuting and disability in the age of COVID — have been paying closer attention to an issue previously more or less ignored by the larger press and public.
My concern is that when COVID is finally a thing of the past and the dust settles, remote work will be reverted to the relative rarity it once was and denied to disabled folks and others who need it.
This is something Kristin Martin, a 35 year-old graphic designer who lives in the Boston area, is also worried about.
“Before the pandemic, I was not allowed to work from home at my last job,” says Martin, who has Ulcerative Colitis, panic disorder, and depression. “[My employer] knew I had chronic health issues and that working from home was something that would make my life easier, but they wouldn’t budge.”
It was only after Martin applied for and was granted short-term disability in late 2019 that she was allowed to work from home two days a week when she resumed her job. Once the pandemic hit in 2020 though, her whole office got to work from home full time.
“It really helped my mental and physical health,” says Martin. “I actually have less sick days if I get to work from home.”
Of course, not everyone who has a disability needs to work remotely. In fact, for some it may actually be more beneficial to have an office space of some sort outside the home, at least part of the time.
This is the case for Eric, 50, also of Massachusetts, who is on the autism spectrum, and has been telecommuting full-time since the COVID outbreak.
“On one hand, I can better control the stimulus in my apartment in a way I can’t in the office, where there may be noises or people being loud,” says Eric, who works in IT. “In other ways, if I need to take stimming measures like….turning out the lights or taking a breather I can do that now, which I couldn’t do commuting on the subway, which was stressful.”
But Eric noted several disadvantages as well.
“From home, there are more opportunities for misunderstandings because sometimes I take things literally, and facial expressions and tone of voice guide me even though that can be difficult for me too,” says Erik. “But over remote messaging — which is usually just text or email — it’s even harder to get the cues I need to convey meaning in what my colleagues are saying, or to relay meaning because I tend to be more technical when writing than when speaking.”
Eric also notes that working from home for him blurs the boundaries of when work starts and stops, so that he sometimes finds himself skipping meals or breaks to rest. Overall though, Eric still finds many of the pros of working from home ultimately outweigh the cons — at least most of the time.
Additionally, it’s important to understand there will always be disabled people who cannot work at all, regardless of the accommodations made available to them, and there should be meaningful services and funding in place to support them when that’s the case.
But it can’t be denied that for many of us with disabilities, telecommuting options would enable us to make a living in a way that does not further harm our health. This would mean a lot to our community considering our unemployment rate in the United States is twice the rate of those without disabilities. More remote work positions would preempt the need for many disabled folks to move into or remain in or near urban cores, where rents can often be prohibitively expensive.
Widespread telecommuting for all eligible positions can ease housing demands in big cities and thereby potentially lower the overall costs of living. It can alleviate traffic congestion and auto-based carbon emissions that are currently one of the largest contributors to climate change. And with less cars on the road, we can better combat growing rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses that disproportionately impact disabled people, especially those who are Black and brown and reside in communities of color (in other words, those who have been hit the hardest in this pandemic). We’ve already seen air pollution dramatically decrease in typically smog-ridden cities like Los Angeles with the rise of telecommuting that has abetted the coronavirus.
But what about productivity?
Despite the enduring concern that workers will slack off at home, the data paints a different picture. A two-year study from Stanford University released in 2018 showed that employees were more productive when working from home. In a 2015 survey, 77 percent of workers who participated reported greater productivity while working offsite.
Of course, remote work isn’t perfect and obviously it isn’t possible or suitable for all jobs. As mentioned in cases like Eric’s, some remote workers may struggle with self-imposing boundaries and overwork themselves, suffering from increased stress and burnout. Social isolation can also be a problem for those who work remotely. But hopefully in a post-pandemic world and in a nation that is less inclined to be work-obsessed, people will be able to invest more in social connections with friends and family outside of their jobs. And it would seem despite its drawbacks, remote work remains extremely popular among the American public, with 75% of those who have been telecommuting since the onset of the pandemic preferring to continue working from home at least half of the time, according to Zillow.
The bottom line is that retaining remote work for those who want or need it as a prominent part of our American culture going forward after COVID will help democratize work opportunities across the board. Mainstreaming remote work is a critical component to cultivating a more equitable economy for everyone, especially those of us with disabilities. And it shouldn’t have taken a deadly pandemic to get us here.
*This piece was funded in part by the Media Democracy Fund.**