The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we work—a lot. Some workplaces had to close. Workers who were considered essential continued in their roles, and thousands of employers adopted new safety protocols. Other people found themselves working remotely from home offices, kitchen tables, and living room couches. The result? Worker expectations shifted and many businesses realized that workplaces can be more accommodating.
Remote workers embraced the greater work-life balance that working from home gave them. Extra attention to employees’ needs and preferences was especially important for those recognized under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Many offices and employees can claim more than two years of productive remote work. Now is an appropriate time to explore how workplace accommodations can further inclusion…for everyone.
What is a disability? It depends on who you ask. In their definitions, the ADA and the Social Security Administration describe conditions that can impact life activities or the ability to work. But few disagree that disability impacts a lot of people. The Centers for Disease Control notes that 61 million US adults are living with a disability.
Because disability is complex, a one-size-fits-all strategy cannot work for everyone. However, exploring employment trends shows how remote work benefits disabled employees and business owners.
Increasing opportunities with remote work
What can data tell us about disability and financial security? According to the Federal Reserve Board’s Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2021, fewer adults with a disability cited doing at least okay financially (Table 1). The report is based on the Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking (SHED), an annual survey that looks at the financial lives of US adults and families.
Table 1. At least doing okay financially (by demographic characteristics)
Expressed as percentages
|Characteristic||2021||1-year change||5-year change|
|Less than $25,000||55%||3%||8%|
|$100,000 or more||96%||1%||4%|
|Identifies as LGBTQ+||67%||-1%||n/a|
|Does not identify as LGBTQ+||79%||2%||n/a|
|Place of residence|
|Low or moderate income||66%||4%||6%|
|Middle or upper income||82%||2%||9%|
Limited employment options can affect economic well-being. Thomas Foley, executive director of the National Disability Institute (NDI), agrees with the report’s assertion that adults with a disability “have long faced significant barriers in the labor market.” However, remote work environments seemed to turn the tide. According to NDI, employment among adults with disabilities reached all-time highs during 2022. Working from home removes commuting barriers for those with disabilities. It may also reduce the perception of lower expectations that those with disabilities sometimes face. “We hope employers remain flexible with hybrid work policies and continue to recruit people with disabilities,” Foley notes.
Understanding independence and employment
NDI is just one organization promoting financial security for the disabled. Others include regional nonprofits such as Linking Employment, Abilities and Potential (LEAP), an Ohio center for independent living that helps persons with disabilities learn life skills.
What does independence mean for the disabled community? What is its role in employment? As LEAP’s Executive Director Melanie Hogan explains, “Independence doesn’t mean doing everything by yourself. It’s about living the life you want in the way that you want to. How do you meet people where they are…with policy and funding to live the life they’d like to live?”
Independence in the workplace isn’t only flexible schedules, remote work options, and physical modifications. Some with disabilities turn to small business ownership for freedom and economic advancement. NDI fosters collaboration between financial institutions and disability-owned initiatives.
Supporting accommodations or self-employment efforts helps remove barriers to labor market participation. That way, everyone benefits from the expertise of employees and entrepreneurs with disabilities.
Acknowledging the combined effects of identities
Workers with disabilities may be part of other communities that face economic challenges. For example, the SHED reveals how financial well-being differs across racial and ethnic groups in 2021. One stark example is that 81 percent of white adults report “doing at least okay” financially. Yet the survey finds that only 71 percent of Hispanic adults and 68 percent of Black adults report the same.
According to NDI research, households with individuals who are both Black and disabled have the lowest net worth. In fact, the average net worth of Black households in which a householder has a disability is $1,282. This is compared with an average net worth of $83,985 for non-disabled households.
Foley says it’s essential for civil rights and disability practitioners to “talk to each other,” combining efforts where they can. NDI has held regional meetings in several US cities to speak with people of color with disabilities. For employers, incorporating disability in diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts can help in recruiting a diverse talent pool.
Despite growing awareness, barriers remain in the workplace. “The struggle is harder for someone with a disability. But not because of it. Because of the fight and constant effort drain and strain the environment presents,” Hogan says.
Finding a silver lining
For both Hogan and Foley, one silver lining is how the pandemic brought the disabled community’s experiences to light. Through inclusive partnerships, employment opportunities, and awareness efforts, responses to the pandemic have helped us reimagine work. With ongoing improvement, we can make more room for the disabled community in the workplace. And that inclusion benefits us all.