Before the pandemic, Britney Wilson’s daily drive from Brooklyn to Manhattan took two hours. She has cerebral palsy and uses arm crutches and a motorized scooter to get around. Her subway stop is inaccessible and she has to take a paratransit bus. Just this week she’s commuting for the first time in almost two years. She said it was an annoying reality check.
“I just thought, ‘Oh, okay. Back again, here we go again, ‘”said Wilson.
More than 61 million Americans live with disabilities, and many of them have been calling for more flexible work arrangements for decades. Now that employers are considering returning to the office and rethinking workplaces, there is an opportunity to make both virtual and personal offices more accessible.
“We don’t want a ‘return to normal’. Normal was never enough, ”said Maria Town, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities. “I hope that employers will really look into what has worked well during this time and how it can be continued.”
Britney Wilson, with the long commute, is the director of the Civil Rights and Disability Justice Clinic at New York Law School. She says that she enjoys being there with her students in person and that she also has a flexible schedule where she can sometimes work from home.
“We have to give people what they need. If you come to the office twice a week and work from home the other three days, you should be able to do that, ”said Wilson. “If you don’t have to come to the office, then don’t.”
The tech companies that chose to enable remote working have also helped many people with disabilities. Moeena Das, Chief of Staff of the National Disability Organization, is deaf. If she was in a meeting before the pandemic, a stenographer also stepped in to transcribe what people were saying. That took some planning ahead. Now that uses automatic subtitles in Zoom, which means it can jump into last minute calls.
A screenshot of a Zoom call shows the automatic captions that can be provided to meeting participants.
“It was really incredibly liberating to be in any context and say, ‘Yes, I can jump right in,’” said Das.
Das, who also reads Lippe, says it’s also good to think about how personal office policies like mask mandates affect people with disabilities.
“What could this mean for employees with a cognitive disability or for employees who may be deaf?” Said Das. “I really think holistically about how the office is organized.”
One concern is that more virtual interactions will make disabilities less visible in the workplace, said Maria Town of the American Association of People with Disabilities.
“During the pandemic, I need to be more explicit about my disability in other ways than in a personal setting,” said Town, who has cerebral palsy.
Town fears that remote working, which she believes should definitely be an option, will become standard for disabled people, especially those who need more customization in the workplace.
“Our motivation and commitment to actually making our physical environment and personal interactions accessible are reduced,” said Town.
Given all we have learned during the pandemic, employers have a great opportunity to hire more disabled workers. Of the working-age population, only about 30% of disabled Americans are employed.
“It is not enough to go back to pre-pandemic levels,” said Taryn Williams, assistant secretary for employment policy with disabilities at the US Department of Labor.
Also, employers are missing out on a lot of talent.
“I always say we’re the ultimate innovators,” said Britney Wilson of New York Law School. “Our whole life revolves around figuring out how to adapt and do things, even when they are not set up for it.”