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How WFH has affected employees with disabilities

October 30, 2020, 10:32 PM UTC

Welcome to The Broadside, a careers newsletter. Here’s what to expect in this issue.

Broadside writer Kristine Gill talks to employees with disabilities about how working from home has leveled the playing field yet exacerbated certain challenges. Then, scroll on for job opportunities from Bank of America, Disney, Facebook and more.

This is the last issue of The Broadside.

Thank you for reading along. Never fear—if you’re a subscriber to The Broadsheet, our daily newsletter for and about the world’s most powerful women, you will continue to receive that in your inbox. Otherwise, subscribe to The Broadsheet here.

For many employees with illnesses and disabilities, remote work has been an accommodation they’ve sought and been declined. But when the world transitioned to virtual work in the blink of an eye in March, employers and employees alike saw how the arrangement could work and benefit all parties.

This month, I spoke to employers and employees who say working from home has leveled the playing field in some surprising ways. As the world tiptoes toward normalcy, I asked what they want to do after this work-from-home experiment ends. 

“The culture of remote work is here to stay forever, which is great for the disabilities community and women in general,” says Jessica Tuman, vice president of Voya Cares at Voya Financial.


Mavis Bryant had worked for the Children’s Home Society nonprofit for several years when she began developing health problems. The worst came about two years after a car crash, when doctors realized her heart was only working at 15% capacity. 

“I didn’t even know I had heart problems,” said the 50-year-old, who has since been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, kidney disease and diabetes.

Bryant felt lucky. Her employer allowed her to take time off to get her health under control. Then last year, they allowed her to begin working part-time, including several days a week from home. 

“It was a blessing,” she said. “I get shortness of breath. There’s just a lot of moving around when you’re in the office to meet with families who come in to visit.”

So when the rest of her workplace went remote in March, Bryant was already in a position to succeed. Now, her clients are conducting meetings and visits virtually and Bryant is not at a disadvantage as she works from her living room on her laptop. 

“It’s been really good to work from home,” Bryant says.

Bryant credits her employer with making the switch simple. As a nonprofit with a mission aimed at helping families, the company was well-poised to help one of its own. Her advice for anyone coming to work with a health condition: Communicate with your employer, ask for a new part-time or work from home arrangement, and to try to take things slowly. 

Lauren Appelbaum had been working as vice president of communications for the nonprofit RespectAbility for a few years when she acquired her disability. Appelbaum had a fall that resulted in Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, a disorder causing severe pain. She soon learned she couldn’t type for extended periods of time, lacked strength in her right arm and leg, and had trouble getting comfortable at her desk.

“Like anyone who acquires a disability, it was trial and error,” she says. “And it’s important to have an employer who can do that trial and error with you.”

In the beginning, Appelbaum was attending physical therapy and multiple doctors visits and benefited from a flexible schedule.

“I was still able to continue a full-time schedule, but I may have done it on different hours—at night from home or on the weekend,” she says.

Communicating that was key as Appelbaum learned what worked for her situation. Luckily, Appelbaum’s workplace was not only willing to help its own employees, but it’s also their mission to help those with disabilities thrive in society.

Undo your biases.

For some employees with disabilities, the WFH option is not on the table. Tuman blames unconscious bias and the false idea that working from home means working less. 

“We’ve trained hiring managers on how to overcome these biases in the interview process,” says Tuman. Her company works to create supportive workplaces for individuals with disabilities and special needs and their caregivers. Tuman suggests bringing in an expert to train your hiring managers. Some suggest using AI to eliminate or reduce hiring bias. The Harvard Business Review suggests a method of grouping applicants by their qualifications so hiring managers focus on credentials rather than race. The American Bar Association has suggestions pertaining specifically to hiring bias for those with disabilities.

Appelbaum names several factors at play when an employer feels wary about hiring someone with disabilities.

“There’s a fear that it’s going to cost money and that if an employer lets someone with a disability go for any reason, that employee will sue the company,” Appelbaum says. “Of course, that’s not true. We want to be treated like any other employee with high expectations.”

Tuman encourages employers to hire within the disabilities community. 

“We have research that shows people with disabilities are more loyal in their jobs, they stay longer in their roles, and they outperform their counterparts,” she says. Last year, an American Association of People with Disabilities study of 140 companies showed that companies offering the most inclusive working environment did better than their peers.

Recognize the unforeseen benefits.

Tuman has noticed some silver linings as folks work from home. To the relief of many employees with disabilities, for instance, they don’t have to commute.

Such was the case for Bryan Bridges-Limon, who was born with a hearing impairment. As a teen, he also lost part of his leg to cancer. Switching to remote work meant more comfortable footwear for around the house, less movement around the office, and less taxing meetings. 

“On Zoom, people tend to talk one person at a time, so it’s easier for me to follow those meetings,” he says. “I can be on Zoom all day without getting tired the way I do at these in-person meetings.”

When Bridges-Limon lost his job as a digital marketing executive in April, he also found he felt more confident in job interviews conducted over video calls. He wasn’t walking into the interview room with a pronounced limp and he could more easily hear the interviewer by upping the volume on his computer. Most didn’t even notice his cochlear implant on their screen. 

“There was a lot less of that implicit bias,” he says. “It didn’t seem to play a role at all.”

In the past, he had little or no flexibility with remote work. But now, he feels more optimistic about that option going forward.

“To be honest, I would not want a permanent work-from-home situation. Part of that is because I have two kids and my husband is working from home as well,” he said. “But I would like the flexibility to work from home sometimes. I do think this will potentially carry through when all this is over.”

Doug Goist, a program manager with Workforce Development, agrees. 

“This is bringing about a complete rethinking of new employment options that can become available for the nearly 49 million Americans with disabilities, and that would be a tremendous positive to emerge from this pandemic,” he says. 

Provide for accommodations.

“Some homes may not be as customized to meet needs to allow for setting up a good space to work, which has also created problems for many,” says Kevin Hancock, an author and CEO of Hancock Lumber.

Hancock has spasmodic dysphonia, which makes it difficult to speak. He points out that others with disabilities might find it hard to communicate remotely or have trouble adapting to sudden change. 

“I hope that disabled employees feel a newfound sense of power to brainstorm ideas and become their own leader in creating change in their workplaces,” he says.

Ron Wiener is the CEO of iMovR, which sells standing desks. The company has seen a massive uptick in sales since workers began reporting from home. Wiener believes the new popularity will bolster the idea that standing desks and ergonomic workstations are a must for all employees, and especially those with physical handicaps. 

“Way back when, most employers required a note from a chiropractor for a standing desk,” he says. “Now it’s a given.”

Wiener also believes that, as problems such as back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and circulatory issues increase among sedentary office workers, employers will see the benefit of heading off these preventative issues for employees.

He says employers are footing the bill in most cases.

“At most companies, the investment in ergonomic accommodation is a ‘no brainer’ when the cost of a typical workman’s comp or OSHA claim can be $15K-$30K per incident resulting from improper ergonomics. But they’re used to thinking only of offices on their own campuses as being under their liability veil,” he says. “Now with millions of workers being ordered to work from home, that liability veil, and indeed the concern for these employees’ health and productivity, has to include home offices.”

Not long after Appelbaum began working from home in March, she asked for and received a standing desk for her home office. Her employer was happy to pay, and the desk has helped to support her right arm as she types. While she hadn’t anticipated needing one, Appelbaum says that many employees needing accommodations are well aware of the tools they’ll require and have used them for some time.

“I’ve had a few fellows with low vision who are video editors, and one showed me the free tools she used to be able to do her job and do it well,” she says. “It’s important when you’re in a position of hiring to not let your own biases influence what you think others can do.”

Learn lessons for the future.

Many people, Appelbaum points out, have had to avoid grocery stores where it can be difficult for them to social distance. But this past spring, a food stamps law that prevented users from ordering food online was updated, allowing them to purchase their food safely. (Appelbaum’s company RespectAbility helped to push for that change.)

Tuman says changes are also being made to certain benefits packages for employees with disabilities. She encourages everyone to review their current benefits packages, Family Medical Leave Act policies, and telemedicine offerings. Many changes also apply to employees caring for or homeschooling children with disabilities.

Tuman hopes that many of these changes will be here to stay. And she hopes that employers will begin to understand that working from home is a flexible alternative for all employees.

“It really opens the doors for hiring managers to hire within the disability community. It’s just a rich source of talent that’s been overlooked,” she says. “I think it’s just eye-opening for us to see that we can all work from home and be productive.” 

Appelbaum agrees. She pointed out that when a mother carrying her infant fell and died on the steps of a New York City subway last summer, the community rallied for the installation of elevators, a request many disabled commuters had repeatedly made in vain.

“This is really an example of what we call universal design. Elevators are going to work for everyone; they’re helpful for people who can’t walk up and down stairs, cyclists, or mothers with strollers,” she says. “You know, text messaging was originally designed for people who are deaf to communicate with. We need to stop thinking about these changes as accommodations and start thinking about them as universal design.”

And the sooner these changes take place, the better. Appelbaum points to a study that shows nearly 23 percent of working adults would benefit from some kind of workplace accommodation and that nearly half of the adults in need of such accommodation aren’t getting it.

“It’s my hope that employees who need work-from-home accommodations will be able to request and receive it even after the pandemic is behind us,” she says.

— Kristine Gill

Making money moves

American Airlines is hiring an Executive Assistant based in Miami, Fla. 

Bank of America is hiring an Attorney for Regulatory Inquiries based in Charlotte, North Carolina or Boston, Mass. 

Disney is hiring a Senior Financial Reporting Analyst based in Glendale, Calif. 

Facebook is hiring a Motion Designer for Instagram based in San Francisco, Calif. 

General Motors is hiring a Creative Designer for Advanced Mobility & Design based in Warren, Mich. 

Kroger is hiring a Transportation Logistics Coordinator based in Nashville, Tenn. 

McKesson is hiring an Assistant Director of Operations based in Chicago, Ill. 

Tractor Supply is hiring a Director of Loyalty Marketing based in Brentwood, Tenn. 

Verizon is hiring a Technology Auditor based in Ashburn, Va. 

Walmart is hiring a Data Scientist based in Sunnyvale, Calif. 

Events and other opportunities

Nov. 5: Women in Technology will host a Fall 2020 Job Fair virtually. 

Nov. 5-7: Harvard Medical School will host a Career Advancement and Leadership Skills for Women in Healthcare event online.

Nov. 9-12: Linkage will host a Women in Leadership Institute: Virtual Experience

Nov. 16-20: The Women of Silicon Valley's Women in Tech World Series will take place virtually.

Dec. 8: The annual Women in Negotiation Summit will be held virtually. The daylong event empowers women through negotiation-skills building.

March 2021: Florida International University will host the Power Up Women's Leadership Conference. Location TBD.

Sept. 24-25, 2021: The Women in Medicine Summit is scheduled to take place. Location TBD. 

Want to share a hiring or networking opportunity from your organization or elsewhere, or just have feedback about The Broadside? Email Kristine Gill.