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Disabled people have been demanding remote work for decades. Here’s what happened when the pandemic made it possible

January 3, 2023, 6:09 PM UTC
Employment rates for workers with disabilities have increased due to the availability of remote work and a tight labor market.
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A new study by the Economic Innovation Group think tank has found that the employment rate for people with disabilities did not simply reach the pre-pandemic level by mid-2022, but rose far past it to the highest rate in over a decade. Remote work, combined with a tight labor market, explains this high rate, according to the analysis.

These findings prove that providing accommodations for people with disabilities may not require the kind of extra investment that leaders previously thought was needed. In fact, these accommodations might not involve much besides full-time remote work.

A bit of history: Employment rates among people with disabilities dropped, along with the rest of the labor market, early in the pandemic. However, they recovered quickly. People with disabilities aged 25 to 54, the prime working age, were 3.5 percentage points more likely to be employed in Q2 2022 than they were pre-pandemic. What about non-disabled individuals? They are still 1.1 percentage points less likely to be employed!

That means the labor market recovery for those with disabilities was substantially faster than for those without disabilities. We know that those with disabilities and those without faced similar market conditions. Thus, remote work appears to offer the major differentiator that enabled workers with disabilities to be productive.

These statistics align with long-held expert views. For example, according to Thomas Foley, the executive director of the National Disability Institute (NDI), workers with disabilities had been asking to work remotely for decades before the pandemic and had consistently heard companies say “no.” During the pandemic, he said that when “we all realized that… many of us could work remotely… that was disproportionately positive for people with disabilities.”

The benefits of remote work for people with disabilities bear particular relevance due to the impact of long COVID. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention reports that about 19% of those who had COVID developed long COVID. Recent Census Bureau data indicates that 16 million working-age Americans suffer from it, with economic costs reaching $3.7 trillion according to a recent estimate.

Certainly, many of these so-called long-haulers experience relatively mild symptoms (such as loss of a sense of smell) which, while troublesome, are not disabling. But others experience symptoms serious enough that they have become disabled.

According to a recent study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, about a quarter of those with long COVID changed their employment status or working hours. That means long COVID was serious enough to interfere with work for 4 million people. For many, this interference was serious enough to qualify them as disabled.

In a recent study, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that the number of disabled individuals in the U.S. grew by 1.7 million. That growth stemmed mainly from long COVID conditions such as fatigue and brain fog, meaning difficulties with concentration or memory, with 1.3 million people reporting an increase in brain fog since mid-2020.

Many had to drop out of the labor force due to the intensity of their long COVID. Yet about 900,000 newly disabled people have been able to continue working. Without remote work, they might not have.

In fact, the author of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York study notes that long COVID can be considered a disability under the Americans with Disability Act, depending on the specifics of the condition. That means the law can require private employers with fifteen or more staff, as well as government agencies, to make reasonable accommodations for those with long COVID. The author notes that “telework and flexible scheduling are two accommodations that can be particularly beneficial for workers dealing with fatigue and brain fog.”

In its efforts to adapt to the pandemic, Meta Platforms, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, decided to offer fully remote work options to its current employees and new job applicants. And according to Meta chief diversity officer Maxine Williams, the candidates who accepted job offers for remote positions were “substantially more likely” to come from diverse communities: people with disabilities, Black, Hispanic, Alaskan Native, Native American, veterans, and women. The numbers bear out these claims: people with disabilities increased from 4.7% to 6.2% of Meta’s employees from mid-2019 to mid-2022.

I have consulted for 21 companies to help them transition to hybrid work arrangements. The more my clients proved willing to offer remote work, the more disabled staff they recruited and retained. That also includes employees with invisible disabilities, such as immunocompromised people who feel reluctant to put themselves at risk of getting COVID by coming into the office.

Unfortunately, many leaders fail to see the benefits of remote work for underrepresented groups, such as those with disabilities. JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon even claimed that returning to the office will aid diversity.

This opposition stems from a mental blindspot called the in-group bias. Our minds tend to favor and pay attention to the concerns of those we perceive to be part of our “in-group.” Executives who don’t perceive people with disabilities to be part of their in-group are blind to their concerns.

This, combined with the empathy gap–difficulty empathizing with those who aren’t part of our group–causes executives to ignore the feelings of disabled employees and prospective hires. And due to omission bias (a dangerous judgment error that causes us to perceive failure to act as less problematic than acting), executives perceive a failure to support the needs and interests of those with disabilities as a minor matter.

The failure to empower people with disabilities will prove costly to the bottom lines of companies that don’t offer remote work options. They are reducing their talent pool by 15% and harming their ability to recruit and retain diverse candidates. And as their lawyers and HR departments will tell them, they are putting themselves in legal jeopardy for potentially violating the ADA.

By contrast, companies that offer remote work opportunities are seizing a competitive advantage by recruiting these underrepresented candidates and expanding their talent pool by 15%. They’re lowering costs of labor while increasing diversity. The future belongs to the savvy companies that offer the flexibility that disabled people need.

Gleb Tsipursky, Ph.D., helps executives use hybrid work to improve retention and productivity while cutting costs. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. He is the best-selling author of seven books, including Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox and over 15 years in academia as a cognitive scientist at UNC-Chapel Hill and Ohio State.

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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