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Remote work opened some doors to workers with disabilities. But others remain shut

For people with disabilities, the increasingly permanent shift to remote work in some industries has been a pandemic perk.

More organizations are now offering workplace accommodations, according to a survey by researchers from the University of New Hampshire's Institute on Disability and the Kessler Foundation, a U.S. charity supporting people with disabilities. That's largely because employers have been made to confront another new normal: an influx of workers experiencing lasting health issues associated with COVID-19.

"Our community is growing exponentially from long COVID," said Jill King, a disability rights advocate who is disabled. "More people are needing [accommodations] as well as asking for them."

Researchers collected online responses from supervisors working in companies with at least 15 employees from May 11 through June 25. The survey sought to assess how employment practices — including recruiting, hiring and retaining workers — have changed over the past five years for people with disabilities and overall.

Among nearly 3,800 supervisors surveyed, 16.9% said they had a disability, said Andrew Houtenville, a professor at the University of New Hampshire and the report's lead author.

Forty percent of respondents said they had supervised someone with lasting physical or mental challenges associated with COVID-19. And 78% of supervisors said their workplace established or changed the way they provide accommodations because of challenges created by the pandemic.

"That whole issue drove firms to think more carefully and revise their accommodations policies and practices to be more formal," said Houtenville.

For King, 21, who became legally blind earlier this year and has experienced chronic pain since the end of high school, the formalization of workplace accommodations helped ease the process of requesting a remote option from her boss. She said she's also had more access to larger print sources at her job.

King said she would have had a much harder time navigating accommodations such as flexible hours and transportation services if she experienced going blind before the pandemic. "COVID kind of already opened up the door," she said.

King is a student at Georgia Southern University, and she works two on-campus jobs: as a writing tutor and as a research assistant. She said that while the Americans with Disabilities Act requires organizations — including schools and companies — to provide "reasonable accommodations," the language isn't as explicit when it comes to the workplace.

"Reasonable is defined by my boss," said King.

Meanwhile, nearly half of supervisors across the United States say the COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative effect on their workplace, according to the survey. Plus, when asked about upper management, supervisors said their bosses were less committed to fulfilling accommodations requests.

"There's an entire hidden army of disabled people who refuse to reveal that they have hidden disabilities in the office," said Ola Ojewumi, who is the founder of education nonprofit Project Ascend and is a disability rights activist.

"Adaptive technology that disabled people need to work from home is not being sent by their companies or their employers," said Ojewumi.

Thirty-two percent of supervisors said employing people with disabilities was "very important," up from 22% of respondents in 2017. (About half of supervisors said employing people with disabilities was "somewhat important" in both 2022 and 2017.)

"The pandemic was devastating for our community, but it's had some weird accessibility pluses in the midst of that," said King.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Yang
Mary Yang is an intern on the Business Desk where she covers technology, media, labor and the economy. She comes to NPR from Foreign Policy where she covered the beginning of Russia's war in Ukraine and built a beat on Southeast Asia, Asia and the Pacific Islands.