How Remote Work Impacts Employees With Disabilities

Remote work does more than save money.

“Just getting off of a bus, I stepped out into a pothole because I wasn't able to navigate the whole walking thing well, and I ended up breaking my ankle.”

Matthew Ramir is a senior developer at Bounteous, a digital consultancy, who lives with cerebral palsy. This story is from a time he was injured commuting to a former employer's office—one of several times he says similar falls happened.

For Ramir and the millions of professionals who have disabilities that make commuting difficult, or even dangerous, remote work isn’t just a perk. It’s something that fundamentally changes their relationship to work.

Remote work is the future, for a numbers of economic reasons. But lost in the excitement about nomadic lifestyles and leaner startups is the impact remote work can have on one of the most underserved groups of people.

How commuting impedes employees with disabilities

Commuting, when a disability affects your mobility, is a serious obstacle. “When I used to work in the West Loop (of downtown Chicago), the walk from the train station to the office was about two blocks, and it was just a sheet of ice,” Ramir shares. “I got into the habit of actually having to use a cane to navigate and to give me that stability because there were a couple times where I fell and got injured.”

With his trademark sense of humor, Ramir adds, “and I didn't really appreciate that.”

Even on days without falls, Ramir describes his bus ride into the office as arduous. “I'm kind of on this borderline where I appear to be physically able, but there's a lot of challenges with balance and just walking in general. I don't always feel comfortable asking someone for a seat.” As a result, he would often find himself standing “for a 20- or 30-minute bus ride, and that takes a lot of physical toll on your body. And then on those days where I got up enough courage to ask someone for a seat, it just felt really awkward.”

For people whose disabilities make commuting difficult, getting into the office can feel like its own day of work. “Having a spinal cord injury for 38 years,” says Pat Maher, director of civic engagement at Chicago digital agency SPR, “I have to be up earlier than most people just to get ready for the day.”

In this traditional office-centric model of work, every day of work presents unnecessary stress to people with disabilities–stress that remote work can go a long way in alleviating.

How remote jobs helps people with disabilities work

“Being able to work from home is a huge stress relief,” Ramir says. “It gives me a lot of confidence that I'm able to function as a normal employee and be able to navigate the workplace with that disability.”

This gets at the heart of the issue. Remote work is more than just a perk for high-performing teams. It’s fundamental to making work accessible.

Remote work also tends to go hand-in-hand with flexible hours. “As long as I'm accomplishing work, time is truly not an issue,” Ramir explains. “One of the nice things about being in the tech culture is that you have flexibility. You don't need to be face-to-face with everyone within a certain amount of hours.”

For people with certain disabilities, this flexibility is impactful. “There are certain things I need to take care of in regards to my disability, like going to physical therapy and going to other types of therapies,” he adds. “(With remote work) I really have the flexibility to take an hour during the day to go do that and then come back and work a little bit later or start a little bit earlier.”

Remote work, fundamentally, makes work less disruptive. It doesn’t require you to be at designated places on a rigid schedule. It lets you define your workspace, and, to a certain extent, your working hours. For employees with disabilities, removing this disruption goes a long way toward making work productive, enjoyable, and it some cases, even possible.

Remote work makes tech more accessible

Pat Maher is also the founder and co-host, along with Microsoft's Adam Hecktman, of ITKAN, a networking event—open to people with and without disabilities—where speakers from cutting-edge areas of tech—machine learning, VR, and more—present on developments in their areas of focus. Through his work at ITKAN, he has seen a continuous stream of “members who have either secured their first opportunity in tech, transitioned successfully in tech, or gone back to school, etc. based on their active membership/participation in ITKAN.”

He is also a supporter of remote work policies, having seen the benefit of remote work in his own life. “For me, (remote work) has been a productivity tool” he says. “While I drive a van, (with remote work) I’m not fighting traffic just for the sake of being in the office. I’m far more productive remote, as are many people.”

While offering a remote work policy isn’t a total solution to making work more accommodating to people with disabilities, it is a very impactful first step. As remote working tools continue to get better, companies will adopt remote policies at an even faster pace than we’re seeing now.

There are clear business incentives for transitioning to remote teams—less office space overhead, employing people in lower cost of living areas—but remote work impacts more than just the bottom line. Remote work makes work more accessible for one of the most underserved groups of people in America, and by so doing, goes a long way in helping diversify tech.

If you're interested in considering remote-work opportunities, thousands of companies are open to offering them.

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