Melissa Turner left her job as a document control administrator late last year after receiving a pudendal neuralgia diagnosis. Pudendal neuralgia, a little-known condition resulting from injury to the pelvic nerves, happens to women and men (most often from childbirth and bicycle injuries). The majority of people with this condition cannot sit or walk without encountering severe pain. Turner’s job required spending a significant amount of time walking in a large office building, gathering papers from multiple printers, and it was too painful for her to continue. “My work was too stressful and exacerbated my PN. … I do not think I will be able to return,” she said.
Turner now seeks a position where she can do administrative work from home on a phone and laptop, preferably while reclining. “I’m trying to find something that fits the new me,” she said. She is one of many people with disabilities—in her case an invisible disability (one that can’t be seen immediately on the body)—struggling to find work that matches her skill set and abilities.
America has a jobs mismatch problem. As official unemployment numbers fall, more businesses claim to have trouble filling the jobs they’ve got open. Simultaneously, a large population of people categorized as disabled who are skilled and seeking work are unable to find employment. We have an incredible untapped workforce, millions of people with disabilities, many of whom need only minimal accommodations in order to perform well in an office or other workplace—accommodations that should be easy to provide in the digital age, with the wide range of solutions available.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly 19 percent of the population—more than 56 million people—qualify as disabled. This can include hearing, vision, cognition, mobility, or other self-care limitations, such as difficulty dressing or bathing. Among Americans ages 18 to 34, 6 percent are disabled, and in those ages 35 to 64, 16 percent are disabled. Of those who are disabled, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 17.5 percent of disabled people age 16 and above were employed as of 2015. Not all disabled people can or should be expected to work. But it is unclear what percentage of disabled people could work based on available data on types of disabilities, severity of those disabilities, and existing skill sets, if the right job and accommodations were available.
A common refrain tends to be that hiring disabled people is a burden to companies, that it is too costly to pay for necessary adaptations. A CPRF study found that “A discrepancy exists between employers’ willingness to hire persons with disabilities and actual hiring practices. That is, while most employers say they are willing to hire PWDs [people with disabilities], employment statistics suggest that their behavior is not consistent with their attitudes.”
Even as diversity and inclusion programs become more commonplace, most organizations have not made significant progress when it comes to providing opportunities for disabled individuals. Sometimes they claim accommodations are too costly, even though some accommodations—like working from home—can actually save companies significantly. According to the “2017 State of Telecommuting in the U.S. Employee Workforce” study by Global Workplace Analytics and FlexJobs, “if the telecommuting workforce expanded to include those who could and wanted to work from home, the potential employer savings could approach $690 million a year.”
How do we resolve this mismatch? According to EARN, the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion, “The key is to ensure doors are open—literally and figuratively—to all qualified individuals, including people with disabilities.” The truth is, opening the doors is easier than most people would imagine.
First, companies need to change their internal cultures, and though this can often sound like an enormous task, it begins with a few basic steps. The most critical—cultural change requires an attitude shift—away from fear of potential costs or unknown burdens, toward opportunity and inclusion. Talented people can come from anywhere: A blind man hired to work on product design might discover new ways to improve products others would not, because of the different way he interacts with the world. When companies open their cultures to include disabled people, everybody can win.
As attitudes change, so should some standard processes that can unwittingly keep disabled workers out of the jobs they’re suited for. When screening potential interviewees, hiring managers can conduct phone-based and remote interviews to avoid letting physical presence become an advantage and make skills assessments a standard part of the process to reduce potential for bias. Managers and executives need to be able to look past their own unconscious biases, promote trainings to combat that problem systemically, and put in place policies to encourage and incentivize employees to come up with creative solutions to problems, rather than to work in the same old ways.
Companies can and should test different aspects of workplace flexibility and measure their results. Workplace flexibility can mean altered schedules, working from home, part-time work, or job sharing, all of which can be important not only to employees with disabilities but to all of their workers.
Beyond culture change, there’s technology. There are a number of new and not so new technologies companies can integrate, for little money, that will go a long way to making their workplaces more accessible. Assistive technologies, also known as adaptive tech, are just that: any technologies that adapt the workplace for the worker—automatic powered sit-stand desks, Braille displays, text-to-speech software, voice recognition systems, screen magnification, and various mobile devices, for example. And by employing technologies like Skype and Slack for remote collaboration, we can easily bring teams closer together, regardless of their abilities or locations.
A U.K. Parliament report published in April by the Work and Pensions Committee concluded that assistive technology “could have a transformative impact on the disability employment gap and is, in turn, a huge opportunity to boost productivity.” Furthermore, they write, “It has vast untapped potential.”
The Arc San Francisco, an organization that supports individuals with developmental disabilities, emphasizes the importance of mobile devices for their work. “Smartphones and tablets have been revolutionary for our working clients and the companies for whom they work. For example, if you are someone who is more of a visual learner, a long verbal list of your job tasks is going to be a problem. But keeping the list on your smartphone or company tablet where it’s always handy? That easy reference saves time and ensures an employee takes care of his/her responsibilities,” says Meredith Manning, director of communications.
In most workplaces, these kinds of solutions are only rarely considered, and for employees who have put in several years of work first, proving their value. People with disabilities who apply to jobs often aren’t even considered an option, and it’s all too easy to come up with reasons why their needs are not “reasonable accommodations.” And in the case of pregnant women or an employee with a long-term illness like cancer who qualifies for extended leave or a medical leave of absence, the expectation continues to be that when the employee comes back to work, it will be under the same circumstances as before—full time, in-office, with long hours. But that’s not always a reasonable expectation.
In most cases, the onus is on the disabled person to ask for an accommodation that is personal in nature. We need a system that removes the burden from the employees or potential employees, making them feel comfortable asking for what is needed, and not feeling like an accommodation request must come in lieu of an equitable salary, for example.
Virgin Media has recently taken on many of these problems, addressing culture and technology at the same time. Through “Work With Me,” a three-year initiative partnering with the U.K.-based organization Scope, Virgin is combining technology and outreach to “challenge the attitudes and discrimination disabled people can face throughout the recruitment process by focusing on tackling the barriers disabled people face getting into, and staying in, work.”
According to a Virgin Media spokesman, their goal is to “help a million disabled people get in and stay in work by the end of 2020.” To do that, Virgin Media is providing resources for disabled people, reaching out to other U.K. businesses, and advocating for policy changes. “Virgin Media and Scope are engaging with the U.K. government to ensure action is taken to close the disability employment gap (the difference between the employment rates of disabled and non-disabled people) which is stuck at around 30 percentage points and has been for more than a decade.”
These changes won’t happen overnight. In order to succeed, companies should open up the option for working from home to a larger group of employees. If working from home is the norm, not an exception, the stigma about it for disabled workers is no longer a barrier. And when employees see adapted workstations throughout their office, it becomes a regular part of everyone’s day.
Modern technology has caught up with our population and its varied abilities. We no longer have the excuse that the workplace can’t make reasonable accommodations for most people, if companies are willing to put a little time into testing the solutions. With minimal technology adjustments and leadership focused on changing our work culture, the problem can be solved, and our society can profit and thrive from it.