Federal data shows that the number of people with disabilities finding employment is increasing. Disability advocates credit the rise in remote work.
In October, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' monthly report on employment revealed that about 5.7 million disabled individuals ages 16 to 64 were employed the previous month. This represents a jump of about 500,000 jobs compared with September 2021.
"The rising employment numbers for people with disabilities is an extremely positive, encouraging sign that will hopefully continue," said Amy E. Scherer, senior staff attorney for vocational rehabilitation with the National Disability Rights Network. "The subsequent labor shortage in the wake of the [COVID-19] pandemic has also likely had an impact."
The number of employed workers with disabilities has drastically increased since February 2021, when just 4.2 million people with disabilities had jobs. In April 2020, when lockdowns were in effect to combat the pandemic, just 3.7 million disabled individuals were employed.
The labor force participation rate of people with disabilities, or the share of the population working or looking for work, was about 37 percent in August 2022, according to an analysis by the Kessler Foundation and the University of New Hampshire. This is about a 5 percent increase compared with April 2020.
Remote work has shown to be an accessible option for people with disabilities and has helped them find and maintain employment, according to Josh Basile, a Maryland-based lawyer and community relations manager for accessiBe, a Web-based accessibility hub.
"There is no hiding the fact that thanks to the pandemic, remote work played a key role in the rising statistics of workers with disabilities," Basile said. "Remote work is a great reasonable accommodation for both workers with and without disabilities."
How Do Disabled Workers View Return-to-Office Mandates?
Basile has lived with quadriplegia since 2004, when he experienced a severe spinal cord injury while on vacation that left him paralyzed below the shoulders. He relies on computers, assistive technology and the Internet to perform daily life tasks and many job responsibilities.
He says remote work has allowed him and others with disabilities to avoid stressful obstacles that come with commuting.
"Unreliable transportation to and from work creates major barriers and unnecessary loss of time," Basile said. "The bottom line is that remote work works and it helps people with disabilities to work at their highest levels by creating a more barrier-free environment."
For years, people with physical disabilities have had trouble maintaining jobs due to difficulties traveling to the office, Scherer noted. But remote work has given these workers a chance to secure employment, particularly in rural areas that lack public transportation.
"Remote work can also be advantageous for individuals with disabilities who have stamina issues," she said. "For example, it may be easier for remote workers to take short breaks or briefly step away from their workspace when working remotely."
A Harvard University blog cited reports showing that employees with and without disabilities who work remotely have shown to be more productive. They also prefer remote work for its flexibility, work/life balance and savings in commuting expenses.
Many employers offer remote work to boost employee morale and increase employee recruitment and retention. But some employers are requiring all employees to return to the office for work. A September 2022 article by The Wall Street Journal found that workers are returning to U.S. offices at the highest rate since the pandemic began.
Remote Work Provides Flexibility
Employers that are asking workers to return to the office can both positively and negatively impact workers with disabilities, Basile said. It depends on the worker, the industry, the business and any existing barriers.
"This should be looked at on a case-by-case basis," Basile explained. "For some, this could be detrimental and to others, it could be for the best. Not all workers with disabilities want to work remotely. Many, like myself, do prefer working from home or through a hybrid approach."
Scherer said having a disability does not entitle these employees to work remotely indefinitely. But if the remote setup proves effective for them, remote work could be considered a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
She implored companies to offer workplace flexibility to all employees, particularly those with disabilities.
"Each person's individual, specific circumstances would need to be examined to see if such an accommodation would be appropriate," she said. "Hopefully, though, the pandemic has helped many employers to realize that coming to an office building each and every day is not necessarily the key to having productive employees."