When Non-Disabled People Get Accommodations, Who Benefits? Things to Think About as We Work Remotely

By Carrie Basas and Erin Okuno


Laptop on white background with text: Disability Justice Things to Think About As We Work Remotely

Settle in folx, this is a long post, filled with a lot of important information. Read it, then file it so you can refer back to the tips in it as needed over the next few weeks of COVID19 stay-at-home mandates continue.

Many people across the country and globe are now working remotely. Organizations such as ours are working from home to limit the spread of COVID19. Carrie’s team has telecommuted for three years. Almost overnight, we’ve seen other organizations move to Zoom video meetings, conference calls, webinars, Facebook Live, and other tools to replace in-person meetings and to allow for social distancing (everyone stay at home).

What has been as an unreasonable accommodation for disabled people is now a reasonable accommodation for non-disabled people as stay at home orders are mandated and people juggle students out of school, wellness needs, and retaining their income. Are we all in this together now– disabled and non-disabled people thriving and embracing new flexibility for now and potentially after we’ve emerged from our COVID19 bunkers? With these changes, we must keep access justice centered for disabled people while also recognizing the mobile work is a privilege still for many disabled and nondisabled people, particularly those in underpaid roles.

Disabled people, now thirty years after the Americans with Disabilities Act, are largely unemployed and living at or below the poverty line. Less than 21% of disabled people are engaged in paid work compared to almost 70% of nondisabled people. This experience is compounded for multiply marginalized and oppressed disabled people, such as those who are BIPOC, LGBTQ, migrant, immigrant, or refugee. Stigma, social isolation, transportation inaccessibility, undereducation of disabled students, and other factors have prevented economic stability for disabled people. For many of them, workplace flexibility is a way to mitigate societal access barriers while preserving energy, attending to healthcare needs, and sharing their talents, yet employers have long feared diminished productivity and loss of control. For too long denying access to working remotely has been a gatekeeper to keep disabled people from being hired or retained. When the world returns to more “normality,” we have to ask ourselves what will we learn and what groundwork are we laying to include people with disabilities in the workforce, and how can we all be allies in working towards disability justice and equity.

In moving into this flexibility for nondisabled people, we need to recognize the ways in which our actions include or exclude disabled people. This list is not an exhaustive list; it is structured by disability categories, but many disabled people have multiple health and access needs. The considerations below aren’t just for COVID19 responses. They should become our new practices. We also note, many of these accommodations rely on technology and internet connectivity. The burdens of acquiring these tools should be on the employer, not the individual.

Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HOH) Access

Video calls, Facebook Live, and other online meeting spaces are often not accessible to Deaf and often HOH people. Deaf people who have American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters with them in their physical workspaces might not have the same support now while working from home, for example.

What can you do to hire ASL interpreters or provide remote real-time captioning (called remote CART)? Have you encouraged people to speak clearly and keep their faces visible so that others can see their expressions to increase understanding and access? Please also remember some HOH people, especially elders feeling the stigma of ageism, are not out (haven’t shared/disclosed) at work about their access needs. They might sit closer to the presenter when gathered in a physical space but now, that’s an impossible form of self-accommodation. For these online meetings, be sure to remove as many background sounds as possible by asking people to mute themselves. If a cute baby or puppy crosses the screen, take a break to acknowledge that moment of happiness but get the others typing during meetings to mute themselves. And remember that everyone should be using a mic. If people on your team need headphones to hear, offer to place an order and have it shipped to their house.

What about those amazing videos you are creating now? Make sure you are captioning them, too. Don’t rely on YouTube’s captions or PowerPoint’s new features. Both are often laughable at best. Captioning isn’t that expensive. It can be as cheap as $1/minute to hire a professional. Just Google away or ask us offline for folks we’ve used; we aren’t getting kickbacks from referrals. The same access goes for providing transcripts of your podcasts. While your desire to do captions or transcripts in-house comes from a good place, remember that it takes a lot of time if you’re not trained in it, which means that you might end up generating something with lots of mistakes or not doing it at all.

I’m [Erin] guilty of this. As my organization moved to online meetings, I’ve had to take a crash course on how to get our recordings online and captioned. Carrie and my (Erin) staff helped us figure it out. It wasn’t hard but it did take staff time. Mindy, on my team, took the time to figure it out. She authenticated our YouTube account and fixed the captioning. Next time we’ll use a remote CART service for captioning. Dedicate staff time and money to this, pay for what matters. As an example, since we’re not meeting in person right now our food budget will be unspent, I’ll be making the case to our funders to reallocate dollars toward this and other needs now.

Blind or Low Vision Access

People with vision impairments need access, too. As presentations are moving online please keep in mind sensory and vision access. Recently, Erin checked in with a colleague who is visually impaired. I (Erin) asked if there was anything we could do as we plan for an upcoming online presentation. She said, “Today’s slide deck [referencing a call we had been on] were great. I thought, did they know I was coming? LOL.” This was a good reminder to me to use big simple fonts, uncluttered backgrounds, contrasting colors for graphs and slides.

PowerPoint has accessible templates and an accessibility checker to help you improve your practices such as by providing alt text and image descriptions. Remember to share slides in advance. Some Blind or low vision folks prefer to receive a document that just has the slide text rather than the whole PowerPoint. As with any access need, ask and be open. Many people, especially people with communication, processing, or sensory needs, appreciate time to preview the material.

Make sure that you are audio-describing your slides. Rather than whizzing past the funny picture of a wall of canned goods in the background– to which everyone else on the team laughs– narrate what images look like with enough detail to give Blind or low vision people the same experience as people who can see it. The same goes for your pre-recorded videos. If you’d like to watch examples of videos with audio description and captioning, check out these student storytelling videos.

Physical Access

Disabled people with mobility impairments or other physical access needs due to pain, chronic conditions, autoimmune disorders, and other experiences might appreciate being able to set up their home workspace to be more comfortable, but they also might be missing vital software such as voice dictation (also valuable to other disabled people, such as Blind folks, and nondisabled people), ergonomic chairs and desks, personal care attendants, and office support for physical tasks that they are now trying to perform at home. They, like other disabled people, might be stuck inside and concerned about safe access to groceries, pharmacies, and transportation.

Remember, too, that this time is especially fatiguing. Rather than swinging toward a culture of enforced hyper-productivity, acknowledge that now more than ever, disabled and nondisabled people need breaks. Provide breathing room and see what equipment or other assistance you can move from the physical office space to home.

Mental Health Access

Individual and collective mental health are challenged more than ever yet most workplaces still stigmatize mental health. Employees who were unable to share their experiences before this crisis are not more likely to seek support now if others are talking about “how crazy” they are feeling or “worrying about going postal” without social contact. Open the windows and doors to employee assistance programs, low-cost community-based and culturally responsive mental health services (with more needed), flexible scheduling to accommodate teletherapy or other supports such as pharmacy visits, and welcoming conversations about how employees are seen and valued for all that they bring. What we can learn is that there is no “normal” right now and that it is not a productive concept before or after this crisis. Rather, our emotional well-being is just as important as our physical health.

Also, provide flextime to allow people to take care of their mental health. Employees may need to shift appointments (e.g. therapist, support groups, etc.) due to COVID19 and social distancing. Many have had to reschedule or reorganize to keep providing services but through social distancing.

Cognitive Access

For disabled people with developmental or intellectual disabilities, training programs, job coaches, and other supports might not be available at this time– making them even more financially precarious. Others working in lower-paid hourly jobs such as grocery stores, cleaning, hospitals, and hospitality are at the front lines of exposure to COVID19. As organizations, we have opportunities to ensure that our communications are clear and reach all members of our communities– from disabled people to linguistically diverse communities. How do your processes respect individual choice and decision-making when others process information differently?

Realize that disabled people welcome you to this wonderful world of accommodations but many of us are struggling with feeling vulnerable, especially as others hoard food and medical supplies and we read articles about how doctors are ranking the value of lives to give treatment to the most healthy and valued— which means non-disabled, working, and younger. The social isolation that we felt before is magnified as public transportation becomes risky, doctors cancel appointments, and friends stop visiting for good reasons. We are staying home not just for us but also because we know how intertwined and interdependent we all are. Now, nondisabled people have opportunities to learn new ways of supporting people at work. When we are all able to dust off our desks and refresh the office snacks, hold onto what it meant to have your needs met at work– and keep extending that grace toward others.


Rooted in Rights’ Resources:

Guest blogger: Carrie Basas works in education advocacy and formerly in civil rights law, specializing in disabilities rights. Formerly she was a law professor impressing upon law students the importance of understanding race and its impact on people. Carrie has a MEd in Education Policy, Organizations and Leadership from the University of Washington. She earned a Juris Doctorate from Harvard Law School and an Honors B.A. in Psychology with a minor in Sociology/Anthropology from Swarthmore College. However, her biggest claim to fame is her fashion weekend wear while hanging with her family and dog.

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