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by Rosemary Musachio, SSB Accessibility Analyst

Before the 1990’s, many persons with disabilities who wanted to work could not because employers did not provide reasonable accommodations. With the advent of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), however, companies were required to accommodate employees with special needs. It requires employers to make the workplace more accessible physically. For instance, if Company A hires a person in a wheelchair, it may have to raise a desk or install a ramp to a filing area. Company B who employs a person with vision impairments may need to invest in screen reader software and a Braille embosser. Employers must also be flexible with work schedules if the employee with a disability needs to go to the doctor or other medical-related appointment.

The ADA also can require employers to provide voluntary or paid personal care attendants (PCA) to help employees who are quadripalegic with eating, going to the bathroom, and conducting manual office activities. If employees cannot afford to pay for PCA, Medicaid and state rehabilitation services can offer the necessary funding.

With all the employment accommodations that the ADA stipulates, many persons with disabilities still work from home, either by choice or uncontrollable circumstances. In fact, telecommuting can be a “reasonable accommodation” according to the ADA. If a qualified person cannot go to the worksite to perform duties because of an impairment, the employer should allow him to work at home. According to a 2007 WorkatWork survey, 12.4 million Americans worked at home. An estimated 20% of those have some type of disability.

Reasons to Telecommute
Although PCA can be provided at the workplace, getting it at home can be more convenient since family members already may be caring for the employee with the disability. The burden of paying for PCA, therefore, is lifted off the employer. Furthermore, the employee may feel more comfortable having some personal care needs met at home. For example, if he has a tracheal tube or another type of catheter, cleaning it can be done more discretely in the home environment.
Lack of accessible, affordable transportation is another reason that some persons with disabilities choose telecommuting. A lift-equipped van can cost from $20,000 to $70,000. Like funding with PCA, state rehab and Social Security programs can help finance specialized vehicles, but qualifying for such programs means the person must earn a low income and wait a long time for the funding to materialize.

An alternative to expensive accessible vans is Paratransit, which is door-to-door transportation provided by regional transit systems. While this form of transportation is very affordable ($5.oo a round trip on the average), it can be inconvenient or unreliable. Many Paratransits have a 40-minute window and a 5-minute waiting period. If nature calls while someone waits for the bus, the driver may not be able to wait until it hangs up. Even if the customer is perfectly synchronized with the bus arrival, the driver may have to pick up or drop off other passengers all the way, which makes the person late to work or very tired by the time he gets home.

More persons with (and without) disabilities are also opting for telecommuting to seize job opportunities in a different city, state, or country other than their own. Thanks to broadband Internet, iPhones, iPads, and other advanced technologies, relocation is not an obstacle anymore to the ideal job position. Practically any job function can be performed offsite. An associate in Ohio, for example, can give a presentation to a client in California via videoconferencing. If the presenter cannot speak due to a disability, she can use instant messaging or a chat application to communicate. Associates who live three thousand miles apart can work on a project together through their company’s Intranet system. Like any other software or web application, Intranets must be accessible so any employee can use them.

Another benefit of telecommuting is reduced stress. Numerous studies have shown that lower stress leads to higher productivity. When the boss is near an employee while he is doing work, pressure culminates and he may lose concentration. When the employee has a disability, stress can make a greater impact. An associate with cerebral palsy, for example, may become more spastic, which causes her to slow down and make mistakes. When persons work from home, they are more relaxed. They do not have anyone looking over their shoulder. They can dress however they want and sit whereever they want. They can even listen to music while they are working. With a more relaxed body and clearer mind, work flows easier.

Potential Drawbacks
While working from home can be the key to employment for many persons with and without disabilities, it can also have drawbacks. Isolation is a major disadvantage of telecommuting. Telecommuters cannot socialize with their associates around the water cooler or at lunch. Consequently, the telecommuter may not feel like a team member, and his colleagues may not consider him as one. Frequent phone and video conferences can facilitate interactions between at-home and on-site colleagues. Before discussing business issues, employees could tell a little about themselves or the highlight of their weekend. To make telecommuters feel less lonely, they can also use instant messaging to communicate with associates while they work.

Besides feeling isolated, people who work from home can become distracted easily. A million occurrences can divert attention from work. The cat walks on the keyboard. The doorbell rings; it’s the UPS guy with a package. Then a girlfriend calls saying she will come in fifteen minutes. To try to avoid distractions, the telecommuter must tell everyone that he cannot be disturbed during work hours. He should answer personal calls and receive visitors before or after work. If possible, a room with a closable door should be dedicated to a home office only.

Here to Stay
With rapid technological advances, high fuel prices and a larger workforce of baby boomers, the concept of telecommuting will not disappear. According to Forrester Research, sixty-three million Americans will work from home by 2016. As more companies establish telecommuting programs, job opportunities for persons with disabilities will skyrocket, reinforcing the fact they are a productive sector of society.