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Thought Leadership: Leveling the playing field through remote work

This opinion piece was written by Rutgers Business School professors Mason Ameri and Terri R. Kurtzberg. It was originally published in the MIT Sloan Management Review.

The employment experience of working-age people with disabilities can only be described as challenging, complicated by countless barriers to accessibility and performance. Getting a job offer at all is a tall task. Employment rates for those with disabilities are roughly only one-third those for similar working-age individuals. 1 From the first interview, candidates are faced with a challenging decision: Is it better to disclose one’s disability and need for accommodations during the interview (and if so, at what point in the process) or hold back until after accepting the job offer? 2 Legislation like the Americans With Disabilities Act has tried to create obligatory protections, but as the current employment rates show, it’s not a perfect solution. The law also leaves many areas open to interpretation, given that the accommodations requested must be considered “reasonable” and not cause undue hardship for the employer.

Before the pandemic, employers largely maintained that remote work was too cumbersome to allow, with some expressing concerns that individualized accommodations could be perceived as unfair to others. Working from home was rarely offered as an accommodation unless legally protected disabilities were documented. But the global experiment of working from home, launched by COVID-19 nearly two years ago, changed that: Suddenly, everyone got sent home to work from whatever nook or cranny they could carve out, and heaven and earth got moved to make remote work work. This shift to widespread remote work effectively leveled the playing field for some. People with mobility issues, for example, had the same chance to work as their nondisabled counterparts without having to face their usual hardships, such as having to arrive at the train station by 6 a.m. to access one of the few designated parking spots, or having to move on to another station if the elevator was broken.

As more businesses look to a future in which decisions aren’t dictated by a pandemic, is working from home truly an accommodation, a “nice-to-have” perk, or a basic requirement for a fully functional employment landscape? Now that the dam’s been cracked, there’s no patching that hole. Employment is evolving, and not just for those with disabilities. Employers need to take note of a few considerations in figuring out when and how to navigate these changes.

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