How To Support Disabled Employees That Are Working Remotely | Disabled Person

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How To Support Disabled Employees That Are Working Remotely 

A 2022 survey by The Work Foundation found that 85% of disabled workers feel more productive when working from home, while 70% of those surveyed believe their health would be negatively impacted if they were denied the flexibility to work remotely.

As we emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses — and their employees — began to embrace remote working as a standard, rather than simply a temporary solution to national lockdowns. Nowadays, around 1 in 6 global companies operate fully remotely, with no physical work premises at all.

But how does remote working impact workers with disabilities? Theoretically, the added flexibility of this working model (along with the lack of a daily commute) should be beneficial for disabled employees, since — for example — it caters for those with limited mobility and enables neurodivergent employees to work in an environment in which they feel comfortable. 

That said, it shouldn’t be assumed that simply allowing an employee with a disability to work from home is sufficient in supporting their workplace needs. Disabilities come in many different forms (some very visible, some less so), and so the individual needs of disabled employees in a remote workplace need to be understood and addressed.

In the first instance, it’s the responsibility of an employer to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace to accommodate those with disabilities or physical or mental health conditions, and to ensure their circumstances do not put them at a substantial disadvantage when doing their jobs.

With this in mind, we’ll look at the ways in which employers can effectively support their disabled employees while working remotely, ensuring they feel as comfortable as they do productive. 

Understand their specific needs

As we’ve already alluded to, it’s impossible to apply a one-size-fits-all solution to supporting disabled employees since no two disabilities are the same. While some physical conditions are immediately visible, others are not as easy to notice. If an employee suffers with a mental health condition or is considered to be neurodiverse, it might be even more difficult to pick up on their disability. 

When it comes to supporting disabled employees in a remote work environment, the first step should always be to have a frank and honest conversation with them so you can understand their unique needs. Of course, there’s no obligation on the part of an employee to disclose their disability (that’s very much an individual decision), but if an employee does make you aware of their disability, it’s on you as an employer to make reasonable adjustments to ensure you accommodate their needs. 

This could happen during the recruitment phase, of course, as it’s often beneficial for a candidate to disclose their disability during an interview or in their application — that way, you can discuss their requirements and ensure you’re aware of their needs before onboarding them. 

You should never discriminate against a candidate during the hiring process for having a disability (it cannot be a reason not to hire someone, for instance), but it’s important at this stage to let the candidate know how you would support them if they were to be offered a role — as it will help them to determine whether your company would be the right fit.

Avoid disability discrimination 

Diversity is an essential facet of any successful workplace — but diversity can mean many things. For example, services that assist in onboarding international employees and contractors remotely (such as the contractor management service by Remote) are helping employers to create more diverse workplaces, enabling them to hire talent from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. This is important because it encourages a broad range of skills, perspectives, and ideas, which is essential for the growth of any business. 

The same applies to employees with disabilities. A disability might mean an employee requires more support from their employer to carry out their duties effectively, but it doesn’t impact their suitability for a job or affect their ability to do it. Passing on a potential employee because of their disability is not only illegal, but it could mean missing out on a new perspective or a unique skill set. Embracing diversity in all its forms can help to create a culture of inclusion, where every employee is valued regardless of their background. 

Ensure they have the right assistive technology

An employee with a disability may require assistive technology solutions in order to help them perform their roles. Fortunately, the speedy rise in remote working means the technology that facilitates it has advanced immeasurably in recent years, while there are also several adaptations you can make to hardware and software (often through third-party tools) to make it easier for disable employees to use. For example:

  • Globally, around 43 million people are blind, with a further 295 million suffering with a moderate to severe visual impairment; these people may require accessible technology such as screen magnification software, an adapted keyboard, or optical character recognition (CR) technology (which converts print to electronic text and reads it aloud with synthetic speech).

  • An employee with a hearing impairment might struggle to follow meetings virtually, so it may help to enable closed captions within your video conferencing software (popular virtual meeting tools such as Zoom and Google Meet include this function).

Ensure their physical workspace is adequate

For someone with a physical impairment such as cerebral palsy (which can affect movement and coordination) or osteoarthritis (which affects the bones and muscles and is most common those over 40) it will be important to carry out an ergonomic assessment of their at-home workstation to ensure it meets their physical needs — this might involve providing specialist equipment, hardware, or software to assist them in performing their roles comfortably while working remotely.

For instance, someone with osteoarthritis might experience pain when using a traditional keyboard, so it may be necessary to provide them with a suitably ergonomic alternative — something like the Microsoft Sculpt Keyboard, for example. Someone with multiple sclerosis (MS) may use a wheelchair to get around, so they’ll need a sturdy, ergonomic desk chair that they can transfer themselves in and out of easily. 

Think about how you communicate

Effective communication is the bedrock of any successful remote working environment: without it, employees can feel isolated or ‘out of the loop’, and important information might be missed or at least misconstrued. Some disabilities affect the individual’s ability to relay or interpret information, so you should be mindful of how you communicate with them in the workplace; you may need to tailor your communication style somewhat to ensure they don’t feel confused and that they can clearly understand instructions. For instance:

  • Someone with dyslexia might struggle to read and respond to emails, particularly if they’re especially lengthy or complex in nature. Try to be clear and concise when communicating in written form, though it might be better to have a verbal conversation when possible to ensure there’s no confusion.  

  • Someone with ADHD might be prone to anxiety, so remote meetings with multiple voices talking over one another are likely to be stressful for them. Try to have meetings in smaller groups where possible, and encourage attendees to be respectful of each other’s viewpoints. Social interaction can often be draining for someone with anxiety, so try to keep meetings relatively short, too. 

  • An employee with cerebral palsy (which can also affect speech) might find it difficult to express themselves clearly. They may prefer to communicate via email or a messaging platform rather than speaking over the phone or a video call. If they speak up in a meeting, give them time to get their point across — don’t rush them or talk over them. 

Make wellbeing a priority 

In modern workplaces (particularly in light of a pandemic which took its toll on many individuals’ mental health), wellbeing has become much more a priority. This is particularly important in remote or hybrid businesses, where employees are likely to spend several days working from home — meaning there’s inevitably an increased risk of isolation (especially for those living alone) and the potential for burnout to creep in, since it can be difficult to separate work and personal lives.

For disabled employees, this focus of wellbeing in the workplace is particularly important, as their disability can often lead them to feel isolated from their colleagues (because they may perceive themselves to be ‘different’) and may introduce a greater risk of stress, anxiety, or depression. You can prioritize wellbeing in the workplace in a number of ways:

  • Introduce additional ‘wellbeing days’. Allow your employees to take time off at short notice if they feel unable to face a day at their desk due to increased anxiety or a bout of depression, for example.

  • Encourage your employees to take regular breaks. Someone with multiple sclerosis (MS), for example, can be prone to extreme fatigue, so understanding that they may require time to ‘recharge’ every now and then is important. 

  • ‘Check in’ with your employees regularly to see how they’re coping. Do they have any worries or concerns? Are they feeling stressed or burned out? Do they require any additional support? 

  • Encourage socializing within your teams. Even though this may seem more difficult in a remote workplace, something as simple as a ‘coffee morning’ over a video call (where work-related chat is banned!) is a great way for colleagues to connect, and it can be a perfect morale-booster. 

  • Create a fully flexible workplace. Flexibility is your ally when it comes to prioritizing wellbeing in the workplace — a flexible schedule empowers employees to work when they feel at their best, and it can help create a healthier life-work balance.

Wrapping up

The flexibility offered by remote work is undoubtedly a benefit when it comes to helping employers support their disabled employees in the workplace, but remote working alone isn’t sufficient to meet the needs of disabled workers: it’s imperative that employers understand the unique requirements of their disabled employees and ensure they have everything they need (from physical technology and equipment to emotional and wellbeing support) to work comfortably and productively in a remote workplace.