Advocates for people with disabilities are hopeful that the work from home trend spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic will make employers more open to accommodations workers might need in a post-pandemic workplace.
Not all companies have been able to switch to a work from home model, but most business that is conducted in a traditional office setting has been mandated to have employees work remotely when possible to slow the spread of the virus.
A year ago, it would have been unlikely for employees to get work from home accommodations from their employer, said Disability Advocates of Kent County Executive Director David Bulkowski. Part of the organization’s work involves teaching people with disabilities about how to talk to their employer and ask for accommodations that will make them more productive at work.
“I’m excited about the additional level of accommodations (work from home) could lead to,” Bulkowski said. “First and foremost the accommodation process is a dialogue — there should be a give and take. But I don’t think most employers will just snap back to the automatic ‘no,’ like the way things were before the pandemic.”
Now that employers have seen workers maintain productivity while working remotely, Jeffrey VanDyke hopes it will open more opportunities for people with disabilities. VanDyke is a graphic design specialist for Disability Network West Michigan, where he also leads a digital peer support group.
“(Working from home) can be hard on your mental health, but the positive side for me is I do not have to fight through the snow this winter as a chair user,” said VanDyke, who was born with Cerebral Palsy. “Now that we’ve seen consistently people of all ability levels — whether you’re born with a disability or not — can work from home, I’m hoping that will open up more opportunities.”
‘Asking for a chance’
Before the pandemic, VanDyke primarily did graphic design work for the Disability Network and lent his perspective as a keynote speaker at various in-person events. But his role at work has changed some with the pandemic. He has started leading a digital peer support group, which has been a lifeline for many who have disabilities, he said.
“Before the pandemic hit, (working from home) was never really a possibility — or supposedly it wasn’t in some people’s opinions,” VanDyke said. “People with disabilities couldn’t really get jobs.”
VanDyke isn’t sure whether the work from home shift will stick over time, but he is hopeful that it will.
“One of my biggest messages overall is to just give us a chance,” VanDyke said. “We may do things differently or it may take us a little longer, but it doesn’t mean I am incapable. If you can find some way to meet us in the middle or where we’re at, we can be just as productive as any other individual. We’re not asking for more rights, we’re asking for a chance to be a part of society in all facets, not just some.”
The pandemic has also given the general population a better idea of what isolation and the inability to interact with their community feels like — a feeling so often felt by people who have a disability.
“This has never really been talked about or a concern until now,” VanDyke said. “This gave people who don’t have disabilities a chance to see what life was like for people with disabilities, and I hope it ultimately turns out to be a teaching tool for all of us.”
Seeking social opportunities
Working and learning remotely has had mixed effects for people on the autism spectrum, said Joanna Lofton, community resource specialist at the Autism Alliance of Michigan.
Individuals on the autism spectrum have had varying experiences during the pandemic, but the lack of social skills and general sensory issues that come with remote working have generally presented extra obstacles for people with autism, Lofton said.
“There are a lot of people we serve who need the daily structure of getting up and going to work, but now they have been laid off,” Lofton said. “This difference in having idle time can show itself as aggression or withdrawal — idle time is not good for them.”
The Autism Alliance of Michigan has seen a vast increase in families seeking assistance during the pandemic, primarily people looking for social opportunities, Lofton said. The organization also has seen an increase in adults reaching out to the Alliance because they suspect they are on the autism spectrum and need an assessment or to be connected with the appropriate resources.
“For those who have been able to continue working, it’s been OK if they can actually go into the office — that routine has been important,” Lofton said. “One of our concerns is when an individual is able to go back to work or school, it’s still a change, which is one of the most difficult things for people on the spectrum.”
Lofton suggests that people travel back to their workplace before they are called back to refamiliarize themselves with the routine, and reach out to employers to find out what the changes will be ahead of time to prepare for resuming in-person work.
“Many of our individuals are worried about getting COVID-19,” Lofton said. “Most people on the spectrum do have co-occurring disorders, so you have to be really careful about them being exposed and what that might look like for them. A lot of times, it’s hard for them to identify that they are sick.”
The Autism Alliance of Michigan has worked closely with some companies on how to better assist their employees on the spectrum, Lofton said.
“It’s basically just them understanding autism better, and understanding that these individuals want to work and can be the absolute best employees,” Lofton said. “It’s all about expectations and understanding what kind of accommodations they’ll need. They can be your best employees and definitely have a lot to offer. We have some highly skilled and loyal individuals.”