WORKING AT HOME IS REGARDED BY MOST AS EITHER a perk or lifestyle choice, but for workers with disabilities, it’s often the only way to earn a living. The number of disabled Americans who are unemployed–75 percent–nearly equals the number who wish they were working–72 percent–according to the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.
Those numbers are discouraging, but they’re poised to make a remarkable turnaround. Three trends are working in concert to launch disabled people into the workforce: A record-high demand for skilled labor; advances in adaptive technologies–hardware devices and software programs that let the disabled perform common business tasks like searching the Web or using the telephone; and perhaps most important, an ever-increasing awareness and acceptance of workstyles such as telecommuting and flextime that let workers train for and perform full-fledged careers from home.
Admittedly, adaptive gear such as wheelchair ramps and text-enlarging software utilities have helped small numbers of disabled workers compete for jobs over the years, but the need to commute to a traditional office has arguably kept three-quarters of America’s disabled workers on the sidelines.
Only now, with the advent of ubiquitous Internet access and innovative computing and Web-based technologies–including instant messaging and speech recognition–is it possible for significant numbers of disabled workers to do their jobs seamlessly from home. Also benefitting are workers who battle physical ailments such as chronic fatigue syndrome, and cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy treatments–many of whom find working from home a viable alternative to accepting long-term disability or losing their jobs outright.
“Employers are pretty open when it comes to flexible work hours, and they’re gradually becoming more willing to participate in work-at-home situations,” says D.J. Hendricks, assistant project manager for the Jobs Accommodation Network, a service of the President’s Committee. “The concerns managers have [about disabled workers] are the same ones they have about any telecommuting arrangement,” she adds.
Disabled employees, even more than able-bodied telecommuters, need to get to know their office-bound supervisors and coworkers, advises George Creamer, a senior product consultant for ABS InfoLink Inc., a San Jose, Calif.-based software development firm that hires disabled programmers to work both on-site and remotely.
Creamer says colleagues need to understand the specific issues stemming from a coworker’s disability–why, for instance, it takes a bit longer for an employee to pick up the phone, or why it’s necessary to schedule virtual meetings around scheduled physical therapy appointments.
“As a nondisabled person, I don’t think of Ed Isaac [profiled later in this feature] as a quadriplegic,” Creamer says. “I just call him on the phone and send him stuff. He’s one of our most productive people.”
Here’s how four workers have tapped adaptive technologies and their own on-the-job smarts to create telework arrangements that, as Creamer puts it, “make the disabilities a nonissue.”
When the Boss Is Away
Marian Vessels has an unconquerable spirit. Paralyzed from the midchest down as the result of a car accident 25 years ago (“I’ve spent more of my life in a wheelchair than not”), Vessels nevertheless pursued a career as a community health educator, then went on to develop programs for employing disabled workers for the state of Maryland.
Three years ago, Vessels took charge of the ADA Information Center of TransCen Inc., a job training outfit in Rockville, Md. Accustomed to the two-hour daily commute, Vessels occasionally worked from her home office, but only to tidy up paperwork after a day in the field.
Things changed in early 1997 when Vessels was diagnosed with breast cancer. Facing a grueling regime of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments, the boss scrambled to figure out a way to keep her small staff functioning. Vessels appreciated the irony: An illness, not her paraplegia, was forcing her to originate fresh adaptations.
“Because my office has only five people, you don’t just say, `I’m going to take a six-month leave and get healthy,’” she explains. Instead, Vessels moved her office essentials–a small library of books, CDs, and Web bookmarks–to her home office, and invested in a wireless telephone headset so she could maneuver her wheelchair around the office while on the phone with staffers and clients.
Moreover, Vessels trained her staff on how to handle incoming calls, meetings, and appointments. “We developed protocols about what people would be told,” she says. “It’s important for a caller to know that I’ll call back, not that I’m off-site. The office would take messages and relay them via e-mail, voice, or fax. [Clients] don’t want to know that the [boss] is home sick, so we didn’t advertise that.”
Once her chemotherapy sessions began, Vessels put her trust in the system. She took several sick days to cope with the worst of the side effects, then began easing back into work a few hours each day. The wireless headset proved to be a great help, allowing her to communicate with staff members while lying in bed or propped in an easy chair. And, to her surprise, Vessels discovered that with more autonomy, her employees made excellent judgment calls, passing on only inquiries that demanded her expertise. In the end, Vessels’s forced stint as remote supervisor helped make the office more efficient.
Now fully recovered, Vessels says that she regularly recommends telework as part of an employer’s package of accommodations for a disabled worker.
* Corel Word Perfect
* Novell NetWare
* When a coworker is coping with an intense illness or medical treatments, use nonintrusive methods of communicating, such as e-mail and faxes, and page the employee only for emergencies.
* To protect an ailing worker’s privacy, use the three-way calling and teleconferencing capabilities available through most local phone services for client meetings, staff updates, and planning sessions.
* Help employees who use wireless headsets to create efficient portable workspaces, so the essentials–notebook PC, sticky notes, pens–are always on hand no matter where they settle down to work.
Calling All Programmers
When David Lerman lost his hearing at age 33, he was part owner of an audio-visual production company. Although the only fragment of his career that he could salvage was his proclivity for technology, it turned out to be all he needed.
At the same time Lerman was learning to reorient the way he operated in the world, he was getting hooked on CompuServe. It didn’t take Lerman long to take some programming courses and land a job at an Atlantic City hotel as a computer operator–”my own little Dilbert world,” he says wryly.
By early 1998, Lerman became sick of the two-hour commute to Atlantic City and began perusing various online career bulletin boards. Posting his resume at a site devoted to IBM 400 series computers (www. news400. com) “resulted in a lot of e-mail,” he recalls, including an inquiry from Alternative Resources Corp., an IT consulting firm based in Barrington, Ill.
Lerman’s desire to work from home didn’t faze the ARC recruiters, who know firsthand that disabled workers who prefer to telecommute are a reliable, eager workforce. ARC hired Lerman to work on a long-term project updating the IT infrastructures of Florida, Texas, Nebraska, and Wisconsin municipalities.
To collaborate with clients, Lerman uses a two-line phone with a voice carryover system–a computing/telephony device that lets him hold a conversation with a hearing person. To use it, Lerman speaks into the phone normally; to understand what the other person is saying, Lerman reads a text version of the comments transcribed and transmitted to his computer by a silent operator.
Lerman encourages hearing-impaired workers to learn how they can use technology to telework; he recommends contacting Self-Help for Hard of Hearing People (www. shhh.org).