Kirk Adams is the CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind. Views are the author's own.
As a blind CEO, I could share many stories of the employment obstacles I’ve faced throughout my career, including and especially transportation. In fact, a survey of people with blindness or low vision revealed that 38 percent had turned down a job because of transportation concerns. And here we are now, in the midst of one of the greatest global crises in our lifetime, and an unforeseen transformation has suddenly emerged: remote work on a mass scale.
The COVID-19 pandemic has required millions of Americans to work from home so that organizations can continue operating while keeping employees safe. As government agencies, corporations, and non-profit organizations find new ways to operate remotely using innovative technology and processes, this has caused a collective rethinking of what the future of the workplace may look like. Even before "coronavirus" entered into our everyday lexicon, a 2018 Global Talent Trends study reported that 51% of employees wish their company offered more flexible work options.
For a sizable faction of the workplace that already struggled with unreliable, time-consuming, or expensive commutes to work, the sudden embrace of remote work has felt like a moment of inclusion. Working remotely has rapidly become legitimized, which could represent a seismic shift for employees with disabilities.
At the organization I oversee, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), we had 68% of our staff working virtually prior to the pandemic. One-third of our workforce has a visual disability. When we went completely virtual alongside the majority of the rest of the nation, I began to see how this moment of inclusion could be a roadmap of sorts as to how workplaces may function in a post-COVID-19 world. This thought was bolstered after a conversation with my daughter, whose San Francisco-based company decided to close its physical offices in New York and the Bay Area and shift to a virtual model permanently.
Tools of remote work are expanding and improving. As long as these tools are inclusively designed and accessible to people with disabilities, this trend will broaden opportunities for a wider talent pool. Technologies like Zoom, Slack, and Google Documents allow colleagues to work together productively and cohesively. Many workers even report feeling closer to their co-workers than before, as organizations are giving extra attention to ensuring that their employees feel connected and supported. For example, at AFB, we hold optional weekly virtual lunches, wellness check-in calls, and post-work family happy hours over Zoom.
Allowing people to work from home removes barriers employees may have otherwise had, such as transportation and relocation logistics. We also know that workers under 40 often prioritize flexibility when considering job offers, so our remote work policies allow AFB to attract both the best blind and sighted talent in our field. All kinds of jobs are being done remotely by people in all kinds of competitive, integrated professions, including medicine, law, engineering, human resources, and information technology.
There is still much work to be done, on multiple fronts. Should remote work replace the office environment? The answer is probably no, although the flexibility afforded by the option of remote work, even just part of the time, should at least be considered. At the office, the space still needs to be designed to accommodate wheelchair users, ASL interpreters need to be available to workers who are deaf, and braille signage and accessible technology still need to be made available to employees who are blind. When working remotely, the productivity tools need to be accessible. After all, people with disabilities use technology not just as consumers of information, but as high-ranking contributors who are also producing it. As always, people with disabilities have the right to be present at the boardroom meeting, the off-site leadership retreat, and the Zoom meeting.
The past few months have leveled the playing field for many workers with disabilities, and we are now at a crossroads. Organizations have the opportunity to re-think policies that may have erected unnecessary barriers for this enormous, motivated, yet overlooked, talent pool. Can we take a leap forward in creating inclusive workplaces in the future?