The emergence of remote work in response to Covid-19 pandemic has transformed the way people work, communicate and collaborate. Many employers have embraced remote work as a way of ensuring business continuity and reducing the risk of coronavirus transmission. Remote work has also opened up employment opportunities for people with disabilities, who may not have previously been able to work due to physical barriers or other obstacles. While remote work has many benefits, it also poses challenges for employers who are required by law to provide reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities. This article explores the challenges and opportunities of providing reasonable accommodation in the age of remote work.
What is reasonable accommodation?
Reasonable accommodation is a legal requirement under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that requires employers to provide employees with disabilities with the necessary modifications or adjustments that allow them to perform their job responsibilities. Reasonable accommodation could include physical alterations to the workplace, such as installing ramps or accessible restrooms, or non-physical changes such as modifying work schedules, providing assistive technology, or allowing telework. The ADA does not require employers to provide accommodation that would pose an undue hardship or create an unreasonable burden. However, employers are expected to provide the most effective accommodation that is reasonable given the particular situation.
Remote work as a reasonable accommodation
The concept of remote work as a reasonable accommodation is not new. In fact, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidance in 2016 that concluded that telework may be a reasonable accommodation for some employees with disabilities. The EEOC acknowledged that advances in technology have made remote work more feasible, and that remote work may allow employees to overcome physical barriers that preclude them from coming into the office. However, telework as a reasonable accommodation is not suitable for all situations, as it depends on factors such as the nature of the job, the employee’s disability, and the availability of technology.
Challenges of providing reasonable accommodation in the age of remote work
While remote work may offer new opportunities for employees with disabilities, it also poses challenges for employers who are required to provide reasonable accommodation. The most significant challenge is determining whether remote work is a reasonable accommodation in a particular situation. The EEOC guidance notes that employers need to assess the essential functions of the job to determine whether telework is feasible. This may be difficult when roles are complex, require face-to-face interaction or involve collaborative work, for example.
Another challenge is the extent to which employers have control over the remote work environment. If an employer provides the equipment or the location of the telework, they can be held responsible for ensuring that the work environment is free from hazards that could lead to injury or complaints of harassment. However, if an employee works from their own home, the employer has limited control over the work environment and is less likely to be held accountable for such incidents. This can make it challenging for employers to assess and manage risks associated with the remote environment.
Another challenge when providing reasonable accommodation is the issue of cost. In some cases, providing remote work as a reasonable accommodation could be costly, especially if the employee requires special equipment or software. Depending on the size of the organization, it may also be difficult to ensure adequate IT support to ensure remote working systems are secure and reliable.
Opportunities presented by remote work
Despite the challenges, remote work presents many opportunities for employers and employees alike. For employees with disabilities, remote work enables them to overcome physical barriers and work in an environment that is free from other barriers to participation in the workplace, Such as discriminatory attitudes or preconceptions about disability.
Remote work can also improve work-life balance, which can be a benefit for all employees, including those with disabilities. By reducing the need for commuting and enabling flexible schedules, remote work can help employees balance work obligations with other responsibilities such as caregiving, childcare, and medical appointments.
Another potential benefit of remote work is reduced overheads. For example, employers may not need to incur expenses for heating and lighting or rent additional space to accommodate more workers, thereby saving on operational costs.
Challenges of remote work in relation to reasonable accommodation
While remote work does provide numerous benefits, it also presents specific challenges when it comes to implementing reasonable accommodations for employees. One of the most significant challenges is the degree of control employers have over the remote environment. While employers can control the environment in the workplace to some extent, such as by providing ramps, accessible restrooms or assistive technology, they have limited control over the remote work environment. This can make it difficult to ensure that employees can work in an environment that is free from hazards or other risks.
Another challenge is ensuring that remote work is a reasonable accommodation for specific disabilities. For instance, some employees may have a disability that requires physical support or assistance to perform their job duties. In such instances, it may not be feasible for them to work remotely, and an alternate accommodation may need to be found.
Another challenge is the need for effective communication with employees with disabilities. This includes ensuring that communication is clear, accessible, and in line with the employee’s preferred mode of communication, whether that be text-based, visual, or auditory. Remote work can make it more difficult to communicate with employees with disabilities and can sometimes result in a lack of understanding about the accommodation required.
Opportunities of remote work in relation to reasonable accommodation
Despite these challenges, remote work can offer several advantages when it comes to offering reasonable accommodation. For one, it is often easier to provide remote work as an accommodation in comparison to the costs incurred in making physical alterations to the workspace. Therefore, it may be more cost-effective and efficient to provide remote work as an accommodation in some circumstances.
Remote work can also make it easier to comply with the ADA’s requirements for ensure that employees are provided with reasonable accommodation. Technology has made it possible for employees with disabilities to work, and many of the tools needed to support remote work, such as video conferencing, can also facilitate communication and collaboration.
Lastly, remote work can potentially create more employment opportunities for people with disabilities, who previously may have been unable to work due to transportation or mobility challenges. Remote work can help to create a more inclusive workforce, where people with disabilities can work from any location and collaborate effectively with colleagues.
Remote work has created opportunities for employees with disabilities to participate in the workplace and overcome traditional barriers to participation. While remote work provides many benefits, it also poses challenges for employers who are required to provide reasonable accommodation under the ADA. To meet their legal requirements, employers must balance the risks and benefits of telework and ensure that they provide the most effective reasonable accommodation feasible in the particular situation. As remote work becomes more widespread in the post-pandemic era, employers will need to continue to find ways to ensure that they provide accommodation that meets the unique needs of their employees with disabilities. Providing reasonable accommodations in the age of remote work requires a flexible and creative approach, focusing on the barriers that people with disabilities face and leveraging technology to create inclusive and accessible workplaces.