Telework for the disabled

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed into law by George H. W. Bush. Since the ADA emerged in 1990 a great deal of progress has been made in expanding the options for disabled people. Good progress but not enough. Telework for the disabled is an option that needs more recognition.

For example, in the early 1970s I was involved in designing a biomedical engineering center in Los Angeles that focused on helping people with disabilities.* Our operating assumption was that most disabled people could function quite well if given the right physical help. This was particularly true for those with mobility disabilities — trouble with moving effortlessly from point A to point B.

All this was shortly before I became interested in telecommuting. In fact, my research into the possibilities for telecommuting drew me away from my attention to rehabilitation engineering and into the broader implications of telework. Over the years I occasionally tested the prospects for telework for the disabled but I kept running into snags.

One of the snags was attitudinal on the part of the organizations formed to help the disabled. Their focus was on “mainstreaming” the disabled; developing and promoting ways for getting the disabled to undergo the twice-daily rush to and from a workplace distant from their homes. The concept was that a disabled person (presumably) needed to feel included in the activities of their coworkers, part of the gang, rather than some sort of freak who might well be shunned because of his/her differentness. For that to happen, daily presence in the traditional workplace was required.

Although I agree with the idea that workers may be more comfortable and motivated when they feel they are included in their coworkers activities, I wondered at the time — and still do — whether the togetherness feeling is worth the pain and stress of that daily commute. I wondered at the time — and still do — whether less frequent commuting and more telecommuting might work just as well for the mobility disabled. After all, many non-disabled teleworkers seem to have no problems with togetherness feelings.

From the employer’s point of view, many disabled individuals would make exceptional additions to the workforce. They constitute an untapped source of creativity and inventiveness that can be added to the staff with minimal disruption while also adding competitiveness to the bottom line. There is certainly demand for such workers but the disabled constitute a largely unexplored supply.

So, IMHO “mainstreaming” that requires daily physical presence in the workplace is soooo twentieth century. People with imagination and supple minds should be able to perform information work and participate anywhere, anytime regardless of their bodily limitations to moving effortlessly from point A to point B.

The ADA has made great strides to improving physical mobility of the handicapped. It’s now time to expand that freedom to the same opportunities that everyone should have. Telework for the disabled is one of those important opportunities.

* Part of my work in seeking “real world” applications of space technology.

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