The Complex Future of Post-Pandemic Work

An illustration of two dark-skinned people, one working at a desk, the other from bed, with a shadow of a boss between them.

Illustration by Ananya Rao-Middleton

Before the pandemic led many U.S. industries to embrace remote work, Vilissa Thompson, the founder and CEO of the disability-focused organization Ramp Your Voice!, used to travel to attend conferences and give talks. Thompson, who uses a wheelchair and lives in South Carolina, plans to continue working remotely through 2021 because she’s found that she’s able to attend more events without having to worry about ableism affecting her travels. “It’s been nice to not have to deal with airlines,” Thompson says. “One time they lost my wheelchair.”

For many members of the disability community, the sudden shift to remote work in March 2020 was both a welcome change and a frustrating one. Some disabled people have been fired for seeking accommodations. This includes former Lockheed Martin administrative assistant Donna Kerekes, who asked for permission to use a transcription or recording device to help her do her work. Instead of complying, the company placed Kerekes on disability leave, then she was fired. They ended up having to pay her more than $100,000, and they also had to educate their managers and human resources department about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is more than 30 years old. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven that remote work is possible for many industries, but it’s unclear what work will look like after the pandemic. The option to use Zoom and other video conferencing platforms that provide hard-of-hearing people, myself included, with the opportunity to lipread, which we cannot do on phone calls, may be eliminated if in-person work is mandated.

In many industries, companies will have to decide whether to allow their employees to continue remote work, establish a hybrid model, or require in-person work. Tech companies Google and Apple, for example, are allowing employees to come in only a few days a week, while Facebook is allowing full-time remote work to continue. “Workers appear to want to be the ones choosing where to work, not their employers, and it could very well be a competitive advantage to offer work from home options,” Ron Miller wrote for TechCrunch. This is made more complicated by the fact that some disabled people can’t get the COVID-19 vaccine due to health reasons, and an Arizona State University study published in April found that 60 percent of businesses surveyed will require proof of vaccination. Thompson believes that if a boss thinks that in-person work would bring the most money, the needs of disabled workers may be ignored: “People may have to face the harsh truth of capitalism, which is [that] capitalism cares about the money.”

Tauhid Chappell, a Philadelphia-based project manager at the media platform Free Press who lives with ulcerative colitis, plans to split his time between working from home and participating in in-person engagements, which is a key part of his job. Chappell also recognizes the privilege of being able to work from home during the pandemic, which disabled people with essential jobs weren’t able to do. “To be able to have the option to work from home, and not have to physically leave [my] home to still get paid, makes me lucky,” he says. But there are disabled people who prefer to work in an office, so it’s also crucial that their accessibility needs are still met, says Rebecca Cokley, the disability rights program officer at the Ford Foundation. In her decades as a disability activist, Cokley has seen companies do what they can to skirt the requirements of the ADA. Kroger, Walmart, and The Hershey Company are just a handful of many companies sued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for violating the ADA. Cokley is concerned that companies will have the attitude of “let’s just have you telework, so we don’t have to make our workplaces accessible.” Cokley tells Bitch that this attitude could lead companies to “enforce segregation” between disabled and non-disabled workers, instead of using financial resources to “comply with a 30-year-old civil rights law.”

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While being able to work from home is possible for some members of the disability community, remote work isn’t an option for all disabled people. That’s partly because not everyone has equal access to quality internet. A January 2021 study published in the World Economic Forum found that internet access can be unreliable and unaffordable in many rural areas and other low-income communities. “There’s still a digital divide, a tech divide that [affects people] who have to be online to work,” Chappell said. “Those with physical disabilities need to be accommodated for, and companies are not creating tech or [other] products that allow them to participate on an even playing field.” Cokley told Bitch that she’s glad to see the Biden administration’s bipartisan infrastructure bill addressing digital divides. People need stable internet access, just like they would clean water and heating, and she thinks that stable internet is a crucial infrastructure issue.

“Because [of] the fact that everybody uses it, it should be thought of [in] the same way as our bridges and our roads,” she said. Disabled people are often given reasons for why our accommodations can’t be met or why they’re “bad.” For example, disabled people who need plastic straws are blamed for contributing to climate change. This extends to concerns that a 5G infrastructure may have some effects on the environment, though existing research doesn’t suggest that this would have a substantial impact. Cokley believes that “if we saw accessibility and environmentalism together as a package instead of pitted against each other, which [they] often [are], there’s no telling” what could be accomplished. Additionally, disabled people shouldn’t have to wait for tech companies to make their products accessible or be charged a fee to access a version that would better accommodate their needs. For instance, Zoom waited nearly a year into the pandemic to announce that it would introduce live captioning—a service that was previously available for a fee—despite the fact that hard-of-hearing and Deaf people, myself included, rely on Zoom for work.

In order to accommodate disabled people in a post-pandemic world, employers need to realize that meeting our needs is possible.

The pandemic will continue to shape society, which includes the disability community, for decades to come. People who contract COVID-19 may experience symptoms for months or, like many members of the chronic-illness community, get sick and have symptoms that never really go away. Chronic-illness symptoms may change what a person can do at work, if they’re even able to work while taking care of their health. María Cristina García, a former seamstress at a performing arts school in New York City, likely contracted COVID-19 while at work. García developed postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) after becoming sick, and like many people who become disabled or chronically ill as adults, García became acutely aware of how inaccessible public transportation is.

“Now, I use a rollator to get around, and I can’t count on the agility and stamina that used to vault me through closing subway doors,” García says. “Service was never great for anyone who needed an elevator, and now I worry that budget cuts will make accessibility even worse.” García hopes to return to work once the students at her school perform again. “Because my job only exists when students are performing in person, I have the time right now to rehab my body and hopefully get my POTS to a more manageable place,” she said. The pandemic has shown that some accommodations are possible. However, bosses are still going to find ways to take advantage of disabled workers, like justifying paying a person less because they are working remotely. “Capitalism is still going to find a way to exploit workers, whether you’re working in an office, or you work from home, or [you’re] able to come in [only on] certain days of the week,” Thompson says. In order to accommodate disabled people in a post-pandemic world, employers need to realize that meeting our needs is possible, and the rapid switch to virtual work in many industries showed us that. Our accommodation requests are reasonable—ableism isn’t.

by Julia Métraux
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Julia Métraux is a health and culture writer whose work has appeared in Narratively, The Tempest, Elite Daily, and Poynter.