Remote Work Increases Accessibility, Widens Talent Pool

The shift to remote work has meant tools once pitched as “reasonable accommodations” for people with disabilities are now mainstream. That opens up a previously underutilized hiring group for state and local government.

One million people with disabilities lost their jobs as the pandemic took hold in 2020. That’s one of the major negative impacts that lockdowns and the general economic downturn had on the disabled community. For a sense of scale, there are 1.9 million individuals with disabilities of working age (18 to 64) in just the state of California alone.

But there’s much more to it.

As we’ve discussed many times in the pages of this magazine, pre-pandemic, telework was a tough sell for government. A few jurisdictions had limited pilot programs in place. Fewer still had a formal, limited remote work allowance for certain kinds of jobs. But the shuttering of buildings forced large-scale telework, and while an adjustment, most employers, even governments, had to admit that remote work was a viable option for the long term.

According to RespectAbility, a nonprofit advocacy group, before remote work enjoyed the broad acceptance brought on by necessity by the pandemic, it was not considered a “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But that might be starting to change.

A pretty big reason for that is the incredible advances in so many assistive technologies – the technologies themselves and the widespread availability we now see due to the value they offer. What used to be “assistive” is now, in a lot of cases, mainstream. Take live captioning, for example, which has gone from an expensive add-on of inconsistent quality to a mainstream offering available by default on most commonly used platforms. This evolution opens up new opportunities in the workforce for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Similarly, speech-to-text has matured leaps and bounds in recent years, and has now become a mainstream technology used, and even relied upon, by a significant portion of the population on a regular basis. Think Siri, Alexa and Google for a few quick examples.

“What initially started out as an accessibility accommodation for people with disabilities has now become something that everybody uses,” said Philip Kahn-Pauli, policy and practices director for RespectAbility, in a conversation with Government Technology. “When that accommodation becomes normalized, it creates greater inclusion for workers with disabilities to participate in the workforce, to be able to contribute and to collaborate with others.”

It’s unlikely that the fastest typist can match the output of someone composing their memo or other office communication using speech-to-text. Consider the possibilities that presents for people unable to type.

Kahn-Pauli points out that several favorable government policies in recent years are enabling greater inclusion of people with disabilities into the workforce. A provision of the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 directed federal contractors to hire and train people with disabilities. Many state and local jurisdictions also have explicit programs aimed at greater inclusion in employment.

And all of these forces are moving the needle in a positive direction: The labor force participation rate for people with disabilities is nearly 3 percent higher today than it was before the pandemic.

There’s an opportunity here for people in state and local government IT who struggle to recruit talent. While many technology leaders support and are actively engaged in partnerships with local schools, secondary and post-secondary, they should also consider how they can support this underutilized talent pool. With all the recent talk of considering candidates with nontraditional backgrounds for hard-to-fill cybersecurity and other IT positions, people with disabilities should be on that list.

Disability advocates like Kahn-Pauli smartly describe their clients as problem-solvers by nature who are constantly confronted with completing tasks able-bodied people can do without a second thought. He suggests they’re ahead of the curve, asking for remote work for years when many thought it was impossible.

“The very thing that people with disabilities were saying was the solution that everybody else now realizes, ‘Oh, that’s what we should do,'” he said. “I think it really demonstrates the talent and value that workers with disabilities bring to the table that can drive change. And when change is being driven by people with lived experience, I think we can all see the transformative results that come from that.”

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