• United States

Returning to work for the disabled, ill

Oct 14, 20024 mins
Network Switches

Employees facing physical challenges find comfort and productivity in telework.

The corporate office was no place for Judy Johnson to work.

With lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and a bum hip requiring a sixth corrective operation, just getting dressed in the morning was an ordeal for the 59-year-old. Add to that the prospect of a 45-mile commute to her Minneapolis office, long hours spent sitting at a desk and the commute home. Johnson was exhausted just thinking about it.

An office job? “I can’t walk more than a block or two,” she says. “The fatigue would wear me down before the start of the day.”

But Johnson doesn’t have to work that way. Instead, she works part-time from her Farmington, Minn., home as a secretary for the Midwest Institute for Telecommuting Education (MITE), a nonprofit telework consultancy. Johnson performs data entry, handles customer response and marketing distribution for a few hours at a stretch.

“I can work part of the day, rest and go back to [work],” she says. “That way I can deal with my health.”

Telework has emerged as a viable workplace alternative for the chronically disabled – those people like Johnson who can work, just not from a corporate office. Human resources managers for companies with disabled workers – and network executives looking to hire from a broader IT talent pool – must consider how telework fits their employment scenario. As with able-bodied workers, telework can help companies attract and retain the best and brightest from the workforce, says Jane Anderson, director of MITE.

“When it comes to retaining talent, companies are willing to try this,” she adds. “It really meets a business need.”

Impending crisis

Employing the disabled is more than a workplace issue. It could forestall an impending national crisis, says Leonard Felman, principal with Expediter Corporation, a Pittsburgh return-to-work and vocational rehabilitation program.

In 1990, 6 million Americans were on Social Security disability. Today, the number tops 9.7 million – with a younger population drawing much of those funds and providing no tax revenue in return, Felman says. The disability trust fund is forecast to be insolvent by 2008, he says.

With such dire projections, in 1999 Congress created the Work Incentives Improvement Act and the Ticket to Work program. Using a combination of telework, alternative office spaces, sanctions and incentives, it aimed to encourage and train disability beneficiaries to return to work.

Incentives include vocational services from groups such as Expediter, and the Trial Period of Work, which lets a new worker continue to collect disability benefits for a year after starting a new job. Workers also can retain Medicare coverage for up to eight-and-a-half years after returning to work, say Dan Heit, president of Expediter. Administered on a state level, the program will be in place in 33 states by November. See for details.

Efforts to get disabled people back to work have jibed with the growth of technologies that help people to work from home. Thousands of quadriplegics work from home using voice-recognition software, writing tablets and improved phone systems to function from a home-based work setting.

“With technology, they can do their work, control their environment, change temperature, unlock the door, adjust the lights,” Felman says.

ADA and home work

Some 70% of the disabilities affecting workers today are chronic medical conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, asthma or breathing problems, heart disease – all of which result in limited mobility or increased fatigue, Anderson says.

But few employers consider telework as a viable workplace alternative. That attitude can lead to trouble, says Chuck Knapp, a partner in the employment law group of Faegre & Benson.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations mention working from home as an option for some employees. And under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a disabled employee must ask the company about telework if in-office work is not feasible. The employer must consider the option, assuming telework would place no “undue hardship” on the company and that the job can be performed remotely.

“The act can be a briar patch,” Knapp adds. “The only clear lesson from all of the cases is that employers need to consider telework as a reasonable accommodation for employees who need it.”

Getting employees back to work – even at home – can improve business performance and even a worker’s long-term health, Anderson says. Johnson’s disabilities were draining her spirits. Feeling unproductive, unemployment sapped her self-esteem, which exacerbated her condition.

“Returning to work enables me to feel productive,” she says. “The work lets me focus on something else and forget about the pain.”