Telecommuting has become a cost-effective, convenient, and safe alternative to the typical 9-to-5-office job. This employment option allows employees to work from home and dispatch their work via email, telephone, fax, or courier. Telecommuting is becoming the golden access key to the working world, especially in the special needs community.
An article published by the White House titled “Fulfilling America’s Promise to Americans with Disabilities” cited that unemployment rates for these individuals have “hovered at the 70 percent level for the past 12 years.” So many disabled persons are unemployed not because they are lazy, uneducated, or ineffective; but rather because they have physical–or other–limitations that make commuting to an office a difficult task.
Telecommuting completely erases these obstacles, creating a dynamic work environment that yields high productivity. President Bush believes so strongly in telecommuting for persons with disabilities that he has proposed a budget of $20 million for a new Access to Telework Fund.
“By offering a telecommuting workplace to my associates,” explains Debra Ruh, owner of web accessibility consulting firm, “we have widened the employee pool from which we can choose our employees and eliminate these barriers.”
CEO, Richard Belyea, adds, “Individuals with disabilities, through the use of computers and the internet, can now fulfill their dreams of a career.”
Belyea explains, “Technology has reached a point where time and space have become less important in the workplace. The traditional challenges of commuting and working eight-hour shifts no longer apply. Now a disabled worker can schedule his work to fit his unique lifestyle requirements, not the other way around.”
Nevertheless, telecommuting has certain caveats. Employees who telecommute need to remain focused while they work at home. Therefore, they must be very self-motivated in order to establish an effective telecommuting work environment.
To reinforce self-motivation, Mrs. Ruh suggests constant communication with employees. “E-mail messages, progress reports, and telephone calls must be made to ensure that proper goals and deadlines are being met,” she says.
Completing projects in measurable tasks can also help monitor work progress. Employees who are involved in telework in other companies and agencies have found other psychological barriers. Some need to delineate between their work and personal lives. Therefore, they must find someplace outside of the home to feel as if they have “gone to work.”
Others have a difficult time calling a colleague at home on a work issue because the telephone is always busy. In these instances, the recommendation is for the employee to have a second phone line used solely for office work. This often eliminates any apprehension a coworker may have in calling.
Face-to-face contact among employees that telecommute may be a concern for persons working certain types of jobs. Mary Otten, a blind accessibility-testing specialist, uses assistive technology for the blind to test software applications, web pages, and specially formatted documents to ensure that they are accessible and usable by the blind.
Mrs. Otten noted that although she does her job very well without face-to-face contact, having a sighted person available who is familiar with the web page or software she is testing would assure her that she does her job more thoroughly.
In these instances, Mrs. Otten asks her sighted spouse to indicate specific areas to her that she might be missing.
Tracy Buetow, an Operations Manager, also feels the need for in-person communication. “You may never meet the people you work with face-to-face. You cannot go to their office and see how they are progressing on a project. You have to hope that they will return your e-mail or call.”
Other employees noted that telecommuting lacks the socialization that is often associated with working in an office setting. This is both a gain and a loss. Although time is not lost at the coffee station at the office or by friendly small talk, work is no longer collegial, causing some employees to feel isolated.
This is the case of Sean Stapleford, who works from his room in a nursing home. He enjoys the flexibility a telecommuting workplace has provided for him, but regrets the lack of socialization associated with his job.
To help combat this and to help build camaraderie among the team, Jesse Evans, Jr., a Business Development Manager, frequently visits certain employees to make sure they are in good health and spirits.
He also retrieves status reports or hard copies of documents.
Another way to resolve the isolation factor of telecommuting is chat messenger systems, as many employees with disabilities can chat online, in between completed projects. They can also conduct work sessions using the chat messenger. Not only does this make telecommuting employees feel less isolated, it also further motivates them.
From the employer’s standpoint, a major benefit of telecommuting is cost reduction. An AT&T study estimates that each employee who telecommutes can save their employers $100,000 a year in absenteeism and job retention costs.
Criterion Economics predicts that telecommuters will save businesses $30 million in 10 years. The figure includes workplace modifications from ramps to keyboard adaptations.
Mac McCuller, a Vice President of Sales and Marketing, notes, “Today we are seeing many large companies outsource work to more cost-effective work locations, such as India.
Companies who rely on teleworking, have already established a model for these companies to emulate, achieving the cost savings and work efficiencies realized by eliminating the overhead costs associated with a physical plant for our employees to work from, or report to, every day. ”
And lastly, another advantage of allowing an individual with a disability to telecommute is that the employer can easily adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provision of providing reasonable job accommodations. Of course, if the employer insists that the person works onsite, then the company is obliged to modify the office accordingly.
Telecommuting for persons with disabilities offers a myriad of solutions to businesses to make E&IT more accessible so others also have the barrier-free option of working at home.
Rosemary Musachio, has cerebral palsy, and uses a head pointer and word board to communicate. She is a telecommuter, journalists, and top employee of TecAccess, a leading web accessibility company.