Remote jobs gave people with disabilities more opportunities. In-office mandates take them away.

As more employers – including the federal government – expand return-to-office mandates this fall, a key demographic is often missing from the conversation: people with disabilities.

For the 1 in 4 American adults with disabilities, the COVID-19 pandemic provided a silver lining. No longer tethered to desks in company offices that required lengthy, challenging commutes to often ill-equipped spaces, remote work offered an abundance of new opportunities for a community that’s often shunted to the sidelines.

As a result, the percentage of people with disabilities in the U.S. workforce hit a record high of 21.3% in 2022, up 2 percentage points from the previous year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Now, the in-person work push, marked in recent months by announcements from several large U.S. employers as well as the White House, threatens to undo these gains and leave behind millions of workers with disabilities.

Amazon, Disney, Google, Biden pushing in-office mandates

Meta and BlackRock are the latest major companies to require employees to come into the office for much of the workweek. They join the ranks of dozens of other U.S. employers, including Amazon, Apple, Salesforce, Disney, Starbucks and Google, all of which have issued in-office mandates in the past year.

In addition, President Joe Biden recently called on his Cabinet to “aggressively execute” an end to the remote work era for federal government employees this fall.

Return to office isn't realistic: These mandates yearn for 'normal.' But the pre-COVID workplace is gone.

While many companies are surely carving out exceptions to the new guidelines, the shift away from remote work could once again force people with disabilities out of the workforce despite the valuable contributions and perspectives they have to offer.

It also comes as many companies are also wavering on pandemic-era diversity, equity and inclusion programs focused on cultivating workplace belonging, where everyone, regardless of title or ability, feels valued and brings their whole selves to the office.

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While the United States has made great strides in the past few decades in terms of disability rights, there is much more work to be done. Luckily, some companies are already taking the first steps. As I discuss in my book, "On Belonging: Finding Connection in an Age of Isolation," hundreds of firms have pledged to address disability inclusion in their leadership agendas and committed to taking action within their companies.

Those commitments are largely the result of the perseverance and advocacy of Caroline Casey, the businesswoman and activist behind The Valuable 500, which partners with high-level, private businesses to “unlock the social and economic value of people living with disabilities across the world.”

Thanks to Casey, who has a disability herself, Intel committed to increase the percentage of employees who self-identify as having a disability to 10% of its workforce, and Adobe, another tech firm, is not only actively recruiting employees from the disability community but also building more accessible products for consumers.

What hurdles do people with disabilities face going back into the office?

In our post-pandemic world, though, companies both here and abroad must go beyond setting aside a token number of positions for employees with disabilities – and ensure that they aren’t reinstalling the barriers to remote work that kept these individuals out of the workplace before COVID-19.

This means keeping in mind the hurdles those with disabilities, especially mobility impairments, face when it comes to in-office work:

  • Arduous commutes beset by inaccessible public transportation.

  • Urban areas not made with wheelchairs in mind.

  • Office spaces that lack accessibility features such as automatic door openers or wider hallways.

These challenges don’t even account for the fact that everyday life for many with disabilities is simply more difficult, often involving multiple doctor appointments or requiring additional time to complete tasks most of us take for granted, leaving some physically and emotionally drained before they’ve even gotten out the door.

A reality check on American workforce: Time to invest in people with disabilities

People with disabilities, like all human beings, have so much to contribute to workplace culture, and remote work is an easy solution to help them find purpose and belonging in their lives. As Casey pointed out in a 2021 interview, the pandemic showed that businesses can adapt and change to accommodate remote work – and therefore, people with disabilities.

Surveys show that by and large, working remotely doesn’t interfere with employee productivity. In fact, productivity often increases, and some employees work longer hours.

Kim Samuel is the founder and chief belonging officer of the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness.
Kim Samuel is the founder and chief belonging officer of the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness.

When companies’ bottom lines can directly point to remote work not being a hindrance but a potential boon, there’s no reason why employers can’t accommodate workers with special needs.

And if they do, companies just might find they’re better for it – in all the ways that matter.

Kim Samuel is the founder and chief belonging officer of the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness; a visiting research fellow at Green Templeton College, University of Oxford; a visiting scholar at the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative and the author of “On Belonging: Finding Connection in an Age of Isolation.”

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Return to work mandates create hurdles for employees with disabilities