Accessible Telework: Strategies for Developing Inclusive State Agency Programs

By Elise Gurney, The Council of State Governments

Telework has increased substantially as a result of COVID-19. According to research reported by the National Bureau of Economic Research, about half of all employed Americans now work from home, including 35% of workers who switched to remote work during the pandemic. In response, many employers — including state government departments and agencies — are developing or revising their telework policies and programs. As they do, it’s critical that telework be accessible and usable to all employees, including those with disabilities. Not only does this enable more employees to benefit from the flexibility, time and cost savings and health protections offered by telework, it ensures that agencies comply with civil rights laws and disability-related policies.

According to Title 1 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers with 15 or more employees must provide “reasonable accommodations” to employees with disabilities. This means making “feasible” modifications or adjustments — whether to the physical worksite, work schedules or workplace policies — to enable employees with disabilities to do their jobs effectively. This may include providing screen-reader software to someone with a visual impairment, installing a ramp to facilitate wheelchair access, modifying policies to allow service animals or adjusting work hours to accommodate someone’s schedule, among other accommodations.

Telework can also be a reasonable accommodation. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), telework can eliminate workplace barriers such as inaccessible worksites or lack of privacy to manage medical needs. Yet it is important to note that not all employees with disabilities require telework as an accommodation. In fact, while new telework conditions may benefit some employees with disabilities — for example, by eliminating difficult commutes — they may pose challenges for others. For instance, if an employee is provided a sign language interpreter, adaptive keyboard or modified desk in the workplace, these resources might not be available in a remote environment.

As more employee’s transition to remote work, employers are still required to accommodate the needs of employees with disabilities. Below, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy’s State Exchange on Employment and Disability initiative has identified a number of actions state government departments and agencies can take to make sure that their telework policies and programs are inclusive and accessible to all employees, including those with disabilities.

  • Develop formal telework policies and resources
    • Many states have created telework policies, guidelines and manuals to provide all employees with clarity on the expectations and procedures for remote work.
    • California has developed a Model Program template for state agencies to use in creating formal telework programs. Some states have additionally released guidance and best practices specifically related to telework during COVID-19, such as Florida, Washington, D.C. and Washington state.
  • Work with employees to identify limitations and accommodations
    • According to the EEOC, employees who were previously receiving accommodations “may be entitled to additional or altered accommodation[s]” amid new telework conditions. Employers and employees should therefore re-engage in an “interactive process” to determine what an employee needs to successfully perform their work in a remote environment.
      • Funded by ODEP, the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is a free resource that offers expert and confidential guidance on workplace accommodations and disability employment issues. Learn more and request assistance at Askjan.org.
    • Colorado’s Civil Rights Guidance and Delaware’s Telecommuting Policy both acknowledge that due to changes in worksite (including those caused by COVID-19), employees may be entitled to additional or modified accommodations.
  • Modify or waive certain provisions of telework policies, as needed
    • Some telework policies may include provisions that do not accommodate the needs of individuals with disabilities. For example, a policy stipulating that employees must work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. might not accommodate someone who needs to take frequent breaks (and, therefore, work extended hours) because of their disability.
    • North Dakota’s Teleworking Guidance allows for teleworking policies to be modified or waived to reasonably accommodate employees with disabilities.
  • Select and employ accessible technology platforms
    • Not all technological tools employed in remote work — like video conferencing platforms and project management tools — are fully accessible. By choosing tools that include accessibility features — such as closed captioning and text-to-speech capabilities — agencies can ensure that all individuals are accommodated.
    • Texas has included a section on accessibility in its COVID-19 Preparedness for Information Technology guidelines to encourage all state agencies to review IT applications and tools for accessibility compliance.
  • Ensure that assistive technology is available at home
    • Employees who use assistive technology in the workplace — that is, products, equipment or systems used to increase, maintain or improve functional capabilities needed to perform their job duties — may not have access to these same devices at home (such as large computer monitors for people with visual impairments).
    • According to Vermont’s Telework Guidelines During COVID-19 Pandemic, supervisors should consider whether existing reasonable accommodations can be provided at an employee’s home to ensure that the employee can still perform work effectively.
  • Designate a telework coordinator
    • A general best practice for state governments is to identify an individual within each agency who will oversee the implementation of that agency’s telework program and serve as a point of contact for managers and supervisors. These individuals can further assist by serving as a resource around civil rights issues and reasonable accommodations.

For more information on implementing telework policies and programs in your state or for other disability-related policy assistance support, visit CSG’s Disability Employment Policy website or contact dklimkina@csg.org.