Guest Commentary by Karen Topp Goodwyn
Telework: The Ultimate Reasonable Accommodation
Perhaps, the most dramatic example of how a catastrophically disabled person
can live a useful, productive -- and inspiring -- life through telework
is the story of
Fifteen years ago, when I left my job as a vocational rehabilitation
counselor at the Disabled Students Program
at the University of California in Berkeley, Mark, who lives in an iron
lung, had only a simple word-processor. Working alone, he has since churned
out interviews (including one with physicist Stephen Hawking), book reviews,
poetry, books -- and he was the inspiration for Jessica Yu's 1997 Oscar-winning documentary,
Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O' Brien .
Kudos to IBM
Almost 25 years ago,
first presented the Disabled Students Program with the idea of telework.
Our client population was students with very serious physical disabilities.
A significant number lived in a wing of Cowell Hospital on campus. All
needed some help with activities of daily living, such as meal preparation,
bathing and dressing. Independent living was an important goal for them.
IBM saw these students as ideal candidates for a new training project they
hoped to launch: computer programming careers for people who needed to
work from home because they were homebound by disability.
At that point in the evolution of the independent
living movement, our main effort was to "mainstream" people with "catastrophic"
disabilities into the society at large. Therefore, we modified IBM's proposal
so that these newly-trained computer programmers would work in corporate
settings. The Computer Technologies
Program -- thanks to our dedicated business advisory committee, and
students and dedicated instructors -- was very successful. The program
continues to this day, training people with many types of disabilities
to become successful programmers in the mainstream workplace.
Over the past 25 years, I have seen teleworking become a court-ordered
"reasonable accommodation" under the Americans with Disabilities Act --
and more gratifyingly, I have seen many employers implement telework policies
for disabled employees simply because it's an incredibly good idea.
Not only is teleworking a very reasonable accommodation and a generally
good idea for people with permanent disabilities, it is a way of keeping
temporarily disabled employees on the job. Furthermore, employees who must
care for acutely ill family members can remain productive through telework,
and it is also a way to return injured workers to the job more quickly.
Hidden Disabilities Helped by Telework
As the lead agency in the state charged with empowering the disabled,
the California Department
of Rehabilitation, began its own experiment with telework when a respected
employee requested permission to work from home during recovery from surgery
for a crippling disease. The department approved the request, but it also
recognized the need for a formal telework policy covering all employees,
as required by state law.
Our pilot policy was modeled after other state government telework programs,
but our pilot was set apart from others in the state because of our fiscal
frugality -- and the high screening standards we set for our teleworkers.
During the first year of our pilot program, we had 38 teleworkers.
Our pilot teleworkers provided their own computers, software and phone
lines. The department, however, did pay for the 800 number to our Sacramento
mainframe computer. Although employees who needed to telework on the basis
of a medical condition could do so outside the rigors of our pilot by requesting
telework as a reasonable accommodation, analysis of our first 38 teleworkers
showed that 11 felt they had medical conditions that were significantly
helped by telecommuting.
The disabilities among our pilot group ranged from blindness
to asthma to back injury to chronic sinusitis to generally poor health,
sick children and no accumulated sick leave. (Many of us could report similar
All of these teleworkers reported that the reduction in stress from
not having to commute one or two days per week resulted in improved health
and happiness. The department, as employer, documented that sick leave
use decreased and productivity increased.
In addition to the department's regular teleworkers, we also
use the ability to work from home to allow employees who are recovering
from an acute illness or surgery to work during their convalescence --
if the employee, the supervisor and the doctor all agree on the appropriate
level of telework activity.
Furthermore, in some instances, telework can help lower the
costs of workers' compensation by encouraging workers to return to work
more quickly through light-duty, home-based telework.
But What About Mark?
Despite all the good intentions of mainstreaming disabled people, there
remain individuals too severely disabled to ever work in the traditional
For them, for people like Mark O'Brien, telework is the only answer.
Ironically, Mark's success with telework and writing recently afforded
him a rare mainstream opportunity: the honor of addressing the graduating
English majors of the Class of '97 at UC Berkeley. His commencement
speech is notable in that it transcends his disability to talk about
something more important.
That's not bad for a man who teleworks from an iron lung!
Karen Topp Goodwyn
Senior Rehabilitation Counselor
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