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Profiles of Teleworkers with Disabilities

by Michael D. West, PhD

Many people with disabilities have the desire and capabilities to work from their homes. These individuals constitute a hidden labor pool. For persons with significant disabilities, telework offers the possibility of an accessible, barrier-free workplace, flexible scheduling and the elimination of disability-related bias or discrimination. By one estimate, increasing the availability of telework for unemployed individuals with a disability in the United States alone would save employers between $48 billion and $96 billion dollars annually in reduced short- and long-term disability payments, workers compensation, and personnel replacement costs. This estimate does not include the potential benefits to American taxpayers in increased tax revenues and reduced public benefits, such as Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Medicaid, Medicare, and housing and food supplements.

Interest in telework for individuals with disabilities is growing rapidly. A number of public and private organizations have formed for the purpose of assisting individuals with disabilities to either telework in their current job, or to enter a telework occupation, and several State Vocational Rehabilitation agencies have instituted telework projects for their consumers. President George W. Bush's New Freedom Initiative includes the expansion of telecommuting opportunities for citizens with disabilities through Federally guaranteed low-interest loans for individuals with disabilities to purchase computers and other equipment necessary to telework from home. In addition, legislation will be proposed to make a company's contribution of computer and Internet access for home use by employees with disabilities a tax-free benefit.

Still, little is known of individuals with disabilities who telework as a job accommodation. The purpose of this study is to examine demographic and historical data of a large sample from this population.

Data Source

Data for this study were obtained from Expediter Corporation, a private rehabilitation and job placement agency located in Pittsburgh, PA. One of Expediter's primary functions is to develop home-based telework positions in telecommunications, banking, reservations, customer service, and similar positions for individuals with a variety of disabilities. The majority of Expediter's caseload are Workers' Compensation cases, but they also provide the service to State VR consumers and to SSA Ticket recipients.

The information from this study was extracted from intake data for 100 of Expediter's most recent consecutive customers.

Summary of Findings

  • All 100 of the customers were Workers' Compensation cases

  • All had been working at the time of their injury or illness, and three were currently working in a reduced capacity

  • 75% were men

  • 73% were married

  • 71% were homeowners

  • 36% had dependent children living at home

  • 20% had no car and no access to public transportation

  • 67% were high school graduates

  • 25% had completed some type of postsecondary education or training

  • 53% had a computer in the home, but most stated that they never or rarely used it

  • The mean age at referral was 51

  • The mean length of time on the job prior to the injury was 11.7 years

  • The mean time since disability was 8.2 years

  • Almost all held blue-collar jobs in such fields as construction, truck driving, patient care, mining, and manufacturing

  • Most (77%) had experienced a physical injury that limited sitting, standing, walking, and other physical activities. The rest had a variety of disabilities, including brain injuries, chemical sensitivities, assaults in the workplace, and diseases

  • 66% had secondary problems that limited work capacity, including health problems, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or a subsequent injury

Summary

A significant limitation of the study is that all of the participants were Workers' Compensation cases, and therefore may not be applicable to all disability populations, particularly those with developmental disabilities. The members of this sample are more similar to the population of Workers' Compensation cases than to the general population of teleworkers on a number of variables, including age, sex, and work history.

The participants as a group had long histories of steady employment, primarily in physically demanding positions, interrupted by injury or illness that limited their abilities to perform those jobs. It is significant that these individuals were placed into telework jobs often requiring use of computers and the internet, despite limited educational and technological experiences. Telework offered them the opportunity to begin second careers when they were no longer able to engage in their first.