Telecommunting: Options and Promise
For people with spinal-cord injury and other disabilities, getting to a job is more work than for others.
“One of the issues that comes up with my clients is frequent medical appointments,” says Keisha Wright, Vocational Rehabilitation counselor for the Paralyzed Veterans of America. “If they get pressure ulcers—it’s very difficult to keep a full-time job if they have skin issues. Telecommuting eliminates a lot of those issues. It’s also a timesaver. You’re not stuck in traffic a half hour each way, every day or so.”
Telecommuting, working by using telephonic and computer communications, is an increasingly serious full- and part-time work option. According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, about six million folks worked primarily or exclusively from their homes in 2008. That year, the country had some 154.4 million workers. According to the Telework Research Network, just over 2% of the nation’s employees, about three million, worked primarily or exclusively from home. Many more split their days between working at offices and at homes. About ten million folks were self-employed in 2008—many involved in e-commerce and other home-based businesses. By all accounts, the number of people working primarily or exclusively from home is and will keep growing.
“One of the benefits for anybody is you can work in your underwear if you want to,” says Wright. “People with specific issues, like those that individuals with spinal-cord injuries typically deal with, don’t have to worry about taking time off if they’re not feeling well.”
A Revolutionary Development
Home-based employment used to be fairly common in America but dropped rapidly from 1960 to 1980. Almost all the decrease was due to a fast decline in family farming. However, between 1980 and 1990 there was a 56% increase in the number of at-home workers. The new breed of home workers was increasingly white collar. Then came the Internet, which has become a revolutionizing tool for home-based commerce, according to Louis Irvin, PVA’s Vocational Rehabilitation Program manager.
“I do telecommuting now,” he says. “I’ve been in it two years.”
A family man with a wife and 16-month-old child, Irvin is paralyzed. He’s spent much of his career going to offices. He says working from home gives him something an office can’t—much opportunity to be home with his family, an up and down of telecommuting.
“There’s a lot of positive for me,” Irvin remarks. “Positives are, you have enormous flexibility in your work schedule. I believe it offers an opportunity to work at your own pace. But, that has its challenges when you’re working Friday night at 10:00 p.m. You have to be very disciplined to schedule your off time.”
There are about 54 million people with disabilities in America, according to the Census Bureau. An estimated 10% of people in the traditional working-age population, 18–64, are in that count. Nearly 31% of those with severe disabilities have jobs, but only about 16% have full-time employment.
Poverty rates closely follow employment rates. While about 9% of Americans live at or below federal poverty levels, 12% of people age 25–64 with less severe disabilities are considered impoverished. However, among those with severe disabilities, the poverty rate approaches 30%.
One reason for the high unemployment rate among people with disabilities is transportation and geography, according to Irvin. Many with severe disabilities must stay in certain areas to remain close to family or particular medical centers. Sometimes those areas have good transportation options—often, they don’t.
“[Telecommuting] takes away the geography and transportation issues,” says Irvin. “Transportation is the highest obstacle to employment for people with disabilities.”
A Good Source Emerges
Because many people with disabilities have strong educational and business backgrounds, often gained before life-altering injuries, some employers are beginning to see them as a good source for telecommuting employees. One such company is J. Lodge of Fort Myers, Fla.
“They get call-center contracts,” comments Irvin. “They provide customer service.”
A company online presentation reads, “Our company is dedicated to providing careers for physically disabled U.S. citizens who otherwise may not be able to find professional employment options working from their home offices. This concept has enabled us to acquire individuals who can offer our customers a highly educated and experienced call center analyst/agent at prices that rival offshore competitors.”
The company boasts of having a nearly 0% turnover rate. People with disabilities, it claims, are fiercely loyal employees.
Another organization that employs people with disabilities for telecommuting jobs is Knowbility of Austin, Tex.
“The position is called a ‘document remediation specialist,’” Wright says. “They go into the computer program and manipulate it using different software.”
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), federal, state, and local government computer documents are supposed to be reasonably accessible to all people with disabilities. Knowbility updates web and other electronic documents to bring them into compliance.
“Many agencies are not in compliance with the laws, so they contract with these agencies,” continues Wright. “It’s a highly technical job that requires a lot of attention to detail. It’s not the type of job people with disabilities were usually targeted to employ.”
Jillian Fortin, Knowbility’s director of communications, explains the company has about ten telecommuting positions at any time. The nonprofit company sometimes adds temporary workers for projects. She says Knowbility has many qualified workers lining up for positions.
“From the responses I’ve gotten, a lot of people—their lives don’t fit the demands of a 9 to 5 life,” she says. “For some, transportation can be an ordeal.”
Fortin says one employee used to have an office job but had to quit when the local bus service changed its schedules. To get to her old job, the employee had to board a bus at 5:00 a.m.
“Being able to work from her home is a lot better for her,” comments Fortin.
Wright and Irvin explain that intermediate and advanced computer skills are essential for most if not nearly all telecommuting jobs. Wright says the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) increasingly recognizes the importance of computers to people with disabilities and is helping veterans cross the digital divide. Staff at the Audie L. Murphy VA Hospital in San Antonio asked her to help develop a basic computer-skills program as part of its Community Reentry Program. The hospital has three Internet-accessing computers at its spinal-cord treatment center, and Wright has training programs from the Video Professor series she loans to veterans. Wright says high-level quads use many verbal-response programs that make keyboards nearly unneeded.
According to Irvin, the PVA Vocational Rehabilitation program placed about ten veterans with spinal-cord disabilities into telecommuting jobs last year. These range from part-time employment to one fellow making nearly $100,000 annually working for the federal government. He had the job when he was injured, explains Wright, and was already working part-time from home. His workload is now exclusively away from the office, but he’ll transition back to it over time.
Wright says some of her clients have full-time telecommuting employment. Others have conventional jobs and use telecommuting as an extra source of income. Some are doing professional work, with high salaries, from home; others are earning at or near minimum wage. Some she’s helped obtain telecommuting work hope to do it until they’re up to seeking and getting conventional jobs.
“Many of the telecommuting jobs are part time,” remarks Wright. “I see it as a good way to move toward traditional employment. Once they start doing a little something and realize, ‘Wow! I can do this,’ it shows them what opportunities are out there.”
Contact: PVA Vocational Rehabilitation, 800-424-8200.
Telecommunting: Options and Promise
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