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June 1997

Guest Commentary by Karen Topp Goodwyn                          


Telework: The Ultimate Reasonable Accommodation

Mark O'Brien

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 Mark O'Brien.

 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, Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O' Brien . Kudos to IBM

Almost 25 years ago, IBM 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 our  talented 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 health concerns.)

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 workplace.

 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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