Ten hacks to help disabled people working from home

Shows an office chair in front on a computer screen. A shelf above shows speakers.Due to COVID-19/Coronavirus many people are now unexpectedly homeworking. It’s a challenge for everyone but can present additional barriers if you are disabled or have a long-term health condition. Employers and employees need to collaborate. Homeworking is often more inclusive if you consider everyone’s needs everyone’s needs.

Our blog explores ways you can hack your environment and technology for all types of disabilities, with tips for anyone with a visual impairment, neurodivergent workers, those with cognitive impairments, physical and with hearing impairments. 

While there is much employees can do to help themselves, employers must be mindful of the needs of disabled workers. It’s a legal requirement for employers to adapt to the needs of disabled workers. Under the Equality Act 2010, employers must make reasonable adjustments to support disabled job applicants and employees.

Reasonable adjustments mean that you ensure disabled people can overcome any substantial disadvantages they may have in doing their jobs and progressing in work. In the workplace, aim to reduce as many potential barriers as possible this reduces the need for individuals’ reasonable adjustments. 

Where people are working at home, you need to consider the individual’s needs.

1. Find out about your employee’s specific needs

You may already know employees who have particular needs. However, you may not, and some may come to light you were previously unaware of during this crisis.

AbilityNet’s online tool can help you, and your employees identify the needs to make reasonable adjustments to the workspace

2. Ask Disabled Employees to help you

It’s society that disables. Disabled people face challenges that others don’t every day and so are very often fantastic innovators. So, if you’re wrestling with an accessibility issue or something that’ll help everyone, they’re the best people to ask. 

Take Haben Girma, for example. The deaf-blind Harvard Law graduate spoke eloquently about a job working in a gym at TechShare Pro 2019. One of the clients was struggling to turn on a machine and couldn’t make it operate. 

Haben went in and felt her way around the machine and found the button that fixed it. As Haben tells it, the delighted customer quipped how fantastic it was and that she ‘hadn’t seen the button’. Haben’s reply, “neither did I.

Haben’s right, there are tips we can all learn from people with disabilities. 

For example, for neurodivergent workers, clarity of communication is especially vital at this time, as it is for all employees.

3. Remote communications

Many employers will be looking for new ways of communicating remotely with employees. There are many options available, and you must consider disabled people when you’re deciding how to communicate. 

Do platforms work for people with visual- or hearing impairments, for example?

Video-conferencing platform Zoom is a simple to use platform for video calling. You can add closed captions to the video-conferencing system for the Deaf and hearing-impaired, or embed a third-party captioning service.

You may find the video option is turned off by default. For those with hearing impairments, you must turn it’s the video on so they can see you and any captions.

Other options are available for collaborating, including MS Teams, which also enables you to set-up a video call. You can also set up video conferencing with background blur. This feature was developed by a `Microsoft employee who would lip-read during calls but was struggling because of background interference. 

Teams also include an Immersive Reader. Features include the ability to read text aloud.

4. Adapting your physical workspace

Physical needs are varied and may relate to using a computer, or setting up a workspace. For example, some people may not be able to use a mouse at all or for long periods.

In this instance, voice dictation might be useful. Adjustments include the use of dictation and/or text-to-speech software. 

You can find out more about using dictation with AbilityNet’s FREE online tool, My Computer My Way. 

While this link is for Windows 10, My Computer My Way has dictation tips for all operating systems including Apple and Google Chromebook. 

We also have more specific tips for using a computer without a mouse.

5. Makeshift sit-stand desk

Some employees may find it uncomfortable to sit for long periods. In the office, they may have access to a sit-stand desk. If it’s not possible to get a sit-stand desk to employees in extreme times, then an ironing board could fit the bill. Ironing boards have adjustable heights, and you can raise it as a standing desk.

Ideally, employers could provide a desktop version of a sit-stand desk that will raise; if budget allows, and they’re available such as this one from Vari

6. Neurodiversity and homeworking

You may have neurodivergent workers in your workforce. Neurodiversity is a term that refers to where the brain works differently from others and covers a broad range of people, including those living with ADHD, Autism, Bipolar and Dyslexia.

How we’re communicating is changing in, and there may be more online and telephone communication than usual, which can present particular difficulties for the neurodivergent community. It’s easier to miss social signals and to misinterpret. 

Conversely online and telephone communication is also preferable for some people

You’ll need to provide extra support, and to let everyone know you’re giving good relationships and comms, as pointed out by Nancy Doyle, who is CEO of Genius Within, specialists in neurodiversity. 

The neurodivergent community, notably people with ADHD, may be more prone to anxiety than others. ADDitude has presented some [excellent coping strategies during the Coronavirus outbreak

7. Regular breaks and routines

Image shows a cup of coffee shot from overhead on a wooden tableFor some, it can be harder to take a break when you’re working at home. For those with specific disabilities, MS (Multiple Sclerosis), for example, fatigue is a genuine concern.

As an employer, stress the importance of regular breaks. 

Apps to encourage regular breaks

• The Pomodoro Technique is a study/work practise that traditionally says to work for 25 minutes at a time, with a short break in between and a more extended break after four cycles (or pomodoros – the Italian for tomato). 

• Big Stretch Reminder is a free break reminder tool for Windows computers. It prompts the user to take regular breaks with different options on how intrusive the messages are.  

• Stretchly is another app that reminds you to take a break when working with your computer. Stretchly is customisable and can provide instructions on what to do with your breaks, whether it takes up the full screen and how often breaks occur.

AbilityNet has published a list of apps, which will remind you to take a break. You’ll also find tips for ergonomic adjustments if you’re living with MS.

8. Tips for Repetitive Strain Injury

Good posture is vital for all workers, but especially if you have RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury). 

Employees may have had special equipment in the workplace they’ve been unable to transport home such as monitor stands, and ergonomic keyboards. If you can replace them at home, then do, but it might not be immediately possible.

There are, however, some things you can do. For example, instead of a monitor stand get a stack of robust books to raise your monitor to the correct height.

The right height is to position the top of the screen at or slightly below eye-level. Books can also double up as a makeshift footrest to reduce thigh strain.

Read our comprehensive guide to ergonomics.

Some companies will provide you with specialist equipment on a sale or return basis and have specific expertise in this area. 

These include Posturite and Inclusive technology.

9. Keeping organised

Image shows a jumble of printing blocks with letters on themSome employees may have worked at home before; others won’t have. For some disabled people, this will be more challenging than others.

Employees with dyslexia may find organising themselves challenging, for example. Encourage people to make a simple list of tasks at the beginning of the day. 

Mind mapping software is an excellent way of organising everything, from tasks to difficult thoughts and emotions. The good news is that there’s a lot of it that’s freely available.

Some options include Mind Node and XMind. We also have first-hand tech hacks for dyslexia.

10. Emergency help

People working at home will be going out to buy essentials. Typical environments, such as supermarkets are busier than useful. An app you could recommend is the Emergency Chat App designed for someone having an autistic meltdown. The person having the meltdown can bring up a pre-determined message on their phone for those around them. 

The message would explain what is happening and what they need.

In such situations, talking can become impossible because speech centres become non-functional for a while, even after the person has recovered. Any kind of physical touch is often uncomfortable for the person experiencing the meltdown too.

How AbilityNet can Help

AbilityNet Live

To help workers, carers and others during this period of social isolation, AbilityNet has launched AbilityNet Live. Our Free webinars will include sessions for employers and employees on working from home with a disability.

We will also have sessions for those who are caring at a distance on how to stay connected.

Online support and advice on adapting your technology

My Computer My Way: Our FREE online tool My Computer My Way can show you how to make a range of adjustments across multiple devices and operating systems

Free Factsheets: We have a variety of free factsheets on communications aids, alternative keyboards and more

News and blogs: Keep up to date with our news and blogs

FREE technology support from a volunteer: Currently, we can’t offer our usual face to face visits, but we can support you remotely. Call our FREE helpline on 0800 269 545