As work-from-home policies have continued to endure in the United States, more disabled people are working than ever before. This is hardly surprising, since disability advocates urged employers to accommodate disabled workers with virtual or hybrid situations for a long time prior to the pandemic. Some disabled people cannot drive, making commutes costly, time-consuming, or out-of-reach for workers unless they’re in one of the few American cities with quality, accessible public transportation. Others struggle with the physical discomfort of being in the office. For many, working from home opens up opportunities that disabled people have traditionally been excluded from.
Work-from-home policies are not a blanket solution for the financial and institutional pressures that disabled people face. Working from home is still working and comes with its own unique stressors. It is not a solution that will work for everybody in our community, and we shouldn’t stop striving for an equitable safety net, including modernized SSDI guidelines to protect disabled people when they can’t work.
But if you’re considering working from home as a disabled person, you might be curious about how you can set yourself up for success, reduce stress and burnout, and find balance and stability. I’m a writer and digital content manager who works full-time from home while managing my Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, POTS, and MCAS. Here are my five biggest strategies for working from home as a disabled person.
1. Take advantage of time-zone differences to make working from home with a disability easier.
One of the biggest tools I use to my advantage as a disabled worker is time-zone differences. I work on a cross-country team and live in California. On most days of the week, I work central or eastern hours, meaning that my workday ends around 2 or 3 p.m. It does require getting up earlier — which has the benefit of making me stick to a good sleep hygiene routine — but I find that starting my day at 7 a.m. doesn’t make me any groggier than I would be at 8:30 a.m., and I end up with time to myself in the afternoon after my workday ends.
That time to myself is time for: recurring weekly doctor’s appointments and infusions, logistical calls to my insurance or the pharmacy, breathing in fresh air on my front steps, staring into space, resting, and whatever suits my needs that week.
If you’re on the east coast, you could schedule “time to yourself” things in the early mornings and start your day on PST at 11 a.m. Play around with your schedule and see how you can use your time zone to your advantage. Get creative with it — it doesn’t have to be every day that you switch time zones but know it’s a valuable tool to use.
2. Scope out and set up multiple accessible, flexible workstations in your environment.
When you start getting set up for a work-from-home job, it’s worth taking the time to make sure you have several flexible environments to choose from depending on how many spoons you might have on a given day. Give yourself mental guidance on what situations each workstation might be good for.
For me, that looks like: sitting at my desk in my office chair is my “primary” workstation. If I’m feeling OK, if my pain isn’t bad, and if I have energy, this is where I sit most of the time. Sitting in bed with my work laptop is my “secondary” workstation. If I feel really terrible fatigue or have bad pain, that’s where you’ll probably find me. I also have rooms that I prefer to work in if the light in my office space is giving me a migraine, for example.
3. Anticipate and prepare for your daily needs and fluctuations in your disability/chronic illness symptoms.
Working from home is still a job. It can and will still burn you out, and it can absolutely make your chronic condition or disability worse via stress or daily labor. This means that it’s critical to anticipate your daily needs and make a game plan to address them.
For me, daily needs for working with a chronic illness include: food, hydration, pain control, temperature control, and sensory/emotional regulation. I’m terrible at remembering to eat and drink, particularly if my nausea is acting up or my appetite is weird. Working makes it easier to forget or dismiss these needs, so I make sure I have quick, accessible snacks or nutrients. I keep smoothies or protein shakes in the fridge, a bag of trail mix on my desk, and so on, and so forth.
For pain control, I know that my thoracic nerve pain acts up after sitting in a chair for a while. I keep microwaveable heat packs in easy reach. Typing usually makes my CRPS pain worse, since I have the disease in my right (dominant) hand, so I schedule work items to have frequent breaks between periods of typing.
For temperature control, the nice thing about not being in an office is that you are the only person whose internal thermostat matters. So I keep compression socks, gloves, blankets, and scarves all close by, and if I start to feel overheated, I immediately dress back down.
For sensory and emotional regulation, I keep fidget toys of several different varieties on my desk, my nightstand, and in my purse, and I spent time scoping out some single-session meditations that help me when I start to spiral.
4. Have a game plan for disability/chronic illness flares — and arrange your work calendar around them.
Preparing for your daily needs can help you stave off serious flares. Listening to your body and your symptoms can tell you a lot about how to protect yourself, and working from home allows you to focus on those factors a lot more closely. But flares do happen, even if you’ve been really balanced and careful.
Just like you prepare for your daily needs, you can prepare for your flares. Ask yourself: what do I usually need during my flares? Can I still work in short bursts? Would I need time off or simply a reorganized workload?
You can also anticipate times of the year that give you flares and plan around them months in advance. For example, summertime is usually the worst season for my flares because the heat and sunlight trigger my MCAS, which also triggers my CRPS. So I know that summertime would not be the ideal time to sign up for additional professional development courses or trainings through my employer or take on increased workloads in general.
5. Proactively communicate with your team and know your rights as an employee with a disability.
Proactively communicating with your team about your disability or chronic condition is critical. It is much harder to ask for help, receive it in a timely manner, and stave off any work disasters if you wait until you are in the thick of a flare or an emergency. If you don’t proactively communicate and just try to quietly schedule appointments and disability items around your work schedule, you have less flexibility in changing that work schedule if there is a conflict. If you proactively communicate, you won’t have to awkwardly tell your boss months into a job that no, they can’t reschedule a company-wide call at 11 a.m. on Tuesdays because that conflicts with your weekly physical therapy appointment.
As more and more disabled workers join the workforce, these conversations are going to happen much more frequently. Some workplaces are going to be better than others, which is why it’s important to know what rights and protections you have as a disabled worker — including the right to a reasonable accommodation.
You don’t necessarily have to go through Human Resources for a formal accommodation, though you are legally entitled to do so if that’s what will make you feel comfortable and secure. Some teams might be willing to “informally” accommodate you. You can schedule time with your boss to explain what your recurring appointments or periods of unavailability are, how you plan on working around them, and examples of ways you envision working alongside your condition.
Emphasize your proactiveness and transparency. For example, you could say something like: “I wanted to approach you about this so we can get an efficient system in place around it. These are my needs. This is how I’ve planned around them in the past, this is what I’m proposing now. These accommodations would let me show up as my best self, wouldn’t disrupt others, and would benefit all of us. How can we move forward here?”
At the end of the day, working from home is still working. You can’t control your workplace, but you can come prepared with strategies to keep in mind for success.
Photo by Los Muertos Crew via Pexels