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(TECSO Inc. is a Montreal-based research and development communication technologies for persons with disabilities and the elderly.)
JOB-ACCESS is a home-telework pilot project intended for employees of the Canadian public service whose workplaces are located in Quebec and the National Capital Region. Over a total duration of thirty-three months, JOB-ACCESS will have enabled eighteen civil servants who have disabilities to participate in a home-based telework project. The objective of the JOB-ACCESS project is to determine to what extent and under what type of conditions telework at home can be a viable option for the employees with organic disabilities, as well as their employers and coworkers. The primary issues studied are the integration in the work and home environments, as well as job satisfaction for the teleworker, and the technological aspect of telework. Special attention has been given to the role of personal factors in the success or failure of a telework situation.
The results of this experiment have been used to formulate guidelines for the Treasury Board Secretariat on telework and job equity measures, telework implementation, and answers to the needs brought about the use of adapted technology.
Studies demonstrate that persons with disabilities face numerous types of obstacles when seeking employment, including difficulty in accessing some buildings, inadequate transportation, inflexible work hours, the demands of medical treatments and the perception of employers. Because it helps to eliminate some of the barriers associated with conventional workplaces, telework has been viewed, both in Europe and in the United States, as a tool that persons with disabilities could use to access the employment market.
However, there is also a pressing need for solutions that apply to employee retention. For instance, disabilities are seldom congenital: 95 % are acquired at various stages of life and may result from such diverse causes as progressive illness, trauma and the workplace itself.
Thus, the incidence of disabilities increases with age. That means methods of adapting the workplace will become more and more important as the population of the industrialized world continues to age. If telework, as applied in some pilot projects, have been successful to help persons with disabilities to access the employment market, will it have similar potential to retain employees in the workplace? This is what we have evaluated under the auspices of JOB-ACCESS.
JOB-ACCESS consisted not only to observe people teleworking. The project involved a series of technological, ergotherapical and organisational evaluations: needs assessment; choice of preferred solution, based on the latest assistive and telecommunications technologies; implementation; and follow-up of every participant, interviewed at three occasions along the one year experimentation phase. Managers, some colleagues and computer support staff have also been consulted during this experimentation. Most of the employees who have experimented telework within the JOB-ACCESS project work in jobs that require them to use a computer connected to a network. Participation was done on a volunteer basis. The sample included people with a wide range of motor and sensory disabilities. Individual conditions ranged from stable, to progressive, to chronic. 44 % were professionals. 38 % were administrative personnel. 18 % were managers.
At the end of the observation period, every participant indicated that they had enjoyed the experience overall. With the agreement of their managers, fifteen of the eighteen participants were still teleworking as of December 1997, three months after the end of the experimentation.
The JOB-ACCESS experiment has allowed us to conclude that telework may lend itself to some problems, particularly with regard to issues of isolation and adjustment to a new workplace, but at the same time, it also eliminates certain limitations faced by some persons with disabilities. From the teleworkers' point of view, the most appreciable benefits of telework include a reduction in effort spent in transportation, a more flexible work schedule and access to a more adapted work environment that adresses individual needs.
Of course, the impact of telework manifested itself differently depending on the type of disability. We identified three levels of stakes associated with telework, depending on the employee's disability.
1) TELEWORK IS A TOOL FOR EMPLOYEE RETENTION. This is true, for example, for the majority of participants in the project who had a progressive illness, or whose health condition was prone to change over time. These individuals had trouble overcoming such obstacles as the inflexibility of conventional work schedules and difficulties posed by transportation.
2) TELEWORK IS A MEANS OF EASING SOME OBSTACLES RELATED TO DISABILITY.
Telework can improve quality of life, particularly for persons with limited mobility or reduced vision. It reduces difficulties associated with transportation and movement within the workplace. Thus, telework offers these employees more significant advantages than it does for their colleagues without disabilities.
3) TELEWORK SHOULD REMAIN A PERSONAL CHOICE. When a disability does not significantly limit mobility or the completion of duties, then that person's decision to telework should be arrived at using the same considerations as would a person without any disability. So far, the situations we have observed lead us to strongly recommend taking into account these areas of concern in the criteria that would determine the acceptance or refusal of requests to telework. In other words, the decision criteria should take into account the implications presented by the employee's disability and its impact on his or her time spent at work. However, the scope and relevance of recommendations concerning the recourse to telework by employees with disabilities depends mostly on the importance the employer attributes to telework as a work adaptation strategy. There are three ways to approach requests to telework:
1) Telework applies in the same way to persons with disabilities as to all other employees. No special measures are foreseen in this regard.
2) A request to telework must be treated with greater sensitivity when it represents a means to help keep a person with a disability in the job. This sensitivity may influence the acceptance of installation costs, the modification of duties and the flexibility of the work schedule.
3) The employer adopts a policy of equal access to telework, whether or not employee retention is a factor. For instance, an employee who requires specialized equipment should have the same access to telework as would a colleague without disabilities. In such instances, costs associated with the purchase and installation of adapted technical aids in the home should not be considered as a factor in the acceptance or refusal of a request to telework.
This last strategy would favour a structured, consistent approach in the use of telework to better meet the needs of employees with disabilities.
Generally speaking, the decision to resort to telework should be made using case-by-case evaluations. An enlightened decision for both the employer and for the employee would be based on an identification of limitations and possibilities stemming from telework, while keeping in mind:
It should be stressed that if telework is to become a successful option, one of its roles must be as a tool for adaptation, such as the modification of duties, equipment, methods and work environment, as well as other types of support. In many cases, the solution that effectively succeeds in keeping the employee in the job will be the product of more than one possibility related to telework.
Above all, the JOB-ACCESS experiment made us aware of an urgent need in workplace adaptation: that of finding effective solutions in the area of adapted technical aids. For many persons with disabilities, particularly those with visual impairments or limited upper-limb mobility, these technical aids are a crucial resource to access and retain employment. However, we discovered that the technology in place was often obsolete, despite an availability on the market of more effective solutions.
Therefore, it is extremely important to increase access to specialized resources, to locate, install and update this equipment and provide training and technical support to users. To this end, training is of fundamental importance, as much for computer support staff who would install the adapted technical aids as for users of the technology. The ongoing evolution of tools used in the workplace demands constant change, including the implementation of specialized computer support that would be available to all users of adapted technical aids. This change can also mean the creation of partnerships among government ministries and various centres of expertise (rehabilitation centres, service suppliers, etc.).
The JOB-ACCESS experiment has demonstrated beyond any doubt that telework is a viable option when the employer, employee and colleagues adapt well to a less supervised presence in the office. Nonetheless, these criteria should be carefully considered. The challenges that telework addresses in employee retention and the improvement of the employee's quality of life in the workplace must be considered to determine the relevance of the telework option. Generally speaking, the social and professional integration of persons with disabilities must be a main consideration when turning to such tools of adaptation as telework. However, the research shows that, within a global approach, telework should be considered as a means to work adaptation for persons with special needs.
The JOB-ACCESS experiment also demonstrates that, by listening to the needs of persons with disabilities, we will succeed in addressing numerous aspects in the challenge of adapting the workplace, to better implement and define the various options related to that challenge, and to innovate concrete methods of improving any given situation.
The Job-ACCESS project as been sponsered by the Federal Public Service Commission's Special Measures Initiatives Fund, the Treasury Board and Industry Canada's Centre for Information Technology Innovation. François Lapointe Chercheur TECSO email@example.com
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