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Chapter 10: Telework as an Employment Option for People with Disabilities

Barbara Murray and Sean Kenny

The labour market has been greatly influenced by technological developments in recent years. While many traditional occupations have disappeared, this trend has been matched by the emergence of new opportunities, particularly linked to developments in information technology. One of the developments which is especially significant for people with disabilities is the fact that work can now be carried out at a distance from the conventional workplace in the form of telework, supported by developments in telecommunications. Telework can open up new employment opportunities for people whose disability has excluded them from the workplace (e.g. people whose mobility is restricted) and may also make it possible for people who become disabled in the course of their employment to retain their jobs in a new form.

This paper reports on a recently completed pilot project, in which the feasibility of home-based telework as a form of employment for people with physical disabilities was evaluated. Through this, the extent to which telework might promote their economic and social integration was explored. In addition, broader issues involved in the introduction of telework on a national basis were examined.

1.0 Concept of Telework

Telework can be described as work which involves the use of information and telecommunications technologies and which is carried out at a distance from the conventional workplace. It may be carried out on-line or off-line.

Home-based telework was defined in the project as referring to teleworking arrangements where an individual works predominantly from the home, either as an employee of a company or as an entrepreneur, with work being communicated to and from its source in a variety of ways, including use of the various telecommunications facilities now available (on-line) and also of more traditional means of communication (off-line).

On-line telework involves the use of an electronic link (using a modem and telephone) between the worker at his/her remote workstation and the employer or contractor. The electronic link is used for communication and transmission of work.

Off-line telework involves use of conventional transportation (e.g. delivery by car, mail, courier etc.) in either the delivery and/or return of work to source. The work may either be in hard copy form or stored on disk or tape.

While both on-line and off-line forms of telework are currently in use, the off-line form is at present more common than the on-line form. On-line telework is gradually expanding, however, due to the development of telecommunications services.

2.0 Methodology

The project was an action-research project in which a number of case-studies were set up and monitored in terms of effectiveness over periods ranging from 6-8 months. The project coordinator acted as a facilitator, in establishing the care-studies and in providing on-going support and assistance to the telework units in the course of the study.

The evaluation of the telework arrangements had both formative and summative dimensions. The formative dimension of the evaluation involved gathering information about the case-studies at regular intervals while they were in operation and feeding this information back to the relevant people to help solve problems which arose, improve the effectiveness of the telework units and enhance their feasibility. This aspect of the evaluation was the responsibility of the project coordinator, who used the information generated to develop and improve the telework units, in consultation with the teleworker, telework employer or service purchaser and other agencies involved.

The summative aspect of the evaluation aimed to answer basic questions about the feasibility of home-based telework as an employment option for people with physical disabilities in the Irish context and about any supports which would be required if this form of employment was to become more widespread. The project evaluator examined the financial, technical, organisational, social and environmental aspects of the telework arrangements by means of interviews with the teleworkers and telework employers at the start and end of the project, and through the information which was generated while the telework arrangements were in operation.

2.1 The Telework Arrangements

Eleven telework arrangements were established in the preliminary phase of the project. In setting up the case studies, the aim was to ensure that a variety of work, teleworker characteristics, conditions and locations would be reflected, so that the feasibility of telework could be examined under varying conditions.

2.2 Teleworkers

The teleworkers who participated in the pilot project were aged between 22 and 47 years. There included five females and six males. They differed significantly, in terms of both their educational background and their familiarity with computers at the start of the project. Their educational levels ranged from primary to third level. Four of the teleworkers had previously completed computer related courses; three were self-taught in the use of computers and the remaining four teleworkers had not used computers prior to the pilot project.

Each had a physical or sensory disability of some kind, associated with cardiac problems, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, multiple sclerosis, involuntary movement disorder, visual and hearing impairment, arthritis and injuries resulting in paraplegia and quadriplegia. In four cases, the disability had been present since birth or childhood; in the remaining seven cases, the onset of disability was later in life. With two exceptions, the teleworkers were independent of others in terms of mobility.

Seven of the teleworkers had been in employment before the project started, for periods ranging from under a year to over twenty years. Another teleworker had worked as an apprentice for four years. In three of these cases, the telework arrangement was a way of retaining their employment, following the onset of their disability, in a different form then previously. In the remaining cases, the telework arrangements represented new jobs for the people involved, following a period of unemployment. Three of the teleworkers had not worked before starting telework: for them, the telework arrangement was their first experience of paid employment.

A profile of the teleworkers in terms of their age, sex, disability, educational qualifications, computer-related training and previous work experience is given in Table 10.1.

2.3 The Telework Employers

Five of the employers who took part in the project were public sector organisations, two were located in the private sector, and the remaining employer was voluntary body. The self employed teleworker carried out work on a contract basis for private sector companies. All of the employing organisations were involved in service provision. The services included educational provision, telecommunications, mass media, local authority services, computer sales and servicing, and advocacy. Most of these organisations had advanced computerisation of activities.

TABLE 1. Table 10.1: Profile of home-based teleworkers

2.4 Telework Conditions of Employment

Two of the case studies involved teleworkers who were self-employed: one carrying out work on a contractual basis and the other working on a piece-rate basis. The other nine telework arrangements were employer/employee arrangements. In four of these cases, the telework jobs were permanent. Three involved retention of previous employment in telework form, the fourth involved permanent employment with an initial probationary period. Two of the employer/employee arrangements involved temporary full-time employment. A further three involved employment on a temporary contractual basis (see Table 10.2).

The work carried out in the telework case studies included 'high status' work such as programming, systems design, computer-aided design and script-writing; and routine jobs such as data entry, work processing and desk-top publishing.

The home-based telework units were located throughout Ireland, in both urban and rural areas. Four of the teleworkers worked on-line, with links spanning physical distances ranging from 8 to 240 kilometres. The other teleworkers worked off-line at distances from their employers or service contractors ranging up to 20 kilometres.

2.5 Training Requirements

Seven of the teleworkers had already acquired computer-related skills before the project started. In four of these cases, though, the teleworkers were taking up new jobs and were thus required to undergo a period of induction into company practice before the telework could commence.

Four of the teleworkers had no previous experience of computer usage and required introductory training, which was delivered in the form of computer-based tutorials with the assistance of the project coordinator, before home-based telework could commence.

2.6 Telework Equipment and Facilities

Each teleworker worked with a personal computer, a printer and a telephone. The equipment was supplied by the employer in some cases; through the project in other cases; and owned by the teleworker in another case. Specially adapted computer equipment was required by two of the teleworkers.

Four teleworkers had modem connections with the Mainframe computer at their employer's headquarters, which were made using ordinary telephone lines, rather than dedicated lines. The data was transferred on-line at times by these teleworkers, using the modem connection, and using floppy disks and hard copy at other times. Where the teleworkers worked off-line (without a modem connection to their employer's Mainframe computer), work was transferred using floppy disks and hard copy, by post or by hand. The cost of telephone connections was borne by the employer, in cases where the teleworker worked on-line, and the cost of telephone calls made in connection with work was borne by employers in other cases.

TABLE 2. Table 10.2: Profile of telework arrangements

2.7 Working Arrangements

While all the teleworkers had regular contact with their employers or clients, the extent to which they worked at home varied considerably. Some spent several days working from home, and worked from a conventional work-place for the rest of the week. Others stayed at home for weeks at a stretch, in contact with their employers or clients on-line and by telephone, with occasional face-to-face meetings. The amount of contact with the employing organisations, whether face-to-face or by telephone, was greatly influenced by the nature of the work being carried out which, in some cases, required considerable consultation. Distance management requirements and personality factors has an impact on the level of contact.

Most of the teleworkers aimed to work 'office hours', while taking a flexible approach to break times. All of them found the flexibility useful in terms of their rhythm and in terms of having to deal with personal business. Many worked to specific deadlines and targets so that from a distance management viewpoint, the effectiveness of the arrangements was not difficult to monitor.

3.0 Results

Of the eleven telework arrangements negotiated in the early stages of the pilot project, eight were operational at the end of the project. These included the two self-employment arrangements and six employer/employee arrangements. The work involved in the operational arrangements was programming and systems design combined with general managerial work (including financial and other reporting), computer-aided design, desk-top publishing services, word-processing and data-entry. Each of the employer/employee arrangements was set to continue after the completion of the project, with adjustments in the day-to-day organisation of the telework in some cases to suit the cycle of the work-load or changes in the teleworker's own situation. While one of the self-employed teleworkers was operating a successful computer-aided design service, combined with desk-top publishing at the end of the project, the feasibility of the second self-employed teleworker's arrangement was in doubt. It appeared that a teleworking arrangement in the form in question would be feasible only if the type of work undertaken (word processing on a contract basis) was supplemented with other types of work.

Three of the case-studies were not operational at the end of the project. Two has been delayed for reasons associated with getting sources for special computer adaptations and were likely to commence shortly after completion of the project. One of the arrangements was postponed indefinitely due to a deterioration in the teleworker's health.

Most of the problems arising in the course of the case studies were resolved without having a major impact on the telework arrangement: they were 'teething' problems associated with setting up a new venture, involving work practice and technical aspects of the arrangements. Some of the problems which arose (in connection with the identification and souring of suitable computer adaptation) caused delays in the implementation of the initiatives. In only one case, the telework arrangement could not be implemented: this was due to a significant deterioration in the teleworker's health.

The outcome of the operational telework arrangements was discussed with the teleworkers and in the case of the telework employees with their employers, and at the end of the pilot project.

Six of the eight home-based teleworkers definitely liked working from a home-base, and wished to continue doing so. It should be noted, thought, that in most cases the teleworkers combined working at home for several days with working at a conventional workplace for the remainder of the week. The teleworkers liked this and several of them said that they would not like to work entirely at home. One of the teleworkers was glad to have had the experience of home-based telework, but on balance, would prefer a conventional office-based job. She would continue with home-based telework, however, if it was the only employment option open to her. The remaining teleworker said that changes would be needed in the organisation of her telework arrangement (more structuring of the work, setting of clear deadlines) if she was to continue working in this way.

In the teleworkers' opinion, the advantages of home-based telework included the flexibility of working hours; the possibility of working without interruption; the fact that there was no need to rely on public transport, no problems of access to buildings, no worry about the weather; the possibility of working in familiar environment; being his/her own boss. Those who had to travel to a conventional workplace for part of the week reported feeling much less tired on the days when they worked at home.

The disadvantages which the teleworkers associated with home-based teleworking were: the lack of social contact; the lack of work support and the difficulties in consulting others; the lack of structure, giving rise to the need for considerable self-discipline; the need to be highly motivated. Since in most cases the teleworkers combined working at home with working alongside others in the company offices, however, they did not experience isolation but foresaw this as presenting problems should they work at home continually. For most of the teleworkers, the advantages of home-based teleworking outweighed the disadvantages.

For the telework employers, given the experimental nature of their involvement in telework, it was too soon for a policy statement on telework. At the end of the project, though, several of the participating employers were reviewing the telework experience with a view to informing company policy. The advantages which they could already see in having employees working 'off-site' were associated with the retention of valued employees who needed the flexibility of work hours and location which telework could offer. Several employers expressed satisfaction with the high quality of work carried out by the teleworkers at home. While some of them favoured telework for these reasons, they foresaw difficulties in having telework arrangements in operation on a full-time basis, given the nature of the work which they carried out. The need for regular interaction with colleagues and clients, as well as the need at times to use large-scale equipment located in the common offices, meant that a flexible approach to telework would be requires. This flexibility was seen both in terms of days of the week and phases of the work cycle.

4.0 Discussion

The case study experience indicated that home-based telework is a very flexible form of employment. It may involve working from a home base for part of each week and from a conventional office for the rest of the week; or working from home on specific elements of a broader workload which are suited to the telework format; or working at home for most of the time, with occasional visits to the company offices. It may involve on-line work in which the teleworker is in direct contact with the employer's or service contractor's Mainframe computer through a modem link, or off-line work in which work is transferred by post or courier in hard copy or diskette form.

The feasibility of home-based telework for people with physical disabilities in a variety of forms has been demonstrated in the project. A number of conditions need to be met, however: the work to be carried out from a home base should be clearly specified in a way which allows progress to be monitored. It should not require frequent, unplanned consultation with colleagues or clients. A flexible approach is essential: in some cases, the work may be carried out exclusively from a home base; in others, it may be necessary to combine home-based work with attendance at a conventional workplace, either on a regular basis (e.g. for part of each week) or at certain stages in the work cycle. It may constitute a complete job in itself (such as programming) or may be part of a broader range of work duties, only some of which are suited to the telework format (such as general management jobs involving financial analysis and report-writing). It should be possible to carry out the work without the use of equipment or supplies which can only be supplied economically in a central work location (e.g. testing equipment). Where the use of such facilities is necessary at certain stages in the work, attendance at the conventional workplace may be necessary for a block of time, or for part of the working week.

With regard to the management of telework arrangements by the employing organisation, responsibility for maintaining contact with the teleworker and for monitoring the performance of work in this form should be allocated to a specific contact person at managerial level within the employing or contracting organisation. Procedures for distance management should be developed, so that contact with the teleworker is maintained on a regular basis, rather than solely in relation to any crises which may arise. Associated with this is the need for some procedures which help to ensure that the teleworker feels linked to the organisation and its employees and is not isolated.

Finally, telework is suited to some people, but not all. In order for telework to be successful, attention much be given to selection of people who are suited to working at a distance from conventional workplaces. Besides being qualified to do the work in question, the teleworker should be able to work independently, without direct supervision and be a self-starter in relation to the work itself. In addition, she/he should be familiar with computers. A further requirement is that the teleworker should be able to work at home without interruption, making the availability of a suitable 'workplace' in the home an important prerequisite for the success of the arrangement. While teleworkers should be qualified to do the work in question, a period of induction training may be necessary where they are new employees of the employing organisation. This period of induction serves two purposes: besides familiarising the teleworker with the type of service provided by the organisation, it also enables him/her to get to know other employees of the organisation and make links which are essential to prevent feelings of isolation from developing, when the teleworking arrangements becomes operative.

5.0 Conclusions

Telework will create new employment opportunities for people with disabilities - especially those with severe mobility restrictions - given the right supports. In some cases, this will involve the creation of jobs which did not exist before; while in others, it will involve the offering of a job which already existed to an unemployed disabled person, although the job may have to be respecified in telework form. The potential for employment creation in entrepreneurial form is also considerable.

In addition to these new opportunities, telework can also make it possible for people who are faced with the onset of a disability to retain their employment. Providing proper attention is paid to the aspirations and skills to the teleworkers, the organisation of work, and to the provision of training required by people who are not familiar with the use of computers and advanced telecommunications, telework will contribute positively to an improvement of the employment opportunities of people with disabilities.


This project was part of a study carried out under contract to the STAR programme of the European Communities, in which both home-based and centre- based telework arrangements were established and monitored. The chapter is taken from an article published in Journal of Rehabilitational Research, 1990, 13, 205-214.