The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a host of new challenges for cancer warriors and thrivers, including how to work from home. According to the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, more than 50 percent of cancer survivors are part of the working age population (16 to 64 years old), and the Americans with Disabilities Act and other legal authorities grant employment protections for such individuals. Reasonable accommodations may be needed due to limitations caused by the cancer itself, the side effects of cancer treatment, or both. And as companies have shifted their operations to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic, employers have many opportunities for assisting their employees who are cancer survivors.
“This crisis has pushed employers to be more flexible and open-minded when it comes to work structure and set-up, and those that continue to maintain or expand this approach are ultimately going to be considered forward-thinking and innovative,” says Rebecca Nellis, the executive director of Cancer and Careers, the only U.S. nonprofit addressing cancer and workplace issues.
Cancer advocacy groups such as the Job Accommodation Network acknowledge that companies operating purely as remote workplaces have no clear responsibility regarding employees’ home workstations. Home-based employees work in their own residential offices, which are typically set up according to their personal needs and preferences. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many companies to suddenly shift their operations to remote work, the onus to provide the same work environment as at the office is now on the employer.
In this pandemic, reasonable accommodations include physical changes, accessible and assistive technologies, accessible communications, and policy enhancements. The planning and implementation of remote work
runs smoother when employees who are cancer survivors are engaged from the outset in the design and communications for new logistics. Understanding the logistical needs of the most vulnerable employees can provide opportunities to utilize universal design features.
A common challenge for many cancer survivors now while working from home is the digital divide for households strained by the costs of dealing with a severe chronic illness. According to MarketWatch, 1 in 4 cancer survivors struggle financially. This is due to several large expenses, including the costs of new therapies and loan debt.
“Not everyone has access to good, reliable internet [service] or a computer at home. And if they do, it may not be available for their sole use or it may not be new enough to power all their remote work. Employers should be sensitive as there could be some embarrassment or shame attached to not having access to cutting-edge technology or regular internet,” advises Nellis. Employers should share the burden of upgrading computers, internet connection capacity and software at home.
As employers plan for the possibility of either longterm or permanent remote work, technology innovations are opening new avenues for reasonable accommodations. Section 508, a federal law, requires all website content, including related products and services, be available to people with all types of disabilities. Many virtual meeting platforms provide services facilitating communications for various populations. Hard of hearing people can join via shared screens and chats on most platforms. Zoom has
closed captioning or allows a third-party captioning service. Microsoft Teams blurs backgrounds to facilitate lip reading. Visually-impaired individuals can participate via voice options, such as screen readers and dictation. Whether the assistive technologies are integrated in the product or offered via a third-party service, employers’ due diligence includes considering the compatibility of operating systems, applications and keystrokes for various computer brands.
Beyond repurposing mainstream technologies for accessibility needs, augmented and alternative communication innovations are specifically designed to serve the needs of people with greater barriers. Trackballs and
joysticks that can be controlled by hands and feet help those who can use other body parts for keyboards and screens. Wands and sticks attached to the head help those who can only move their head or parts of their head. Sip-and-puff systems help those who may not be able to move their heads but can control their breath to activate devices. Electronic pointing devices responding to eye movement, nerves signals and brain waves help those who have almost no physical mobility.
However, access to those cutting-edge technologies might be limited by cost and availability. Employers might explore collaborations with various technology stakeholders who have different motivations to facilitate access to their products and services. Large technology and telecommunications companies may be interested in gaining market share by offering free access for certain periods, which can give more time to devise better long-term accessibility plans for remote office operations. Additionally, companies may also be committed to good social outcomes of technology and take up pro bono projects. Employers may be interested in developing their own in-house technologies, and lead with new products and business models as well.
Reasonable accommodations for remote work at home also include considerations for neurodiversity and fatigue that workers who are cancer survivors may be experiencing. Nellis cautions that even when working from home, employees may still suffer from the same challenges with short-term focus and less stamina. Pacing meetings and breaks still allows cancer warriors and thrivers to perform well.
Although COVID-19 has disrupted the workplace quickly and dramatically, the crisis has also given rise to opportunities for more cost-effective and collaborative business models with new technologies and practices that are more universally inclusive of workers who are cancer survivors, if designed intentionally. As COVID-19 is forcing all to rethink the new normal with greater awareness of the human body’s frailty and greater reliance on technology tools, cancer survivors are uniquely poised to take a place at the table for re-imagining what the future of work—and the subsequent economic benefits—will look like.