Kiran Kaja’s sight began to fail at birth.
Born with a rare degenerative eye disease, he is now blind. But that has not stopped him from doing what he loves, even during the pandemic.
Kaja, an engineer, heads a team at Google that works on making its news and Google Assistant functions more accessible for people with a range of limitations.
When the pandemic hit in March, he was forced to work from home. That upended his carefully calibrated working life.
Those able to continue working remotely during the crisis have faced challenges like isolation and deteriorating mental health. But for disabled people, it’s harder. Stuck at home, many are cut off from the resources they rely on at work. Technology offers new tools, but companies aren’t always required to provide needed help.
Kaja lives in Sunnyvale with his wife, who is also visually impaired. Initially their challenges focused on basic needs, like food.
“Normally we use grocery delivery services,” Kaja said. In the early days of shelter-in-place, it became almost impossible to get a delivery before grocery chains ramped up hiring and capacity to bring groceries to people’s doorsteps.
The assistance he relied on at work was upended as well.
In the office, Kaja can call for help when software that reads text aloud or other technical workarounds for people with low sight doesn’t do the trick. Paths were cleared for him to get around the office, and he had a quieter desk where he could listen to readouts of text.
Now it’s not so easy to get help, even with an assistant just a call away.
“While we were in the office it was great, she would just look over my shoulder,” Kaja said of his assistant.
Now a combination of phone calls, digital screen sharing, and even pointing a laptop or smartphone camera at his screen allow Kaja to access help when a tricky file — like a photo of text — resists technical wizardry.
Video calls and meetings pose a particular challenge. Listening to a computer readout of a document while co-workers chatted was daunting. “I had to ask for a second laptop,” to use for videoconferences in order to do both at once, Kaja said.
A Braille keyboard helps Kaja to write code and emails.
Not all companies are able, willing, or legally bound to provide extra accommodation for the new situations created by working from home during shelter-in-place, according to Sheeva J. Ghassemi-Vanni, an employment lawyer with Fenwick & West.
Companies still have to accommodate disabilities — pandemic or not — unless it creates an undue hardship on the business, according to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“That can be a bit of a squishy concept” and could depend on the cost of an accommodation compared to the resources of a company, Ghassemi-Vanni said.
“A special standing desk pre-pandemic could be totally reasonable,” she added. “During the pandemic if an employer was really hard hit financially, that might not be a reasonable accommodation.”
Federal law says that companies have to work with employees to figure out reasonable accommodations. That too is up for interpretation, particularly during a pandemic.
“What’s reasonable to someone else might not be reasonable to us,” said Conner Eversole, a lawyer who focuses on corporate and other law.
The unemployment rate for people with a disability rose from 7.8 percent in January to 18.9 percent in April, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. (The regular unemployment rate more than tripled to 14.7 percent in that period.)
More than a quarter of adults in the U.S., 61 million people, live with a disability according to federal government figures.
For some disabled Google employees, working from home has been a “godsend,” said Sara Basson, a speech scientist who works on accessibility and inclusion issues at the company.
Basson said employees with disabilities like chronic pain or motor impairments no longer have to manage a commute or come into the office to collaborate with their colleagues.
“Working from home eliminated a lot of what used to be special accommodations,” Basson said.
That means disabled employees can work with others “without being the one on the team that’s not in the office,” she added.
Kaja said the experience has changed how he interacts with other disabled colleagues too.
“I am blind so I don’t really care about video that much,” he said, laughing. Because of that he rarely bothered to make sure his face was in frame during video calls until a deaf colleague asked him to adjust the camera so they could read his lips while he spoke.
Kaja said some deaf co-workers also appreciate video calls since they force people to take turns and not talk over each other.
Even with plenty of support, Kaja said, some problems — like those pesky photos of text — can be frustrating.
“People with disabilities, we want to be independent, we want to be able to do things on our own,” he said.
Writing it all down has helped.
At the beginning of the pandemic, he made a list of the challenges he was facing. That turned into a shared Google Doc that others with disabilities have added to. It has grown to include tips for writing code while blind or requesting a backup laptop in case one of the two Kaja uses goes out.
Those connections have moved beyond the technical and into the personal, Kaja said.
“It brought us together in a way,” he said.