Diversity and inclusion: disability in the post-pandemic workplace
The pandemic has given us an opportunity to rewrite the rules for workplaces in the future – let’s make them more inclusive for disabled people.
Covid-19 has turned our working world on its head, but whilst there have been many challenges, there have been positives too. Now there is a critical role for HR professionals in building a positive legacy for their workforce and reimagining an economy of work that could suit everyone.
One legacy of the pandemic must be a much deeper acceptance and appreciation of working differently and a blended economy of work.
We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to re-imagine and redesign what work looks like – a unique set of circumstances that has led to this chance to create lasting change.
We are all working with adjustments now
Workplace adjustments are critical for so many disabled people, and home working is the most frequently requested adjustment, so arguably, we are all working with adjustments now. There are benefits for many in terms of work/life balance but for anyone who lives with a pain or fatigue, or struggles to commute – whether that is due to the logistical difficulties of navigating transport as a wheelchair user or anxiety in travelling in rush hour – the benefits of home working are even greater.
A blended economy of work
One legacy of the pandemic must be a much deeper acceptance and appreciation of working differently and a blended economy of work. In a survey carried out by Business Disability Forum to find out how our members were responding to the challenges of Covid-19, 90% of respondents agreed that responses to Covid-19 will result in a lasting change in attitudes to flexible and home working. Finally, we are realising that being in an office is not a prerequisite for productivity.
Technology has been a game changer
Thanks to Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google hangouts and more, we now know many of our teams better than we knew them before. The blurring of lines between work and home has its downsides but also positives as we start to see each other without our workplace ‘armour’. The intimacy of letting people into our homes (albeit via our video camera) is a powerful thing.
… but it is not a panacea
Technology can exclude as well as include; the importance of enabling subtitles and turning the camera on for people who need to lip-read is an obvious example. While some disabled people are tech-savvy and completely at home with the world of technology, others have had a steep learning curve, and some still remain ‘no tech’, and need to shop, bank and work in person.
Don’t call me ‘vulnerable’
Disabled people have been disproportionately impacted by previous recessions and we need to do everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen again. As businesses plan a return to previous ways of working, HR professionals are critical in making sure that disabled people are not discriminated against.
The use of the term 'vulnerable' has not helped; those who are more vulnerable to Covid-19 are not necessarily the same as those who are vulnerable in other ways. Disabled people may have no increased risk factor related to Covid-19, but there is a real risk that these two things become conflated and disabled people are seen as a health and safety risk and prevented from returning to the workplace. Instead, we need an individual, person-centred approach to risk which focuses on addressing barriers rather than medicalising conditions.
Conversely, people with ‘hidden’ or non-visible disabilities who are vulnerable to Covid-19 may be overlooked, particularly if they have an impairment that their employer doesn’t know about. An employee may not have told their employer that they have a respiratory condition – and never have needed to. Now, overnight, they need to share this sensitive information, at a time when they are likely to be acutely aware that many businesses will need to make difficult decisions about redundancies and their workforce. Creating a culture that makes asking for literally life-saving adjustments feel safe for those individuals is crucial.
The law of unintended consequences
We also need to be aware of unintended consequences, particularly as businesses navigate unchartered waters and need to make policy decisions at pace. Making sure that disabled people are considered – and involved – up front when designing new processes (such as one-way systems round the office) is critical to ensuring they work for everyone.
Education, education, education
There is a key role too in educating the wider workforce. Sadly, we are already seeing disabled people subjected to abuse due to a lack of awareness of exemptions from wearing a facemask, for example. So, whether it’s awareness of the difficulties of facemasks for people who need to lip-read or understanding that some employees will find it difficult or nigh on impossible to socially distance (if they have a visual impairment or dyspraxia, for example, that makes it hard to visualise distances), we need to build and show genuine understanding, kindness and support.
Learning from the experts
Disability is still too often parked in the ‘too difficult’ box, though when it comes to working differently, arguably disabled people are the experts. We need to learn from disabled colleagues in thinking differently about working flexibly and to focus on outcomes: what we need to achieve, not how or where it should be done.
No one left behind
If there’s anything that Covid-19 has shown us, it’s that we truly are global. Technology has enabled us to communicate cross borders and though we may have been physically separate, in many ways, it has brought us closer together. We need to build on this legacy with an opportunity to be creative and find new ways to be inclusive and make sure – to quote the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals – ‘no one is left behind’.
We will be discussing these themes and more at our virtual annual conference Disability Today and Tomorrow: Living in a Post-Pandemic World on 14 and 15 October 2020. You can find out more about the conference and register your place at www.businessdisabilityforum.org.uk.
Interested in this topic? Read Why we should not forget diversity and inclusion during the Covid-19 pandemic.