How a Global Pandemic Has Forced Us to Change Our Thinking on Workplace Accessibility
August 11, 2021
Over 4 million Australians identify as having a disability and more than half of them are of working age1. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, working from home was a privilege few were given, and was actively denied as an accommodation to disabled people in the workforce. Why? Working from home was viewed as less productive, less collaborative and overall less favourable to working in the office from 9-5, Monday to Friday. This resulted in people with a disability being excluded from work places if they could not work in the office, or afford to make personal health sacrifices for their work.
Yet, by March 2020, 50% of the Australian workforce was forced to shift to online work when the initial COVID lockdown was imposed. Almost every office put work from home orders in place and we all had to adjust. Employees learnt that they could still be productive from home and many enjoyed eliminating the daily commute from their schedule. Employers learnt flexibility, adaptability and that their employees could in fact do their jobs from home. The changes in the last year have forced companies to re-evaluate working from home policies as they apply to the general workforce as well as individuals with disabilities. Suddenly the majority of employees were afforded the same accommodations that disabled people have been asking for for years. It has taken a global pandemic, and forced stay at home orders, for people with disabilities to get the accommodations they need. But these changes don’t just benefit those with disabilities. Single parents, those dealing with mental health issues and people who can’t afford to live in the inner city are also satisfied with the conveniences that working from home brings.
Importantly, the option to work from home gives disabled people the flexibility to arrange their lives in a way that suits them best. From working when pain or fatigue is most manageable, avoiding stressful situations such as getting ready for work, commuting and scheduling doctors appointments, working remotely gives people the opportunity to continue working while making sure their health is prioritised. By allowing for these small flexibilities, employers benefit from having a larger pool of employees to choose from as well as a more satisfied and healthy workforce.
Why is this so important to me? I live with Multiple Sclerosis, a neurological disease that can cause vision loss, pain, fatigue and impaired coordination. To manage my disease I have infusions every six months, MRIs, blood tests and many doctors appointments. A lot of the time, working is not an issue for me. I love my job and I enjoy working in the office with my colleagues when I can. However, the option to work from home when I need to means I can structure my days in a way that suits me and my health needs. As many companies have been doing, Purpose has allowed me – and the rest of the team – to continue a hybrid working model with some days in the office and some days from home. Being in the office is still optional most days which means I have the ability to work from home when my symptoms are flaring. I am very open about my disease, but with invisible illnesses, a lot of people choose to hide their health issues so they can continue living their lives without judgement. It’s possible that there are colleagues – even teammates – who are experiencing health challenges that you’re unaware of due to fear of being seen as less productive or valuable to the organisation, or quite simply, because the current company policy doesn’t accommodate for them to be anything less than perfect.
So as the world opens back up in many places and we can return to meeting in person, let’s remember that for some individuals, this comes with a lot of fear over how they will be able to continue doing the work they have been doing. As your organization plans for the opening of the office and looks forward to collaborating in person, don’t forget to think about how these changes will affect all employees. Assess the barriers people might face in your workplace, ask your employees what they have liked and disliked about working from home, and learn about the individuals you work with. Instead of jumping back into how things used to be, we need to take a moment to think about how things can be better – and better for all.
- according to the Australian Network on Disability