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How More Flexible Working Policies Can Benefit Those with Disabilities

Lucy O'Connor
Lucy O'Connor|

Working from home has become the ‘new normal’ for many of us during the pandemic. And there’s been a whole lot of talk about the benefits of flexible working.

Respondents in our Should We Ditch the Office? Survey named increased productivity, financial savings, spending more time with loved ones and the lack of commute as some of the most notable benefits associated with working from home. 

The survey also highlighted how remote working has opened up more opportunities for people with disabilities, many of whom had previously been denied the flexibility they needed and therefore disadvantaged in the workplace—or even excluded from the workforce.

One respondent commented, “I’d like companies to use WFH options more for employees with disabilities and chronic health conditions, as this would vastly reduce the discrimination faced when it comes to absences and illness.” 

Before the pandemic, one of the most significant issues that prevented disabled workers from having more flexibility was perceived ‘unfairness’, which often resulted in discrimination in the workplace. But now that working from home is becoming more commonplace, those with disabilities don’t have to feel like they’re getting ‘special treatment’, and employees/employers may be more accommodating to their needs. 

Another respondent commented, “Working remotely really suits my needs and energy levels due to my disability”—suggesting that having a flexible work schedule can benefit disabled workers’ productivity levels, which in turn benefits employers. 

So, if continued in a post-COVID world, could flexible working policies have a long-lasting positive impact for disabled workers? 

Below, we explore how remote working can benefit those with disabilities or chronic conditions, and provide some insight into how employers can do more to accommodate disabled employees going forward. 

Workplace challenges

People who have disabilities (of all types) face numerous challenges in the workplace. Some issues depend on specific conditions—such as office buildings without step-free access for wheelchair users—but many disabled workers also face discrimination because of their coworkers’ and employers’ attitudes.

Before the pandemic, many faced reluctance from employers to make any adjustments to their workspace. And employers were often rigid in their views towards time off for medical appointments or flexible hours. As such, people with disabilities and chronic illnesses have been campaigning for flexible work for years, so it is understandably both frustrating and exciting to see the world adapting to remote working. 

The drastic changes employers have made in such a short time to prevent the spread of the virus reveal how capable we are to address the inequalities disabled people face, and also expose how little has been done in the past. 

Benefits of remote working for disabled workers

Less difficulty travelling

The ability to work from home may significantly benefit those with mobility impairments who find it difficult or costly to travel. 

Sophie Washington, a wheelchair-user, spoke to the BBC about working from home; she said lockdown has allowed her to “contribute more” to her role as she no longer has to make often painful and exhausting journeys to London. 

“Since lockdown, we have had several meetings online, and it’s been really great to be involved. I’ve been more well in myself as I haven’t had to make that long journey,” says Sophie. 

The daily commute can be testing for many workers (as we all know), but disabled travellers often face extra challenges and costs, such as problems with accessibility at stations, lack of appropriate information, and issues with getting a seat. 

Whilst working from home is not necessarily the perfect solution to all of these problems, it can go a long way in mitigating some of the challenges that disabled commuters face daily. 

Better health 

A Unison survey of more than 4,000 disabled people across the UK found many felt working from home during the pandemic improved their wellbeing.

A large number of participants in the survey cited they were taking fewer sick days, for instance: “Two weeks ago, I was up at 4am in agony…as I was working from home, I was able to do a full day’s work and take a proper rest on my lunch.” Having more flexibility can help people with disabilities to manage their condition better and create a schedule that suits their needs. 

Respondents also named the ability to take short breaks, and easier toilet access as reasons for their improved wellbeing while working from home.  

Increased productivity 

The Unison survey also found that nearly three quarters (73%) of disabled employees felt they were more productive or as productive working from home, ​compared to their pre-lockdown place of work.

One respondent cited, “I live with bipolar. Working from home gives me a controlled, quiet space with no distractions.” Having the choice to work in an environment that is most suited to an individual’s needs can help to boost productivity.

Fewer employment barriers

In the UK, the employment rate for disabled workers is just 48%, compared with 80% for the non-disabled workforce. 

For many people with disabilities or long-term illnesses, it can be challenging to adapt to meet the requirements of a ‘traditional office job’. But inclusive policies such as flexible and remote working can open up opportunities, and break down the barriers of travel, discrimination and accessibility.

But not everyone feels the benefits

Neverthless—one size rarely fits all, and working from home may not benefit everyone. 

In the Unison survey, many disabled employees said they were less productive working from home because their working environment didn’t accommodate their needs. 

More than half of the respondents in the survey said they had received no ‘reasonable adjustments’, such as adaptable keyboards, from their employers—despite it being a requirement under the Equality Act 2020. 

Communicate better

As an employer, the best way to resolve this is to open up communication with your disabled and chronically ill workers about their needs. And then be proactive in optimising their work environment: this may include making adjustments to the physical workspace, changing equipment or adapting work hours.

An easy way to assess whether your employees’ setup is suitable for working from home is to run a DSE Assessment and a home working risk assessment. The employer should then carry out the necessary upgrades to employees’ homes to bring them in line with the expectation of what you would get in an office.

We can make this whole process simple via the HubbleHQ Home Working Assessment.

For many disabled members of the workforce, this new, more positive outlook that the world now has around remote working is somewhat bittersweet—why did it take a global pandemic to allow disabled employees to do what they’ve been asking for for years?

Regardless, now that working from home has, in a way, been ‘normalised’, it’s even more critical that employers listen to their disabled and chronically ill team members, and ensure that their needs no longer go ignored.

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