Creating more opportunities for employees with disabilities

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Written by Liz Johnson on 19 October 2020 in Opinion
Opinion

Liz Johnson explains how remote working is making the world of work more inclusive for disabled employees.

Over the last few months, office life has been thrown into flux. Working from home has been mandatory for many, breeding makeshift home offices, countless Zoom calls and a fresh struggle to make work and life balance. It suits some people more than others; but for many disabled workers, it has been a welcome change. 

Office set-ups and norms aren’t often created with disabled people in mind. Meaning office environments can be hazardous, uncomfortable or simply inaccessible to many.

The ‘new normal’ and its remote status quo presents a huge opportunity for disabled workers to engage with the world of work and business from the safety and flexibility of home. But in order for them to do so, employers must pave the way, build on recent progress and set them up for success.

Employers must use remote working to build greater inclusion

Employers must learn from the involuntary ‘work from home’ experiment, and ensure it becomes the first step towards a more inclusive business model 

Although adapting to new ways of working has been difficult for many, for those in the disabled community it could lead to improved access. 

Having a diverse team isn’t enough; every member of that team must feel equally supported to be the best that they can be

Employers have come to realise that remote working has many benefits, and for disabled workers and jobseekers, the flexible future of work brings hope. Long, tiresome commutes are no longer compulsory, and disabled workers can fit their role around other medical or care needs.

Even things like getting ready in the morning –quick and simple for able-bodied people – uses precious time and energy that disabled employees can now funnel into their work. 

Businesses are starting to go back to the office, but employers must keep flexible working in play to accommodate those colleagues who need it. The workplace playbook is being re-written and could become more inclusive than ever as a result. But the onus is on employers to refuse to return to the same rigid policies that locked disabled people out before.

Value home and office working equally

Working from home or from the office needs to be valued equally. There’s no point giving people a choice if those at home are left out.

Working in the office isn’t just about the work that gets done; it’s also about the conversations, the lunches and the coffees that are off the record but present opportunities for progression. It can be hard to engage employees in the same way when they’re working remotely; but employers must make an effort to ensure they’re not left out.

For disabled people in particular, returning to work involves returning to settings and structures designed for able-bodied people. This increases the physical and mental demands of any job, ultimately making it harder for them to do their work effectively.

 

Yet if they choose to work from home, they might fear missing crucial opportunities to connect and put themselves forward. Those with needs which are not considered the norm shouldn't have to fight to access what others have as standard.

If employers want to make their workplace truly inclusive, they need to find new ways to engage all employees equally; whether they’re working from home or from the office. This is a new challenge, but one that must be met. 

It means making time for informal conversations over the phone, dialling remote colleagues into social events and offering everyone equal opportunities. The onus isn’t on the individual - it’s on employers to create a culture of inclusivity. 

Flexible working for all makes business sense

There are many job seekers and employees for whom a 9 to 5 office work schedule simply doesn’t suit. This doesn’t just include employees with disabilities – it might also include parents and those with long or expensive commutes.

But it goes without saying that these people have valid ideas, skills and perspectives. The more diverse a group you can bring into your organisation, the wider the range of experiences that will feed into your work. It makes business sense to be as diverse as possible, to ensure your products and services meet the widest range of needs.

Building flexible or freelance contracts into your business model will automatically make you more accessible to new groups. Don’t lose out on diverse talent, simply because your policies are rigid and inflexible. The pandemic has shown us that flexibility does work, so now is a chance to look at your team, notice who you’re excluding; and welcome them in.

Businesses are rebuilding, restructuring and changing, and we have a chance to make authentic inclusivity our new normal. But the onus is on the employer to make the necessary changes. It will not happen without conscious effort.

Diversity and inclusion are different

While building a more diverse workforce, employers must remember that having a diverse team and being truly inclusive are different things.

Having a diverse workforce means that your team is composed of people from different backgrounds – including under-represented and marginalised groups. Being authentically inclusive means giving under-represented groups within your organisation the opportunity to thrive. Having a diverse team isn’t enough; every member of that team must feel equally supported to be the best that they can be. 

Not being inclusive of the people within your workforce often comes from unconscious bias, or a lack of diversity in your leadership team.

You need to create a supportive environment where everyone feels free to share their ideas; and where everyone has the chance to develop equally and on their terms. Diverse hires don’t automatically equate to inclusivity. True inclusivity takes understanding, empathy and conscious work.

And finally...

With great challenges come great opportunities, so don’t forget that although COVID has changed the way we work forever, these changes have created opportunities for workers and business leaders alike. 

While many employees will want to go back to work, there are many who can gain from the new, flexible status quo. Providing flexible working options and looking to engage disabled talent will help strengthen your team by fostering greater diversity and inclusivity. The time is now to make positive changes, and we can’t let it pass us by.

 

About the author

Liz Johnson, a former gold-medallist Paralympian, is co-founder The Ability People. She is also founder of Podium

 

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