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'We're sometimes considered an afterthought': How people with disabilities see the post-Covid workplace

“I wouldn’t like to see a world where people with disabilities feel they can only work from home.”

“THE ONLY THING that gets me down is not my impairments. It’s what’s outside my front door.”

Catherine Gallagher, from Achill in Mayo, is a PhD student at Dublin City University, having won a scholarship to further her studies.

She intends to work through her PhD over the next few years before progressing to other work. 

Gallagher is entering a world of work through her studies in the field of journalism and communications that has been much changed since the onset of Covid-19 pandemic. 

With a sudden move to remote working for many, employers and employees – as well as the government – expect such remote working to remain a permanent future in the future.

Gallagher, who lives with a condition that limits her movement, said that, on the face of it, remote working does appear a good option for people with disabilities as it offers them a flexibility that they may not have had before.

She said: “Remote working does jump out at a lot of people as being suitable for disabled people.

“And remote working and remote studying is something that disabled people were crying out for for a long time. As a result of the pandemic, overnight everyone had the option.”  

But, Gallagher added, it’s not that easy.

Over the years, advocates have repeatedly highlighted the barriers facing people with disabilities from entering work.

Even in the “new” normal of work, some of these barriers remain and will need to be overcome.

People with disabilities have raised concerns that, now that the option is there for remote working, that they may be isolated more if they’re made to work from home rather than workplaces being made accessible for them.

According to data from Census 2016, 22% of people with a disability in Ireland were at work compared to 53% of the overall population.

In the Census, the unemployment rate for people with a disability was twice that of the general population. 

A report from three Oireachtas committees in 2018 found that there was an “often disjointed” approach experienced by people with disabilities as they attempted to transition from studies or training into the world of work. 

It also found the “system is rife with disincentives for people requiring special assistance to seek work at all, given that ‘success’ in the jobs market often means the loss or reduction of essential state-provided supports”.

In the “new normal”, it’ll likely feature a mixture of remote working and working in the office in many sectors.

People with disabilities and their advocates are clear – this new world of work offers them new opportunities to excel but essential supports such as transport and accessibility are needed to ensure they aren’t left behind. 

Flexible working

Rosie McAdam is a customer success manager at BT Ireland.  McAdam, a wheelchair user, enjoyed a flexible working culture pre-Covid but still chose to go into the office every day. 

“I would’ve been one of the few who didn’t work from home prior to Covid,” she said.

“Work changed dramatically on the 13th of March. It was a bit of a culture shock for me. I could’ve worked from home for years but I liked that social aspect and seeing colleagues.”

Although missing the office, she does feel she will take more advantage of the flexibility of remote working in the future. 

“When the option is there to go back to the office, maybe for me I’d go in in the mornings,” McAdam said.

“And then go home early in the afternoon. Everything I’m working on will be available in the office and at home. The technology is there to allow it and my company has been very good at giving me the equipment to work from home.”

Laura Kellegher works in social media marketing for a local business in Cavan. Since last March, she’s worked the majority of her time at home. 

She has certainly found it to be a positive thing.

“I’ve worked in remote jobs, so it’s not as much of a jump as before,” she said. “For me, I’ve been able to gain that bit of extra time and flexibility around the hours I work.

Because of my disability, I’m prone to tiring quicker. I could start work at 8am now and finish earlier. It means I’m able to work more effectively. I’m not waiting till 9am or 9.30am to start and being tired when 3pm or 4pm comes around. 

Kellegher said that working from home means she can work at her own pace, with less distractions and interruptions. 

It also means she doesn’t have to go to the office every day. the right side of her body is weaker than her left, meaning she can tire quicker and her visual awareness will sometimes be a bit weaker.

Long periods spent on public transport don’t help. 

“I’m lucky I have a car to drive in and out,” she said. “But travelling takes a lot of energy out of you.”

In the future, Gallagher said she’d prefer the option of a split between a few days in the office and at home. 

“Personally speaking, I’d love a hybrid model,” she said. “I’d love the idea of being able to go into an office and having the option of working remotely a day or two a week to really manage my energy.”

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Making it work

But there are changes Gallagher would like to see to make remote working really work for people with disabilities.

She said: “For remote working to be meaningful, especially in rural areas, it needs to be supported with proper services like transport. I’m not even talking about big routes, it’s super local instead. A small route to go to the nearest shop and back. Without that, I’d not consider going back [to rural areas].

An employer might think it’s a lot easier and cheaper to keep a person with disabilities working from home rather than build accessibility into the workplace – and that’s isolating for a person with disabilities if their only option is working from home.  And if they don’t get basic supports like good transport, then it can’t work for them.

Going forward, while appreciating the benefits of working from home, Kellegher would appreciate a mix of home working and office working.

But, she added that the turn to remote working could have a big benefit to people with disabilities.

She said: “It’s nice to get into the office for that social aspect too. I think a mix would work really well. 

From the perspective of having a disability, I’d say it’s opened a lot of doors. A person with a disability might be fully qualified for a job, but that workplace might not have been accessible enough. The option of home working eliminates those obstacles. It’s a bit more flexible. 

McAdam believes that the new form of working post-Covid will create more opportunities for people with disabilities to work effectively, particularly where transport is an issue.

However, she agreed with Gallagher that this shouldn’t preclude people with disabilities from having accessible workplaces in the future.

“I wouldn’t like to see a world where people with disabilities feel they can only work from home,” she said. “Some companies are talking about going completely virtual. I don’t know about that long-term, for their mental health as well as everything else.”

McAdam said that work definitely needs to be done around transport, particularly if the government is encouraging remote work in rural areas and through rural hubs.

“I work in a fairly sizeable company with supports here,” she said. “But there’s smaller companies out there who may not have been able to hire a person with a disability before, perhaps due to mobility or other issues. But I do think to make it work, there definitely needs to be something done around transport.”

She added that it may be some time – even when there is a large-scale return to offices and a mixture of home working – before the new world of work is figured out.

“It’ll be interested to see,” she said. “I don’t think we’ll see the full effect for about five years post-Covid.

“People may do the blended working and they may find it isn’t as great as they thought. Most people I’ve spoken to want to get in some form or another. It’ll be an interesting few years ahead.”

Gallagher said the crisis brought about by the pandemic must not mean that people with disabilities are left behind when the dust settles.

“If we’re facilitated to live our lives where we have some element of control and choice, we can contribute back,” she said.

“I’m not getting a sense that the disabled voice is being considered. But now is the time to raise that voice.

Our community is sometimes considered an afterthought. When you consider it it’s disheartening. It’s not empowering. The only thing that gets me down is not my impairments. It’s what’s outside my front door.

About the author:

Sean Murray

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