The coronavirus crisis proves reasonable workplace accessibility has been possible all along

The coronavirus is forcing employers to inadvertently accommodate some of the 15% of people around the world who  live with a disability.
The coronavirus is forcing employers to inadvertently accommodate some of the 15% of people around the world who live with a disability.
Image: AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
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As the new reality of the coronavirus pandemic has set in, people around the world are experiencing the trials of isolation and exclusion of quarantine and social distancing for the first time. We are entering a new norm where a video call is the new meeting, virtual travel is the new weekend activity, and “self-isolation” is a common phrase.

Yet for so many people with disabilities, this same experience of seclusion has long been familiar.

The impacts of the Covid-19 outbreak have been astounding for nearly everyone, and devastating for many. In the midst of all this upheaval, these changes could also be promising for a more inclusive future.

We’ve seen adjustments being made on a widespread scale. Businesses and communities have made significant adjustments to adapt their working conditions and culture to new norms. As more measures are made to control the spread of infection, working remotely and flexibly has become standard across almost all sectors as workers across the globe are being asked to work from home to reduce the spread of outbreak. Employers are working closely with their employees to navigate the associated challenges in communication, productivity, and wellbeing.

In other industries, supermarkets are dedicating separate shopping times for the most vulnerable customers. In the fashion industry, where there were more clothing lines for dogs than there are for people with disabilities, we have seen a huge shift in creating products for specific needs, such as face masks that don’t look unpleasant or medical. A fashion show in Nigeria even celebrated face masks as a high-fashion accent.

Buried within this crisis is a lesson that must be taken forward to the future of workplace behavior: Businesses have clearly demonstrated that when it becomes an absolute necessity to drastically adapt working culture and introduce flexible models, the shift for many corporations is possible—and can be implemented within an incredibly short timeframe.

It hasn’t been without its challenges, and understandably, not every corporation’s infrastructure can support such widespread measures. But companies are putting in genuine efforts, actively seeking solutions, and seeing rapid results.

What stands in the way of accommodating people with different abilities?

Many of these accommodations and adaptations are the same ones that disabled employees have sought for so long to have approved for their working lives in order to enable them to fully engage with and contribute to their careers meaningfully.

Measures like remote and flexible working can be a critically important factor in enabling employees with disabilities to fully engage with their jobs. Yet up until now, there hasn’t been enough support or understanding from the business landscape. A November 2019 report by UK union organization UNISON surveyed nearly 2,900 respondents and found that 67% of disabled workers across the UK who had asked their employer to make reasonable adjustments for them in the workplace had had all or some of their requests rejected. Meanwhile in the US, according to marketing research firm The Standard, only 40% of human resources managers surveyed are confident in the way their company handles disability accommodations.

By neglecting to reasonably accommodate employees with disabilities, businesses are missing out on valuable opportunities and resources.

A 2018 study by Accenture, in partnership with organizations Disability: IN and the American Association of People with Disabilities, found that companies that improved internal practices for disability inclusion were four times more likely to witness higher total shareholder returns.

Working with employees with disabilities to implement the reasonable adjustments they need in order to thrive in the workplace would help to ensure companies remain economically active in times of great stress and change, like the present, while simultaneously bringing more talent and diversity of thought into the workplace. These are proven key drivers of innovation and progress across industries.

After the storm

It is truly promising and reassuring to see how in the face of a crisis, we are witnessing businesses coming together to work with their employees to ensure working life can continue while protecting their wellbeing.

The coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc. Yet it’s also been a catalyst for resilience, as companies prove that they can successfully adjust and adapt to dramatic change. We cannot revert back to business as usual once the storm dies down.

So, what happens when the perception that accommodations such as working from home, live streaming events, paying for sick leave, or online instructions would be completely counterproductive has now been disproved?

Hopefully the answer is that businesses and society can become rooted in accessibility and inclusion, well beyond this pandemic.