Can hybrid working herald new opportunities for disabled workers?

The Covid pandemic has been both frightening and challenging for disabled people around the world, but could it herald the change towards flexible or hybrid working that some have long been hoping for?

When it comes to ensuring equality in the workplace, many company report cards would be marked ‘failed’, with not enough C-Suites offering inclusive solutions to provide sustainable and fulfilling employment for disabled people.

One in six people worldwide has a disability, according to the World Economic Forum, leaving more than 1 billion at risk of economic exclusion. According to the charity Scope, disabled people in the UK are almost twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people.

A number of issues contribute to a slow rate of change, from a lack of disabled representation on company boards to inaccessible workplaces to outdated ideas on what disabled people are capable of offering. However, with the Covid pandemic changing attitudes to flexible, remote and hybrid working, there is a renewed hope of finally driving through real, meaningful change.

Louise Rubin, Scope’s head of policy and campaigns, explains that the disability employment gap remains “stubbornly high” at around 30%. The charity’s research estimates 1 million disabled people in the UK alone want to work but are not given the opportunity. 

Rubin says: “Disabled people have long faced barriers to entering, staying and progressing in work. The introduction of flexible-working measures, something that disabled people have been requesting for years, is one positive to come out of an intensely stressful year. These measures must not be abandoned in the rush to ‘get back to normal’”.

Scope’s #workwithme campaign, a community of businesses committed to thinking and acting differently about disability to create long-term change, has support from organisations including Unilever, Philips, Ford and American Express. But recent moves by some companies to pay people less if they choose to work from home are a sign that those with disabilities continue to face challenges. Rubin warns that such a decision by businesses “could actively discriminate” against disabled people, making it harder for them to get into work and thrive. “It’s unfair to expect disabled people to choose between their health and their finances, and those who want to work from home should be supported to do so,” she says.

Hybrid pros and cons for disabled people

Bob Barker was diagnosed with hearing loss at age five. Now working for IT and software company Advanced, he believes the move to more remote working over the past 18 months has resulted in some benefits for those with disabilities. The biggest for him, he says, is meetings became remote and inclusive, allowing him to lip-read colleagues who were using webcams.

“Challenges my hearing loss could present at in-person meetings were no longer there,” he explains. “I didn’t need to be concerned about where to sit in a meeting room to best hear the participants. The accelerated rollout of improved collaboration software meant I was assisted by live captions and transcripts on calls. This gave me greater confidence, meaning I could be more my true self and do a better job.”

Don’t shy away from asking questions. The more you can find out about disabilities, the better you can understand and accommodate them

A homeworker before the pandemic, Barker chairs Advanced’s Disability Network and has advised employers on how to make online meetings more accessible. Advanced is one of many employers signed up to the government’s Disability Confident employer scheme, which aims to encourage companies to improve how they recruit, retain and develop disabled people.

Barker also believes that employers might be surprised by “how little, if anything, adjustments may cost” to make disabled employees’ working lives easier, suggesting more homeworking would give “greater access to a diverse pool of talent”. And he adds: “Working from home could benefit some disabled people by allowing them to manage their conditions in a more relaxed and accessible environment or removing the need for a stressful commute. However, others may find that being around colleagues in the workplace helps alleviate their conditions.” 

A sign of recent positive change, Scope’s free Support to Work service, created in collaboration with Work With Me member Virgin Media O2, experienced record demand in October 2020, posting a 236% year-on-year referral increase. The initiative helps provide disabled people with the skills and confidence to get and stay in work.

Virgin Media O2 has also launched UltraViolet, a dedicated network to support disabled employees, and has updated its workplace adjustments programme to provide more inclusive equipment, software and furniture, as well as flexible working hours so disabled employees can manage work around their impairment or condition.

Flexibility to choose

Molly Watt, a usability consultant at design agency Nexer Digital, has Usher syndrome. Deaf since birth, she lost her sight aged 14 and, for her, the interaction that comes from being in the office, not least for mental health reasons, is just as important as time working from home. 

Pre-pandemic, Watt worked part-time in a local office in the South East and travelled to Manchester once a fortnight with her guide dog. She believes that the flexibility to choose where to work enables employees to manage their lives in accordance with their needs, ensuring the best possible personal and team performance.

“Some people, like me, want to enjoy the benefits of working with their peers both online and physically in the office,’ she explains. “For example, having a dual impairment is exhausting, but being at home means I can regularly close and rest my eyes without feeling I’m missing out on anything. It’s easier to switch off for a few minutes than in a physical office. Doing this means I can be more productive and feel less exhausted.”

Offering practical advice to employers, Watt suggests companies need to be more open with those with disabilities, talking about where they need support. “Don’t shy away from asking questions. The more you can find out about disabilities, the better you can understand and accommodate them. There is no reason why people working from home, either full- or part-time, should feel excluded from the team’s work, projects or line of thought,” she adds.

With 19% of working-age adults in the UK disabled, according to Scope, Watt’s boss at Nexer Digital, Hilary Stephenson, is clear why all businesses must be disability inclusive. And while ensuring those with disabilities are supported and able to thrive at work is crucial, it’s also about having a workforce that reflects society. “We recognise we couldn’t possibly hope to meet the diverse needs of our clients and their audiences without having those diverse perspectives in our own team,” she says.