When the coronavirus pandemic first hit the UK, figures showed that disabled people had been hit particularly hard. A survey by UK disability charity Leonard Cheshire Trust painted a grim picture in September 2020, revealing that 71 per cent of disabled employees had been adversely affected by the pandemic. And one in five employers said they would be less likely to hire someone with a disability.
So far, no surprises, as it’s a well-worn trope that diversity and inclusion are the first casualties in any economic crisis when cash-strapped employers deprioritise what many see as a luxury. What’s more, a study published in January 2021 by researchers from the University of Glasgow and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine showed that central and local government fall prey to this knee-jerk reaction too. Suspension of facilities and funding for social services saw many disabled people, who were already confined to their homes as self-shielders, disadvantaged even further as they were unable to access the services they needed to cater for their basic needs.
Back in the world of work, disabled employees were among the first to be put on furlough and made redundant. But is there a glimmer of hope as employers look to new ways of working? We know the workplace will look different, but no one knows which of the changes we’ve seen over the last 12 months will be permanent. One buzzword that’s on everyone's lips is flexibility and, love it or hate it, we’ve seen that remote working can be enormously flexible – and adaptive.
This has to play to the benefit of disabled employees, particularly those with mobility or chronic physical or mental health conditions. Long commutes and tiring days in busy offices could be a thing of the past. It’s also potentially better for the employer, which would not have to undertake the tailored Covid workplace risk assessments and adjustments that are necessary for returning disabled employees.
Organisations such as Podium and the Business Disability Forum are already tapping into the potential by looking at linking disabled consultants and employees with employers that are looking for the person with the best skills and experience, and do not automatically exclude those who do not present as body – or neuro – typical. There seems to be no bar now to roles as diverse as CEO and call centre operative being carried out remotely by disabled as well as non-disabled employees.
It remains to be seen what additional costs this would entail and whether the necessary expenditure on adaptive equipment and technology at the employee’s home falls outside the scope of a ‘reasonable adjustment’ in terms of section 20 of the Equality Act 2010. However, there may be many cases where it does not.
Although those in non-office based sectors, such as hospitality and retail, would not necessarily be helped by a shift to home working, it’s equally possible that an increase in flexible working generally will benefit them too, as the variety of non-conventional working practices increases and employers’ eyes are opened to the possibility.
With everything to gain in terms of productivity by embracing the concept of greater flexibility, it’s certainly possible that the pandemic will have acted as a positive step towards creating a more disability-diverse workforce.
Sophie Garner is a barrister at St Philips Chambers