Between July and September 2019, 7.9 million people of working age (16-64) within the UK reported that they had a disability. That’s 19% of the working age population.

Put another way, 1 in 5 of those in their working years are affected by a physical or mental disability. 1 in 5. So, why does it feel like their needs are often not considered in the logistical and practical planning of workspaces, working practices and methodologies?

With the world being forced to consider change at a faster pace than ever, COVID-19 may present a levelled playing field for workers around the world.

Changing Times

Employment of those with disabilities has been rising. In 2019, 53.2% of people with disabilities were in employment, up from 51.2% just a year previously. However, this equates to just 4.2 of the 7.9 million - a shockingly large number of people with disabilities remain either unable to work or unable to find work that fits, or is willing to flex, to their requirements.

It is likely that the employment rate, for both those with and without disabilities, will fall from 2019 to 2020 across the board. The Coronavirus outbreak has put pressure on almost every organisation, in every sector and on every worker.

Though it may seem callous to try and find a silver lining in a global pandemic that has seen countless deaths alongside hugely negative financial implications for millions around the world, it would be foolish to not maximise on any future positives that can be drawn upon. And, for once, one of the groups who may see the largest change for the better are those, within working years, who live with underlying medical conditions.

Mans hand on a computer mouse, with a strap around his wrist

The New Norm

You may be sick of that phrase, and you most certainly won’t be alone in hating it, yet it is the true description of so many aspects of our lives.

We have a new normal to the way we shop, exercise, socialise, access entertainment and even for our grooming habits (our hair is looking great, thank you for asking). The same is undoubtedly true for our working patterns and processes too.

Whilst for some, working from home is simply not an option, during the pandemic or at any other time - manufacturing and construction, for example, requires bodies on the ground - for many, the transition has been made. Zoom meetings are being held (less often than face-to-face meetings, yay!), Slack and Trello are being used to keep creative juices flowing, and commutes are a distant memory.

It is likely that we won’t ever return to the 5-days-a-week in the office pattern we came to know and resent. We will undoubtedly step back into the workplace, on a semi-regular basis to maintain relationships and to show our faces, but working from home is likely to play a much larger role for huge swathes of us. Afterall, a recent study shows a 47% increase in productivity when working from home - though some of that may be down to being less likely to clock off on the dot when you don’t have the homeward bound commute ahead of you!

The big question is, why does this matter to those living with disabilities and how does this new norm benefit them?

Wheelchair user working on a laptop

Levelling the playing field

There is no doubt that many corporations, big and small, are improving their inclusivity policies and do actively look to offer jobs based on merit. The reality however, for most, is that they are making small tweaks to their norm.

It may be that they are able to source a desk suitable for a wheelchair user and place it so that it is easier to access from the main doors. It may be that they can provide larger screens for someone with severe eyesight problems to enable them to zoom in much more than their colleagues. It may be that they went to the extent of redesigning the kitchen or toilet facilities to enable those with disabilities to access a hot drink without having to ask a favour of their deskmate. These are all admirable efforts but, for many, they simply weren’t enough to make their lives easier. Sadly, for some, they weren’t even enough to enable them to stay in their job.

The reality for many living with a physical disability is that EVERYTHING is harder.

  • Getting dressed and ready for work can be far more time consuming for people with disabilities, adding hours to their days, meaning they arrive already worn down and worn out.
  • A commute, especially if by public transport with periods of standing and walking between tubes or buses, can be painful, complicated and, sometimes, even dangerous.
  • Within the office, accessing different meeting rooms and just ‘popping over’ to a colleague’s desk may be inhibited by obstacles and narrow walkways.
  • If the disability causes pain flares or periods of fatigue, being seen to rest and take a step back from work can feel frowned upon, causing them to push their bodies too far all for the sake of being seen as a good worker bee.

No matter how many changes an employer makes within the office, the simple expectation of being office-based causes these issues for an individual. The reality of this approach is that those with disabilities can count themselves out of the running when they have only got so far as to read the job description, feel managed out of a role or worn down to the ground. Flexing the normal working expectations isn’t enough - what is needed is a complete overhaul.

Remote work alleviates these additional stressors. The day is shorter, easier and can be broken up into chunks to allow for physical and mental rest. A flexible approach can be taken to reduce workload on days when times feel tough, whilst increasing it on others, as needed.

For the first time ever, the request to work from home isn’t the reserve of the top echelons of the organisation and those who are living with disabilities. It is the request, and the right, of everyone. Even more importantly, managers can see that working from home isn’t just possible; it’s productive, efficient, strengthening and empowering. At last, those with disabilities are on a level playing field to their work peers.

A home office set up

Moving forwards

Working from home can improve work life for everyone - from working parents and those with other caring responsibilities, to young couples and those struggling to cover the often astronomical cost of commuting. Then there are those who struggle in large social situations, those who struggle to concentrate with lots of noise and chatter around them, and even those who just want a lie-in once in a while! But the real winners here - those living with disabilities!

We don’t know what the future looks like yet - if Coronavirus has taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected. But what we do know is that eyes have been opened.

It is now down to us all to ensure they stay that way, highlighting benefits of full-time or part-time working from home:

  • Less time spent commuting = reduced levels of absenteeism and tiredness.
  • Workers can be based anywhere = increased talent pools!
  • Less people in the office = reduced office space requirements, in turn reducing costs.
  • Less face-to-face interaction = more creative use of technology and apps to interact with colleagues, whilst at the same time boosting time to get your head down!
  • Less management interaction = more autonomous working (don’t be fooled if this one sounds negative, it means employees can choose to work in a serene, tidy home office or creatively curled up in their favourite armchair with a million post-its around them.... Without annoying one another!)
  • Less structure = increased flexibility, leading to improved retention rates.

And the big one (hint, we’ve mentioned it already)... Increased productivity - a whopping 79% of workers state their highlighting productivity levels have increased since lockdown began

So as we move forwards, it is on us all to shape a world that is more inclusive. On employers to find out how their workers can benefit from increased home working and flexible schedules, and to allow that adaptable approach to flourish. On employees to be vocal about their needs and help to demonstrate that new approaches can work. On able-bodied colleagues to speak up for their peers when they see them not being considered in the move back to normality.

At the end of the day, no one will be a loser here. More people will be in work, supporting fulfilling, purposeful life. Organisations will have access to great minds, individuals with so much to add to the mix. The environment will benefit from reduced levels of commuting. So, it’s time to take a step (or a roll) forwards…. All together now!

MedicAlert is a community of members, all of whom live with a wide range of health-related conditions ranging from hypertension and cancer to rare conditions such as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. We support all of our members, no matter what, through providing 24/7 emergency access to their medical records in emergencies, ensuring the most efficient, reliable and accessible route for medical professionals in times of need.


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