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Rouzbeh Pirouz Why disabled employees should not be forced to go back to the office

Rouzbeh Pirouz Why disabled employees should not be forced to go back to the office

Rouzbeh Pirouz is Co-Founder and Senior Partner at London-based Pelican Partners, a real estate and private equity investment firm. 

A global pandemic that has disrupted our collective way of mental, physical and economic health is a trauma we’ll all be dealing with for years to come. 

And while it may seem odd to suggest there was any ‘silver lining’ to the last 18 months, for disabled people in the workplace, there was. Flexible office hours, more understanding from employers, remote working opportunities and supply of relevant equipment – everything disabled workers have wanted for years. 

Additionally, there was a sense of everyone – disabled or not – in it together working remotely and finding their way around different ways of operating. At the height of the pandemic there was much talk of this being the ‘new normal’ and media headlines concerning the ‘end of office life’. 

But, as the world begins to open up, it seems more of a return to an old normal for disabled people. 

Disabled employees deserve long-term flexibility and remote working 

The world shifted in fundamental ways at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Aircraft were grounded, emissions and pollution fell, and employers discovered that 100% remote working is more than possible. 

For disabled people who have been asking employers for this kind of flexible working, COVID-19 presented a moment of opportunity. But as more people get vaccinated and return to the office, this moment appears to be ending. Disabled people are, once again, wondering whether their working lives will become more complicated, less accessible and less flexible. 

When the Government lifted restrictions for England on 19 July 2021, the Prime Minister announced that people will no longer be required to work from home. In what he calls a “gradual return to work”, it’s now officially expected for the majority to head back on their commute and go into the office. 

Most employers have made it clear that they expect their employees to go back to the office, but there has been some pushback by various industry groups. 

Could hybrid working be the answer for disabled employees? 

The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) says that people want more flexibility for the long term and suggest hybrid working could be the answer for many. 

It’s the same situation in many countries across Europe, the US and elsewhere. Disabled people who thought that there would be some kind of long-term decisive move towards more inclusive work practices are now feeling pressure to just go back to the office as before. 

Miguel Azevedo, Co-Ordinator at Portuguese disability group Cidadao Diferente says: “The changes are temporary… I thought we would get out of this better off but that’s not the case. The problems persist.”

His view is likely echoed in many other countries, including the UK. The barriers faced by disabled workers are many, and the assistance often minimal. From badly designed office spaces to inaccessible and difficult public transport, and from a lack of understanding from the boss to difficulties even securing an interview, these problems could have been solved by now. 

Employers have proved they can make huge adjustments

Often, disabled people find that their requests for ‘reasonable adjustments’ from their employer are simply ignored. And when this involves work flexibility, the consequences can be disastrous for physically disabled people. And those with chronic illness, the ability to work from home is often essential.

The speed with which the corporate world adapted when everyone was forced into remote working due to the pandemic shows that it can be done. Remote working quickly became widely accepted and proved to be no impediment to getting the job done.  

Retaining the benefits of flexible working and remote options would allow disabled people to fully participate even if physical accessibility isn’t practical or possible. It’s important to remember that disabled people have been asking for digital meetings and remote working for years but have been told that it’s not possible. The pandemic, while awful in many ways, has shown the opposite is true. 

It’s possible, however, that normalising remote working could backfire for disabled people in other ways. It could, for example, encourage companies to stop making any kind of adjustments to physical office space, which would obviously be detrimental to disabled employees. So, the answer must lie in choice, flexibility and mixed work practices.  

Closing the disability gap in Europe and the UK 

Across the EU, 50.8% of disabled people are in work. For non-disabled people, this standards at 74.8%. Disabled people lost their jobs during the pandemic in higher numbers than those without disabled. 

Governments around the world must now seize this opportunity and incentivise companies of all sizes to not only hire more disabled workers, but to ensure that they have flexibility in the way they work. 

We are at a transitional moment in our recovery from the pandemic, and the rights of disabled people cannot be consigned to the background. Consider other changes that have resulted from the pandemic, such as the surge in outdoor dining. This means street furniture and yet more blocked accessibility for disabled people in wheelchairs or with mobility issues. 

The truth is, when it comes to getting the economy back on its feet and returning to work, the majority of planning is thoughtless. It doesn’t consider disabled people. Not for leisure or work. Online living with Zoom concerts, gigs and entertainment, remote working and access to museums and endless other opportunities, opened the world for disabled people in a way we haven’t seen before. 

Now that the wider members of the public no longer need these adjustments, it cannot be the right decision to remove them for disabled people. 

Disabled people don’t want to return to the old normal 

The disability employment gap in the UK is huge – wider than in the EU. In 2020, 53.7% of disabled people were employed, compared with 82% for those without a disability. It has been like this for years. 

Employers that choose to retain flexible working will be actively changing this for the better. I hope that many seize this opportunity to do so. As well all try to return to normal, we have to remember that for disabled people this is not a positive thing. The ‘normal’ for disabled people is generally to be excluded or to struggle with accessibility. 

If you are a disabled employee and your employer is removing your rights for flexible working, join a Union. While disabled people have been told for years that adjustments to the norm are just too expensive or even unnecessary, we’ve all now seen that this is just not true. If enormous, fundamental adjustments were possible for the majority during lockdown, then why can’t we do the same for disabled people now? 

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