The pandemic proves workplaces can allow flexible working for disabled people

There are two distinct camps when it comes to returning to the office: those who are pleased about going back (also known as those who’ve been working in houseshares or on terrible wifi) and those who are dreading it, whether due to the 6am starts or long commutes in.

But for millions across the UK, going into the office presents challenges beyond those early alarms.

Disabled people are presented with numerous challenges in the workplace, many of which have been temporarily solved by the introduction of more flexible working – namely the ability to work from home – due to the coronavirus pandemic pushing us into lockdown.

This has proved that it’s entirely possible for workplaces to allow flexible working for disabled employees – but will bosses keep this up once Covid-19 has passed?

Natalie Arney, 37, from Brighton, has fibromyalgia and has found working from home life-changing.

The SEO consultant, who began working from home in February, tells Metro.co.uk: ‘Not having the commute every day has contributed to me not being as tired. This means I’m not in as much pain, having less brain fog and being more productive.

‘I started working remotely just before COVID hit the UK but even then I think I’ve been more productive versus working in an office.’

She said that despite her not being forced back to the office, she is aware of people who are being asked to come back in – and wants workplaces to listen to other people with disabilities so they can understand the benefits of continuing to allow flexible working.

‘As someone whose physical health was directly affected by the commute, I would say that flexible working will allow people like myself to be less tired and therefore more productive at work,’ Natalie says ‘This will also help in having our needs recognised by the workplace.

‘In the past I’ve worked for places where flexibility hasn’t been something they were keen on so I’ve felt as though my needs as someone with a chronic condition haven’t been met.

‘It’s almost as if my conditions are disregarded and that some employers would like a workforce of people who do not have disabilities and chronic health conditions as we are a burden to them.’

According to the Equality Act 2010, disabled workers have a ‘right to request’ working from home as a reasonable adjustment.

You can be classed as disabled under this Act if you have a ‘physical or mental impairment which has substantial and long-term negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities’.

The Gov.co.uk website states: ‘Public sector organisations have to make changes in their approach or provision to ensure that services are accessible to disabled people as well as everybody else.

‘Reasonable adjustments can mean alterations to buildings by providing lifts, wide doors, ramps and tactile signage, but may also mean changes to policies, procedures and staff training to ensure that services work equally well for people with learning disabilities.’

Kamran Mallick, CEO of Disability Rights, tells Metro.co.uk that flexible working is something disabled people have been requesting for years, but that they have not always been successful.

‘This is something that should have been granted as a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act but many have seen their request being turned down,’ Kamran explains.

‘Companies chose the employment law stance over the Equality Act stance that while workers had the “right to request” flexible working, they didn’t actually have to grant it.

‘When the emphasis changed from what the individual needed to thrive to what the company needed to survive, we saw a national sea change in homeworking habits which saw disabled people, finally, getting their work from home requests met – with no detrimental impacts on business and greater benefits for work-life balance.’

While workplaces may see the addition of ramps and lifts as doing ‘enough’, flexible working opens the doors even wider.

The flexibility to adapt hours and work from home could be life-changing for many, especially for those who are affected by the fatigue of getting into an office day in, day out.

‘Commuting for many disabled people is tiring, painful and frustrating as towns and workplaces aren’t set up accessibly,’ says Kamran.

‘Having those barriers to work swept away by this virus has shown just how easy it is to make adaptations that benefit everyone.’

Rachel Trimmer, 45, from Manchester is a neurodiversity coach. She’s found working from home immensely beneficial.

‘As an autistic with ADHD, my environment is crucial,’ Rachel tells us. ‘I can set things up the way I want such as a desk in front of a window or music to help me concentrate. I can also work the hours that suit me and change my tasks according to what my focus is like because stress makes my conditions worse.

‘Being able to work early in the morning and in the evenings when it’s quieter has really helped as it also means I can work around the needs of my two young children.

‘Overall, I’ve found working from home has been really beneficial and I’m more productive.

‘There are countless advantages to working from home – especially neurodiverse people like me. We can work more flexibly which increases productivity and we don’t waste time commuting.

‘For many of us, working from home reduces stress as we don’t have to ‘mask’ our behaviours as we would in the office – this can be mentally and physically draining.’

The pandemic has proved that flexible working is possible and that employers are entirely able to make changes and remove barriers to allow disabled people to work more easily.

As lockdown eases and more of us return back to the office, it’s vital that we don’t forget what we’ve learned these last few months and return back to old, potentially exclusionary, ways of working.

The conversation can now move from ‘should we help?’ and ‘can we help?’ to ‘how can we help?’. That’s life-changing.

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