Meeting the needs of disabled colleagues during COVID-19

We are living in unprecedented and unchartered times. Over the last few weeks, we have all had to adapt, at pace, to new ways of working and living, in order to protect our own health and that of the people around us.

At Business Disability Forum we talk a lot about adapting to the “new normal,” usually in the context of when someone becomes disabled or is diagnosed with a new long-term condition (contrary to popular belief, 83% of disabilities are acquired rather than present from birth).

It’s about acknowledging what has changed; grieving the loss of what we no longer have and then – importantly – embracing and even celebrating the differences and potential gains. And that is essentially what all of us are required to do now: to adapt to a new normal in how we work, interact and live our lives.

It’s normal to mourn the things we have lost (never has walking the dog seemed more of a privilege and less of a chore) but also really important to look at how we can put strategies in place to not only survive but to thrive and come out of the other side in a better place.

Of course, this isn’t just about us as individuals but as managers and leaders too. That means finding a way to support all of our team members both in terms of morale, sense of community and, critically, putting the practical measures in place that mean that people can keep doing their jobs.

We had already started to see businesses in our membership moving away from talking about “adjustments” for disabled colleagues to “productivity tools,” and that is exactly what we are seeing now, with face to face meetings now taking place on Microsoft Teams, Zoom or other platforms. Webinars replacing events and home working moving from being a luxury for the few to mandatory for the majority.

Indeed for some organisations after the initial shock it becomes apparent that much of service delivery can be done remotely after all.

But for some colleagues COVID-19 is presenting particular issues. Colleagues with long-term health conditions or those taking medication which makes them more susceptible to viruses may be experiencing serious concerns about their health.

Those with mental health conditions such as anxiety are likely to find it exacerbated with coping strategies that they rely on – meeting with friends, walks, therapy – much reduced or non-existent.

At the same time, many disabled employees rely on assistive tech to carry out their roles and will be facing difficulties working in a home environment where that tech is not available or is limited, not to mention the issues for households trying to accommodate more than one remote virtual on a domestic broadband connection.

In response, we’ve created a new COVID-19 toolkit specifically to help businesses support disabled employees, customers, clients and people with compromised immune systems.

Topics covered include spotting the signs that someone working from home might be in physical or mental distress; supporting disabled employees working from home; clarity about essential and non-essential shopping for disabled customers and a dedicated resource on adjustments disabled employees.

I sincerely hope that one positive legacy of the pandemic that we are facing will be a much deeper acceptance and appreciation of the role of home working, one of the most frequently requested workplace adjustments.

After all, we are all seeing the benefits of home working and flexible working in practice, right now. My personal view is that COVID-19 will change the working practices of businesses forever. After this, most will surely be far more open to flexible working and have a much greater appreciation of the role of technology in enabling everyone to perform to their full potential.

Too often disability is the one aspect of diversity that is left at the bottom of the pile, parked in the “too difficult” box as too sensitive, too political. Yet as we adapt to new ways of working, we need to look at the adjustments we make for disabled employees and reframe them as productivity tools to make working life better for everyone.

Perhaps at last, in this time of crisis, disability really can lead the way.

Diane Lightfoot is CEO of Business Disability Forum