Disability advocates have long pushed for inclusive workplaces that support employees’ varied needs and working styles. But the coronavirus pandemic has actually led to unprecedented, widespread adoption of some disability inclusion practices.
And while people with disabilities are frustrated that it took a pandemic to create this change, we can hope that these shifts will last past the crisis.
Here are five ways the work landscape has changed due to the coronavirus.
1. Working from home has become the norm for jobs that can be done remotely
Kate McWilliams, a Canadian disability rights advocate, started the hashtag #AccessibilityForAbleds. She’s encouraging people with disabilities to share their past struggles, both to capture the history and to highlight why this change needs to stick: “If the world can give #AccessibilityForAbleds, give it to disabled people too,” McWilliams writes on her blog.
While working from home is an important accommodation for many people with disabilities, for others it can create new barriers. Keep in mind that some people on your team might have disabilities that make this transition difficult. Try to incorporate inclusive practices wherever you can.
Smart businesses will seize this moment to improve their work-from-home capabilities, whether they’re building on a strong foundation or starting from scratch.
2. Flexible schedules are on the table for many
Homes are now also offices, schools, and gyms. To stay afloat and help employees balance competing responsibilities, companies are adapting.
Some employers are now allowing more accommodations like flexible schedules, fewer but longer workdays, and job sharing. Many businesses are showing more understanding when workers need to balance family needs or care for sick loved ones.
If this acceptance of flexibility holds, it would be a welcome change for employees with disabilities who need to juggle job duties and health needs.
3. Meetings often come with more accessibility features
Video meetings have been an option for a while. But for many companies, they now have no other choice. And some of the software options have accessibility baked in.
The boom in people using remote meeting tools will give software companies more information about what people need. Hopefully, that will spur development of more accessibility features across many types of remote work products.
4. More employees now have paid sick leave
Advocates have long fought for an important piece of disability inclusion: paid sick leave. With paid sick leave, employees with disabilities can better balance their work and their health.
The current pandemic prompted the passage of an emergency bill that provides this benefit on a national scale. It applies to qualified employees who fit into one of three groups:
- People with COVID-19 or people who are in quarantine
- Those caring for a family member who has COVID-19 or is in quarantine
- People caring for kids whose schools have closed
It’s limited — but it’s a start. Paid sick leave is necessary for many employees with disabilities to participate in the workforce, so that they can take care of health needs.
5. We’re bringing more of ourselves to work — and companies are starting to approve
An inclusive workplace is an environment where people embrace differences, show empathy, and adapt to changing needs. In short, a place where employees can feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work. And the realities of this crisis are leading more workers to do that.
While remote workers may be separated by computer screens, their personal lives now appear in the background. People who work in essential services are sharing a stressful burden with each other. And human concerns, including health needs and family issues, are front of mind for everyone. The result is that traditional work-life boundaries are breaking down. In response to the question “How are you?” co-workers are more likely to share the truth.
Right now, we’re experiencing an unprecedented crisis. But as we look toward the future, we can hope that these more inclusive workplace accommodations are here to stay.