Will the COVID-19 pandemic improve access to employment opportunities for disabled people?
If you have scrolled down to find out the answer to the above question, there is no simple answer, and this will depend upon who you are asking. However, this piece will seek to draw attention to, and unpack, some of the elements of this complex issue with some key ideas that need further thought around the disability employment gap, financial insecurity, the impact of COVID-19 and the longer-term implications of the reshaping of work as a result of the global pandemic.
Remote and flexible working has been long sought after by disabled people; in 2019 the Business Disability Forum found that working from home and flexible working were the most sought after adjustments for disabled employees. Nearly one in five of the UK population [aged 16-64 years] is recognised as disabled, therefore, this is a widespread issue and not one to be dismissed as a minority concern. Current conversation seems fixated upon how the pandemic is proving to be positive for the employment opportunities and access for disabled people. This piece demonstrates concern about whether remote and digital approaches do in fact improve accessibility, and increased financial security, for disabled employees, and questions whether we are simply moving disabled employees out of sight and in the long-term, out of mind?
Work and Disability
When work and disability are positioned and spoken about two perspectives are often presented. One, that states that ‘work is oppressive’ and understanding the experiences of disabled people at work is misplaced or on the other hand, work is glamorised and deemed as the catch-all cure for loneliness, social isolation, and a key way in which to improve a life. This idea is extended with the Government’s claim that work is ‘good for health and that being out of work can have a detrimental effect on health’ (2016). Critical thought needs to be applied to this statement as it can be questioned what type of work and working conditions are good for health and financial wellbeing? Conversations and philosophising about the role of work in a society (while important) neglect the fact that for many disabled people work and employment is a financial necessity, given the context of four million disabled people living in poverty. This is reflective of a welfare state that fails to adequately support disabled people, however, this is also a key factor in the ways in which work is sought and experienced; further highlighted more than ever during the pandemic when people were having to choose between ‘staying safe’ or earning a wage. In 2020 the advice for people who were named by the Government as ‘Clinically Extremely Vulnerable’ were asked to shield due to risks from the virus COVID-19. It is recognised by the TUC (2021) that being asked to shield and being able to afford to stay at home are separate; ‘no one should have to choose between their life and livelihood’ TUC (2021) – to what extent was this tension good for health?
The disability employment gap is stark with 52.7% disabled people in work compared to 81.0% for non-disabled people. Reimagining the way in which work could be carried out and welcoming a more flexible approach through remote and flexible working has had, and continues to have, the potential to improve disabled people’s access to employment opportunities. It must be recognised that not all disabled people can and will work. However, being able to access employment gives the potential of an increased sense of financial security which can have a knock-on effect on wellbeing and housing. However, this is only possible if genuine consideration is given to inclusive practice in a way that stretches far beyond removing the barriers of a physical workspace.
Since the onset of the global pandemic COVID-19 many people’s working lives have moved to remote ways of carrying out their role. This is an area of contention given that disabled people have been fighting for flexible ways of working for many years and almost overnight this provision was granted to all workers because of the global pandemic. The Chartered Management Institute acknowledge that flexible working could reduce the employment gap as disabled people will not have to navigate an ‘office building without step-free access’. Whilst this may well be an advantage for some disabled people, the long-term ramifications of this approach to access are problematic and potentially toxic to the inclusion of disabled people within employment. Focusing solely upon a physical built environment does very little to acknowledge or challenge workplaces that can be structured in ways that are exclusionary and ableist that stretch far beyond the building itself. Working from home may not be the utopia it is often positioned to be and instead could mean a lack of access to equipment required to carry out a job, lack of colleague support (potentially particularly problematic for disabled employees who may rely upon the informal support of colleagues to carry out roles), increased social isolation and psychological distress.
There is an assumption that adopting a more digital approach will remove some of the physical barriers of the built environment in accessing work, however, digital exclusion is still a key issue that needs to be understood and acknowledged when considering the employment opportunities available to disabled people.
The underpinning assumption that digital technologies improve access to work for disabled people alongside government rhetoric that work is always a route for greater financial security is a toxic mix. In light of governmental initiatives surrounding disability and work there is an immediate need for further understanding surrounding in-work poverty. This is on particular importance given that the Office for National Statistics reports that there is a pay gap of 12.2% whereby median pay for non-disabled employees is £12.11 an hour and disabled employees receive £10.63 an hour (it must be noted that this varies according to impairment type). To put this into further context, a disabled employee working 35 hours a week would earn on average £3,822 less than a non-disabled individual. Disabled people are far more likely to be employed within low paid work, with 15% of disabled employees earning less than the Living Wage and are at much higher risk of experiencing insecurity. Therefore, work in this sense does not provide access to greater financial security, enable people to move out of poverty or bring health benefits, as predicted.
Out of sight, out of mind?
There is a concerning precedent that has the potential to be set with the notion of ‘Working from Home’ (WFH) of disabled people being excluded because the physical environment is inaccessible. With that in mind, this piece seeks to act as a timely reminder to all that access for disabled people stretches far beyond the physical environment. There is the potential that people are being denied workplace adjustments, support, or basic access provision as they can just work remotely. This leads back to a broader question about what work is and what purpose it serves, if focusing upon the fact that work improves a person’s social circle and reduces social isolation, remote working as default does not necessarily achieve this and there are wider calls for a return to ‘the office’ with outcries of isolation and loneliness.
There is a sense of cautious optimism that the benefits of remote and flexible working can improve the working lives and accessibility of the labour market for disabled people. However, there is an underpinning fear that this has the potential to deprioritise workplace access and support. With many companies, including huge corporations such as Facebook declaring that workers can work from home forever, it is crucial that a critical eye remains firmly placed upon this issue as there is the possibility for inclusion and access rights to continue to be eroded under the guise of ‘remote working’ roles and opportunities. In the long-term disabled people could continue to be excluded from the labour market and potentially left to find their own support, equipment and adjustments as a result of WFH becoming the ‘new normal’ – to borrow a term that has been continued to be used throughout the pandemic.
By Emma Partlow, University of Birmingham
Emma Partlow is a disabled doctoral researcher from the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology at the University of Birmingham focusing upon disabled people’s experiences of accessing, retaining, and maintaining work and employment. Her twitter is: @EmmaEPartlow
Keywords: work, disability, employment, access, digital inclusion, financial necessity, improving outcomes, future of work, digital approach, employees