Content warning for: internalised ableism, COVID-19
In this post, I’m gonna talk a bit about the coronavirus and work today. The reason why is that the way employers have handled the coronavirus is both a source of frustration and opportunity for disabled people. I am going to reference my experience with my last employer to help illustrate this point.
My past experience
I had found out a few weeks ago my former employer is now working from home as a response to the coronavirus outbreak. All the team would not be in the office and could only be contacted through written mediums (or Zoom if they needed a meeting).
Yet when I worked there, I was never able to get any regular time out of the office to work privately in a quiet environment. This was an accommodation I needed for my sensory needs. The office is very overstimulating as a lot happens day to day, so even working outside the office elsewhere would have been OK. But I truly needed to be able to work from home at least two days a week.
I was not able to deal with the multitasking of various work and dealing with clients and an overstimulating. Not always being in the office to work would have taken the pressure off me. They felt it was “integral to the role” that I was in the office to answer questions even in an unsuitable environment.
Yet in light of COVID-19, the idea that my presence is “integral” to the role is nonsense. If I still worked for them, I would now be working from home too. My part was very similar to theirs. I would have worked from home in an environment that suited me, and I could regulate when I talk to people on my terms. Yet I wasn’t able to have this when I worked for them as a reasonable adjustment? Even Occupational Health agreed – their report was useless from my perspective. This doesn’t make sense, right? Well actually, it does.
I have no personal grief towards my former employer about anything. Even if they did accommodate me in this way, I still would have lost the job as it was unsuitable for me for many other reasons. However, these anti-home working attitudes are the kind of thinking that employers have systematically – even inclusive ones. I’m now going to explain what’s wrong with it and what employers can do to get around it.
There is the ableist expectation regarding work that employees must have a physical presence in the workplace period. There is this expectation that workers should be expected to relocated for all roles hence there are countries like the UK where the economy is centralised to a few specific regions. In the UK, the region is mainly London and the surrounding counties.
These expectations are so deep that employers – even genuinely inclusive ones that do try their best – do not realise the true extent. The foundations they use for employee expectations are rooted in ableism that harms disabled people. This is systematic ableism – namely that the design of the capitalist workplace itself discriminates against disabled people.
Abled employers barring disabled people from working – but then changing their minds when it affects them – is a blatant double standard. Yet when you point this out, many people will have no idea and cite the “extraordinary circumstances” of the virus. Yet they do not realise that disabled people have been dealing with these “extraordinary circumstances” for decades. Here’s what I mean:
- We’ve learnt not to expect public services to help us correctly, and we have to fight for access.
- We’ve learnt that communicating over the internet is more accessible for us than in-person events because we often can’t attend them.
- We’ve learnt the importance of self-care and curating our environments, so we don’t force ourselves to tolerate an unhealthy environment that worsens our disabilities.
- We’ve learnt to take extra steps to look after ourselves medically – whether that be medication, extra caution in daily life or allowing our bodies to rest when it tells us.
- We’ve learnt to expect to be failed by the world of work repeatedly – bracing for the worst whenever we work for a new employer and being genuinely surprised when we find a genuinely inclusive one.
- We’ve learnt to deal with a social security system that would rather deprive us of all support than give us what we’re entitled to.
- We’ve accepted deep down we will have structural societal barriers to overcome, and we have to learn to deal with an inaccessible world that doesn’t value our lives.
Many disabled people accept that reality, but others don’t. Others continue to push their boundaries and force themselves to fit into the mould of broader society, even if deep down, they feel like a burden. And they know that the ableds around them mostly see them as a burden too – especially financially.
This is called internalised ableism – learned ableist messages from broader society. It’s not anyone’s fault for internalising them – whether it be disabled jobseekers or abled employers. Still, it does mean they need to take steps to unlearn it. This is because systematic ableism is underpinned by internalised ableism of most of those that participate in it.
I genuinely believe that there are employers out there that do embrace inclusivity. They do sincerely try to recruit staff from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. However, to be genuinely inclusive, it also means unlearning the ableism that has impacted their thinking towards work. This means unlearning internalised ableism as it benefits everyone.
How to be genuinely inclusive
This means redesigning jobs so that if ableds can suddenly work from home in the event of an emergency, disabled people can do so at all times so we can manage our conditions. For most office-based jobs, this will be possible. This means ditching the expectations of having to relocate staff unless it’s necessary.
In the UK, graduates shouldn’t have to move to London or a select number of other places just to get jobs that are right for their skills. People shouldn’t have to rely on jobs available in person because big employers will not offer home working. This is even when their response to coronavirus proves they can.
In my case, it meant that I didn’t truly need to be in the office the whole time. I knew that from the beginning. I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle it all the time. Yet they saw it as “integral to the role”. Hence, I had to either fit into what the employer wanted or eventually get let go. Quitting wasn’t an option for various reasons.
The results of not accommodating disabled people are apparent to those that pay attention. Alongside disabled people being out of work, many of us are highlighting the hypocritical behaviour of many employers now becoming blatantly clear due to the outbreak. Many of us are at best, annoyed or at worst, angry. Though bitterness is more often than not what people see.
The feeling of seeing yet again how accommodations are only consistently given to employees when ableds need it. However, when disabled people need it, they are denied, even when it’s against the law. That’s why it takes longer for us to get jobs generally and struggle to maintain them. That’s why many of us go self-employed or hide our diagnoses at work. Because it is often safer for us to do so – whether it to manage our quality of life generally or simply make working possible.
For any disabled people out there who can work reading this – take note. You now have a powerful argument to the state to employers to get you the accommodations that you are entitled to.
Good employers should accept this reality and work to further accommodate disabled staff. Whereas bad faith employers have expertly played themselves, and now it will be harder for them to deny accommodations. The evidence will be out there for all to find over an internet search (like this).
The future is homeworking – not just for disabled people can we can actually work, but also for ableds to improve their quality of life too. It benefits everyone – and it starts by learning the lessons from coronavirus. The world of work doesn’t have to be the way it is now. It doesn’t have to go back to old habits once the coronavirus is no longer a threat. Work can be better. It must be.