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Potential pandemic dividend for workers with disabilities

Remote and blended working offer flexibility but challenges of accessibility remain

Remote working has been welcomed by many people with disabilities but is it enough?

Remote working has been welcomed by many people with disabilities but is it enough?

 

Covid-19 has had a huge impact on the working lives of many people – particularly for the many office workers who had to move to a remote-working model. In the first days and weeks of lockdown, changes were quickly implemented so businesses could continue to operate as normally as possible even if their staff couldn’t make it to the office.

For people with disabilities, these changes – which they have been campaigning for long before the pandemic – may be welcome, but are they enough? Now that life is getting back to ‘normal’ will they remain in place for the many people with disabilities who need to be accommodated?

According to the European Union Statistics on Income and Living Conditions, “The experience of disabled people is one of poverty and social exclusion: 37.5 per cent of those not working due to disability are at risk of poverty, and 43 per cent live in deprivation. These rates are three times higher than for the general population.” Ireland also has the lowest unemployment rate for disabled people in the EU – 20 per cent lower than the EU average of 50.8 per cent.

PJ Cleere, development manager with Disability Federation Ireland, explains that while many people are born with disabilities, “more people acquire a disability during their working life than are born with it. Four out of five people working in Ireland today acquired a disability during their working life.

“For many people, it’s about returning to work after an accident or with an impairment they didn’t have before that.”

‘Minor revolution’

Covid-19 and lockdown opened up the world in some ways, with organisations having to change their approach to staying in contact, says Cleere. “Covid-19 created a situation in Ireland where a lot of services had to close down temporarily during lockdown. So, where in the past, a lot of services were being provided in person and in day centres during Covid-19 we found that a lot of organisations, including statutory agencies, had to change their approach. There has been a minor revolution in Ireland in online.”

Dr Aideen Hartney, director of the National Disability Authority, says: “The sudden transition to remote working for large sections of the workforce during the Covid-19 pandemic showed that this is a viable way of delivering on core functions for many employers.

“The opportunity to work remotely is something that many persons with disabilities had previously requested as a way of enabling them to participate in the workforce. Remote working allows for someone to carry out their work in a location that suits their particular needs, and also removes the need to navigate a commute to a workplace, which can be challenging for some persons with disabilities – particularly where reliant on public transport.”

Cleere believes that most employers are not aware of the many supports and grants available and that it’s not that employers have to “do something huge to accommodate someone with a disability”.

“The most underused or understood grant is the disability awareness support scheme, for private employers,” he says. This grant provides a maximum of “€20,000 funding for private-sector employers to arrange and pay for disability awareness training for staff who work with a colleague who has a disability”.

Other grants available include the job interview interpreter grant, employment retention grant scheme, the workplace equipment adaptation grant, personal reader grants, and the wage subsidy scheme for people with disabilities, and supported employment for people with disabilities.

Flexibility

Dr Hartney explains that it’s important for employers who are embracing a remote working or blended working model for the longer term to understand that remote work isn’t the only option or requirement for employees with disabilities. “Persons with disabilities should be offered the same flexibility and choice that is available to other employees, and this may include attendance at a workplace or a flexible approach to working hours as well as remote working.

“For those with disabilities, it may be that ‘reasonable accommodations’ made by the employer can enable them to obtain or retain their employment.”

Looking to the future and a post-Covid world, Dr Hartney says: “We understand from our work to date that many employers are unsure of what to do, or how to support employees with disabilities, and are often concerned about doing the wrong thing, and therefore can be reluctant to recruit or retain someone with a disability.

“At the most basic level, we advise that employers ask the employee with a disability what supports they need to perform their role, as the employee will be best placed to identify these support needs.”

Part five of the Disability Act 2005 sets out a minimum target for employment of persons with disabilities in the public sector of 3 per cent, she says. “This is scheduled to increase to 6 per cent by 2024. Overall, the public sector has achieved and exceeded the 3 per cent target for the past 10 years. However, there is much work to do to ensure the 6 per cent target can be achieved by 2024.

“There are no targets set for private-sector employers, but we are aware of good practice in a number of organisations, and believe there is an opportunity to share learning and information between employers to drive performance in this area.”