The shift to remote work and education driven by the pandemic could bring a new wave of opportunities for people with disabilities.
As organizations and schools find ways for people to work and learn at home advocates are starting important discussions about using the same approaches to improve opportunities for people with disabilities.
“In this moment, we see how institutions are entirely capable of transforming,” said Rowan Burdge, a master’s candidate in equity studies in education at Simon Fraser University.
Giovanni Gallipoli, an associate professor of economics at the University of British Columbia, said the pandemic has created “a massive experiment” that could shape the future of work for people with disabilities.
People with disabilities have faced a range of barriers to workplaces and classrooms, starting with people’s attitudes. Employers and instructors may think it’s too difficult to make the necessary accommodations — whether physical or technical — or impossible to get the work done.
But the almost overnight shift to online and remote working and learning is forcing institutions to think about their work in entirely new ways.
“Essentially, what we’re all doing is accommodating,” said Timothy Stainton, a professor of social work at the University of British Columbia who focuses on people with intellectual disabilities.
This time may make the idea of accommodating less scary and change employers’ attitudes about what is possible, he said.
The ability to work from home opens up opportunities for many people.
Some people with intellectual disabilities find the social environment of the workplace stressful and are more comfortable working alone.
Others may find they can set up their workspaces to be comfortable and accessible at home.
And for those with physical disabilities that make commuting more challenging, working from home takes away an added stressor.
Burdge, who has a chronic illness, says the ability to audit her lectures online and work from home means she can “have full agency of time and space.”
Something as simple as not having to sit in a hard chair for hours during a lecture or ride the bus for an hour each way makes a difference in her life and saves her energy for other things.
“For me, personally, it’s been great,” said Burdge.
But for many, remote or online learning are not readily accessible.
Stainton noted the current shift only applies to those working in office settings. People working in many low-wage positions or in essential services don’t have the same opportunity for accessibility as they may have been laid off or are required to be physically present for their work.
And some technology used for remote work might not be compatible with screen readers for people who are visually impaired or voice recognition software for people with limited mobility. There is also a steep learning curve with new technology, and all employees may need training on how to use them.
Gary Birch, executive director of the Neil Squire Society, said working remotely could have negative consequence. People with disabilities, who are already more likely to feel disconnected from others, could feel more isolated, he said.
The society develops assistive technologies and trains people with disabilities on how to use them.
“It’s not like ‘Oh, this is good for all people with disabilities,’” said Birch. “Isolation is a huge issue, and for those able to work, it is a problem if they aren’t interacting with other people.”
Working remotely “won’t help people with disabilities if we don’t apply a disability lens to it,” he said.
That can be daunting for employers, Birch said, one of the reasons people with disabilities are often excluded from employment and learning opportunities.
Mary Ann McColl, academic lead for the Canadian Disability Policy Alliance, said the shift to remote learning and working shouldn’t be used to by employers to avoid making their physical offices and working arrangements flexible.
“People don’t know how to accommodate people with disabilities,” said McColl, a professor at Queen’s University in Kingston. “It’s easier to just say no than to think about everything that needs to be done.”
Burdge is critical of the medicalized way that disabilities are treated in post-secondary institutions and workplaces. People with disabilities are seen as outliers and the burden of asking for accommodation is placed on them. Instead organizations should recognize the existence of a spectrum of abilities across the population and respond appropriately, advocates say.
The issue isn’t just physical barriers. We need to focus on how social systems make it difficult or impossible for some to participate fully, both physically and financially, Burdge said.
“Social systems are the ones disabling us from participating,” she said. The pandemic could help in the push for things like universal learning design to suit the needs of everyone who might participate, she added.
McColl is optimistic that as people try new strategies out of necessity, attitudes about accommodations and modifications will change permanently. “There’s no turning back the clock on this,” she said.
Advocates agree this could be the moment to make alternative, flexible working arrangements more readily available and accessible for some people with disabilities. The voices of people with disabilities should be at the centre of the discussion, they say.
“There’s a lot of room for hope here, we’re having to think about education differently,” said Burdge. “And that leaves a lot of room for potential transformation in terms of how we’re thinking about ability and access and disability.”