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Why flexible work modes suit disabled employees

A flexible model of work could lead to greater inclusion since physical infrastructure rarely supports the needs of the disable

In India, people with disabilities who are employed seem to prefer working from the office in order to interact better with colleagues and feel a sense of community.
In India, people with disabilities who are employed seem to prefer working from the office in order to interact better with colleagues and feel a sense of community. (iStockphoto)

“Although COVID lockdowns have ended, many employees want to continue to work from home,” reads an Australian report from late July. At a time when many organisations across the world are far from coming to a comfortable consensus on working from home versus working from office, or even determining their specific hybrid work models, the ideas and questions this report throws up are worth considering.

This is especially so given its focus on employees with disability—the report states that employees with disability will benefit from working from home versus working from office. Lead by Sue Williamson, an associate professor at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), the report found that 47% of employees with disabilities would like to work from home two or three days a week, and over 40% want to work from home four or five days a week.

In the Indian context, according to a report in Hindustan Times in January 2021, “people with disabilities…have been disproportionately affected by the economic consequences of the Covid crisis, with thousands of them losing their jobs or being furloughed.” Most work in hospitality, retail, finance and BPOs, and finding jobs for them has been hard for the non-governmental organisations that usually provide training for people with disabilities.

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In July the same year, a report from the market intelligence firm Unearthinsight revealed that “India has almost 3 crore people with disability (PwD) of which around 1.3 crore is employable but only 34 lakh of them have been employed across the organised sector, unorganised sector, government-led schemes or are self-employed.”

In India, people with disabilities who are employed seem to prefer working from the office in order to interact better with colleagues and feel a sense of community and, though public and office infrastructure often does not support their needs.

“I wouldn’t like to work from home,” says Ketan Kothari, 55, a congenitally blind person who has worked with organisations like the National Association for the Blind and Sightsavers India. Currently a managing consultant with the Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged, Kothari stresses on the fact that “the disabled are a heterogenous group”.

This means that while those with some disabilities will benefit from working from home, people with other disabilities, who can navigate the world outside of home relatively well, would much prefer coming outside and socialising with colleagues.

It’s a sentiment that Jasmina Khanna, a testing engineer at Atos Syntel with cerebral palsy, shares. “I miss office. When I go in, I get to meet people, I get to interact. I am social human being,” she says. When she started working in 2010, she was driven by the need to prove herself and to be financially independent. She pursued the companies where she cleared the various rounds of interviews, especially those who would ghost her after finding out about her disability.

Landing the job that she has since held down mean that she not only achieved what she’d set out to for herself, but she could also influence the company culture. What was first an initial temporary contract became a full-time job within a few months once her employers could see that she was performing pretty much at par with the rest of her colleagues.

Also, “being in office, I’ve been able to change the mindset of my colleagues,” Khanna says. “They were initially very scared to work with me since I work with only one hand, and can type with only my left hand’s index finger. They didn’t know how to react to that,” she recalls.

Also read: Why women need more flexible workplaces

Over time, however, her colleagues warmed up to her, seeing how she worked and could hold her own with them. “If I were working remotely, this wouldn’t have been possible, Khanna says.

Despite this, since covid-19, Khanna has preferred to work from home. Hiring an accessible cab service, or keeping a car and driving have proved too expensive to sustain, and the company’s embracing of a hybrid model of work has helped in this regard.

What is also working for her with this model is that she has the flexibility to run a side-hustle, an NGO called Access to Hope, once she finishes work with her employer. She does go into office once in a while, and when she does, she notices the change in the company culture towards disabilities today as compared to when she started out in 2010—there is always someone to help her in when she reaches, and the company has started to build accessible washrooms, too.

“Any organisation, or society, learns from interaction and knowing someone’s lived experience. That element is lost in a remote or hybrid set up,” says P. Rajasekharan, the co-founder of v-shesh, an enterprise that helps those with disabilities by training and assistance, in addition to information about jobs.

This is in line with Khanna’s experiences, as well as the “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon that Kothari warns against. If those with disabilities did not come out to work, their realities would not be understood, and their needs would not be addressed in creating accessible civic infrastructure.

But the point of employment is not primarily advocacy or inclusion; it is livelihood—and work-from-home has helped with this for those with mobility issues, as well as certain neurodivergent people, says Rajasekharan.

“Some with autism, for example, who would struggle to adjust to the social norms of a workplace will find it easier to work from home. The work instructions are clear, and they can always check with people who know my learning style better, since those needs are more easily met if they have already been available to them,” he says.

Having said that, Rajasekharan does go back to note that the work from home model can actually be counterproductive for most others, like those who are deaf or blind and are looking for jobs in emerging sectors. Even interview processes are tougher for disabled persons from tougher socio-economic backgrounds, as well as more stressful to navigate if they don’t have access to the right technology at home, or the right training to use these.

“Inclusion happens at multiple levels,” says Shilpi Kapoor, the CEO and founder of BarrierBreak, an accessibility consulting and assistive technology firm.

“I’m not at all a proponent of working from office all days of the week, but persons with disability need to interact with their colleagues, too, to feel included. I believe therefore in a hybrid model, if we want to build equitable companies and an equitable society,” she adds. She emphasises the fact that those with disabilities “have to walk a part of the way with us, just like we do—at least this is the way I recommend that companies look at it: that we hire them because they add value, not because they come in to fill our CSR pool.”

Also read: Disability rights: Taking steps towards an inclusive society

It is certain that regardless of its mode of enforcement, employment will continue to be central to improving accessibility. Given this, the consensus across employees with disabilities, as well as employers, recruiters, and those working in impact and advocacy, is to let the person with the disability decide what works for them, and take their managers on board.

Following that, “reasonable accommodation ought to be made by the employer,” says Kothari. “It is very much part of Indian law, so they jolly well do it.”



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