Remote working was the most requested but refused accommodation for disabled people in the workplace before the pandemic. Since COVID-19, however, employers have been forced to adapt. A lot of workplaces went online, leading to a rise in home working and an increase in online recruitment. These new ways of working provide valuable lessons for employers who want to improve their disability inclusion.
In a study we published in January 2020, before the pandemic really hit the UK, we asked disabled people in the legal sector about their experiences in the workplace, and in recruitment. They told us they faced discrimination, bullying, negative attitudes and a poor understanding of disability.
Although it would be easy to assume that remote working and recruiting would automatically reduce these issues, we found in a follow-up survey during July and August 2020 that working from home and applying for jobs online did not necessarily improve all of these challenges.
Although our research focused on the legal profession, our findings and recommendations easily transfer to other professional careers.
Working cultures in the legal sector were rarely disability-friendly before the pandemic, meaning that many with invisible impairments were afraid to tell their employers. Reasonable adjustments are necessary to help disabled workers progress. But our research found that many people had to fight for this support, and any extras they needed.
Disabled lawyers in our study were often prevented from progressing in their careers due to a reluctance to change traditional working practices. Disabled people may need specialist equipment, allocated parking, communication support or flexible working to remove the disadvantage they face at work. Government grants can fund such adjustments, and companies have a duty to provide reasonable adjustments – they cannot turn these requests down without good cause, such as it being detrimental to the business – but what is “reasonable” is a grey area.
So what now for disabled people who are now more likely to be able to work from home?
Firms told us during roundtable discussions, conducted as part of our research, that they were offering all staff the choice of how they split their time between home and the office. We expect “hybrid” working to become the new norm in many organisations, where some staff are in the office and some work remotely. This will present a new set of challenges for employers to address such as access and communication, and how to prevent those who primarily work from home from becoming isolated.
In our follow-up survey of legal professionals, 70% said that they would like to continue working from home in the future. They said they found more opportunities to network, gain knowledge and skills and train when they worked from home. We believe this has been more by chance than by design, but it’s clear that online working presents new opportunities and can work very well for most employees. Firms can now evaluate what works and how this can be improved and built into future workplace strategies.
Disabled people participating in our research reported many problems with recruitment agencies. Some discovered that disclosure of a disability led to their application being filtered out. Those that did make it through to interview found their requests for reasonable adjustments were often not passed on to the right people. They reported turning up to interviews to find the building was inaccessible or requests for other support had not been passed along, which damaged their performance during the interview and arguably disadvantaged them.
We found that online applications and interviews do not necessarily make disabled people’s lives any easier. Many forms or tests are not dyslexia-friendly, nor compatible with screen readers. We found recruiters often assumed that remote platforms used for interviews would automatically increase accessibility and that adjustments were unnecessary.
Our research also found that while the legal profession has invested heavily in training to address unconscious bias in recruitment, we caution against being overoptimistic about the potential of artificial intelligence to eliminate bias. Technological solutions still reflect the values of those who design them and are based on profiles of previous successful candidates.
Trade unions are concerned that AI is being used to evaluate prospective and current employees without their knowledge. In these cases, it’s difficult to know whether it would help or hinder equality. People with sight or hearing impairments, or who are neurodivergent, may respond to questions or engage with technology in a different way. There is a risk that AI could devalue these differences. There are also skills that only a human could recognise, such as the problem-solving skills disabled people have developed from the unique issues they face in their everyday lives.
If the pandemic is going to shift how we work, disabled people need to be closely involved in the development of more inclusive workplaces and recruitment processes that will actually benefit them. This requires employers to be proactive about understanding and addressing barriers for disabled people, to ensure that provisions are considered for future disabled employees that are genuinely inclusive.
What is clear is that working from home was wrongly denied to many who needed it before the pandemic – and only now do we see that it is widely manageable. But assuming it works for every disabled person is a dangerous assumption. What works for one disabled person may not for another, even with the same impairment. Reducing discrimination must come from inclusive conversations that build a fairer future for everyone.