Human Potential

COVID-19 Creating Unique Challenges for Workers With Disabilities

The lives of billions of people have been disrupted in a variety of ways by the COVID-19 pandemic. The challenges, however, have not been experienced equally by everyone.

More than 1 billion people — about 15% of the world’s population — have a disability, according to the World Health Organization.1 An estimated 386 million of them are in the workforce.2

Employees with disabilities often thrive in the workplace with the assistance of technology or personal guidance. Now the current crisis has upended offices worldwide, which creates unique sets of challenges for these workers.

The Australian Network on Disability is helping companies — including Infosys — accommodate workers with disabilities in this new environment.3 The organization was founded in 2000 as a resource for employers seeking to create accessible and inclusive workplaces for people with a variety of disabilities.4 The ultimate goal is to provide an environment in which employees can enjoy their work and achieve their full potential.

Network CEO and founder Suzanne Colbert said workplace accommodations — from furniture to software to mentoring — always have been a complex subject. Now it is even more difficult, with the sudden transition to remote working. Infosys Insights interviewed her this year about the current state of the workplace for people with disabilities.

How have people with disabilities generally fared in the workplace?

When employees with disability have the adjustments they need, they are very engaged and successful. Getting that right in a large, complex organization is really a challenge. It’s not only about having a piece of equipment. It’s [also] about having the kind of manager who can ask what you need and how you like to communicate and — at a time like the COVID-19 pandemic — who can recognize challenges that employees with disability may experience.

In our project with Infosys in Australia, we focused on attracting people with very specific skills and people on the autism spectrum. Essentially, we helped Infosys welcome a whole range of people with disability who have the skills and capabilities to add value and achieve great career success. [Tech companies in particular have discovered that workers on the autism spectrum often thrive in this industry.]5

How is working from home different for people with disabilities?

Even in agile workplaces, some people with disability gravitate toward a particular workstation configuration, seeking a setup that is just right for them. Now that we’re working from home, how do we replicate that? They might have had a different screen or keyboard or a headset. Having these tools available at home is an asset and means people don’t lose valuable productivity time. For mature organizations used to making adjustments, they were able to decide to work from home on Friday — then on Monday morning, ship everyone’s equipment to their home. They didn’t miss a beat.

Most of us are quite routine bound, and being asked to work from home does rather turn that upside down. We might need a bit of extra help from our manager to adjust. Some folks might need help to think through what [they] will do. Supervisors, managers, and even our colleagues can help people establish good work routines. That’s an adaptation.

How is technology affecting the transition to remote working?

Some in-person collaboration in the workplace provides incidental help [for people with disabilities]. For example, if you’re hard of hearing, you can face somebody and lip-read. However, if you find yourself on a Microsoft Teams meeting with 20 colleagues, it’s much harder, even though Teams has captioning — of course, there’s a little delay. It’s tough for people who use sign language as their primary method for communication. And it’s also a huge disadvantage if people don’t have a strong internet connection.

Other disabilities require more manager feedback. For people with intellectual disability who are reliant on more supervision and support in carrying out routine tasks, this is really tough for them. And often the kind of work that they might be involved in doesn’t lend itself to being done from home.

Some people find it relatively easy to adjust to new technology, but for some people with disability, that technology needs to be accessible and inclusive. While Microsoft has done a fabulous job of ensuring accessibility, not all platforms are as easy.

Live captions are really valuable. Make sure that text colors can be adapted so you can change the contrast; some people might want to read black on yellow, for example. Also remember that when we prepare documents, we should send an accessibility document so that somebody who uses a screen reader or a screen enlarger can still get that important information.

When companies are thinking about introducing technology, find out if it is going to work for our folks who are blind or have low vision. Is it going to work for the folks who are hard of hearing or deaf? Do we need extra support to help people on the autism spectrum or people with cognitive disability?

What are the social impacts of working from home?

Many of us are missing the water cooler conversations. You can miss someone you don’t necessarily work with regularly but who’s going to be your check-in person — not about work but [about] how you are holding up and whether you are getting the support you need. Some people have great strategies for remote work support and are sharing them.

Something we’re struggling with in our organization is that people sit down and they beaver away. They forget [and], oh wow, it’s been two hours, and [they] haven’t stood up. Looking after our health and taking a break from the screen is important. At work, when you see a colleague get up for water, you go and say, “Hello.” We don’t have the same incidental prompts in our [home] environment.

Those organizations that are mature at providing adjustments have done so really well. Their employees with disability have been able to maintain their work. That’s on the positive side. The challenge as time goes on is the loss of being in the company of others, the impact of isolation, and structuring your work when every day pretty much feels the same. Successful organizations are putting more structure around work and giving good acknowledgment of that informal connection. Hey, it’s Friday afternoon, let’s meet on Microsoft Teams with a weird hat or with your glass of wine. Let’s have much more of that connection. We need to be nurturing.

How will the workplace of the future be different?

We are suffering a bit more [from isolation] as time goes on. On the upside, we are building structures and making adjustments and adapting more effectively. If we can get the level of psychological supports right for people, then it’s fair to say that many are probably never going to return to the office five days a week. If we think it’s going to be like it was, we might be disappointed. Managing those expectations is important.

Our workplaces might be sparser. For that reason, if I’m the kind of person who benefits from my work environment, I might go back to the office craving that connection with my colleagues. And not many are there. We will have to go through more adjustments, right? And for people with disability, where adjustments might take a little bit longer, it is going to be more challenging. Work is not going to be like it was previously. We’ve got quite a long time and a series of adjustments ahead of us. To make it easier for people with disability, be really specific about how they’re adapting and what other supports they might require. Encourage them, and encourage people to think deeply about what would be helpful or needed in order to manage those levels of change.

How might the worsening economy affect people with disabilities?

We’re going to see economic contraction. That’s going to be tough for so many people, but we need to make sure that people with disability aren’t disproportionately left behind. We don’t want to see that for any particular group of workers, women, or older workers, or people with disability. We need to see a fairness, and that is going to be very challenging. We want to make sure that decisions are made with everybody’s skills and capabilities in mind.

We know that diverse and inclusive teams are three times more likely to innovate, four times more likely to provide excellent customer service, and more likely to stay with their organization. There’s a lot of data around the benefits of diverse and inclusive teams. That awareness has changed in the last 10 years. We hope that would carry us in good stead and make sure that people with disability are not left behind. In Australia, we had a recession in the early ’90s, and many of the people who lost their jobs [then] have never worked again.

I’ve spent 30 years working in employment for people with disability in one way or another. Poverty is grim. If you have a disability and you’ve got some resources, you can create a better life. But it’s much harder if you’re poor.

What makes me feel very hopeful is that as we speak to our members [about internships], they’re not saying no. They’re saying we want to continue, but we might have to change the time frame. That makes me feel positive that organizations still welcome skilled and talented university students with disability into their organizations. It’s only the time frame that will change, not the intention.

What do you see happening in your world after this current crisis?

We’re working differently, so it takes a little longer when we’re reaching out to our colleagues. But more people are making sure that no one has been left behind. And people are being kind. I would hope we can take them beyond the pandemic — making sure our employees and customers with disability aren’t left behind. I think those [efforts] show just how good we are as humans when we come together to solve problems. If we come out of this being better people, better organizations, better governments with better thinking about an inclusive world, that would be pretty awesome.

1World report on disability, 2011, World Health Organization.

2Factsheet on Persons with Disabilities, United Nations.

3Infosys has been recognized for “Role Model Corporate” award at the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, 2019, Infosys.

4Australian Network on Disability — Our History, Australian Network on Disability.

5Young Adults With Autism Can Thrive In High-Tech Jobs, Lauren Silverman, April 22, 2013, NPR.