Teen Vogue, an American online publication, interviewed people on the concept of remote working. One employee diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis claimed that the WFH have been ‘relieving’, as it lets them perform tasks while taking care of their health. Another expressed that offices that had earlier denied them entry into their office spaces because of their ‘supposed defects’ of not fulfilling the eligibility criteria of a ‘must-have driver’s license’, are now actively admitting differently-abled people, in turn, enabling them to do three part-time jobs!
The new normal, the highlight of which is the ‘work-from-home’ arrangement, has been a blessing for this particular section. Members of this section or group have welcomed remote working with open arms and a big sigh of relief. Yes, we are talking about people with disabilities.
Many accounts of differently-abled people have come out, expressing pain as well as relief towards the ‘new normal’. These accounts also pose a question. Why did it take a pandemic for corporates to realise that remote working can prove to be a reasonable accommodation for the differently-abled or chronically ill? While it is understandable that working from office may increase productivity by a large margin, it may also end up enabling workplace ableism, which affects a large population of the world. Options, such as remote working, that accommodate not just able-bodied people, but also differently-abled people, equally, are crucial and consequential to the increased productivity, inclusion, and success of companies.
Workplace ableism is a reality, and surely not an unknown. Briefly described, ableism refers to targeted discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities, grounded in the belief that sees non-disabled people as ‘superior’, or ‘normal’. According to a report produced by the National Statistical Office (NSO) in 2018, approx. 2.2 per cent of the Indian population suffers from a disability. Given this number, it becomes imperative to look at how ableism manifests in one of the most crucial areas, the workplace.
Work-from-home or WFH is a reality that has long been denied by workplaces as it is believed to hamper fair working conditions, proving to be detrimental to the culture of corporate professionalism. Interestingly, as pointed out by many critics, these drastic social changes have come forth as a means to accommodate able-bodied people and maintain their productivity in times of the virus. This stands contrary to what has long been the narrative about an ideal worker and archetypal work conditions. However, this new policy of work from home has proved to be fruitful to people who suffer from visible or invisible disabilities.
Increased use of digital tools, such as Google Meet, Zoom and Microsoft Teams, has definitely made it easier for people with disabilities to work from the comfort of their homes, without being subjected to environmental ableism time and again. People who seek the support of wheelchairs while commuting to work have found relief in this new mode of working, as they are able to do the same tasks from home more efficiently. Those with mental illnesses are now able to control and be mindful of their surroundings and themselves, without the fear of external judgment and performance anxiety impeding their productivity.
How ableism manifests at work
The onset of COVID-19 has considerably changed the very way reality is perceived. With more and more corporates facilitating work-from-home policies, the notion of productivity and ideal working conditions are being redefined. Not just offices, but schools and colleges have also shifted to the new form of remote learning ever since the pandemic hit the world.
In some work cultures, the notion of success is believed to be a product of extreme physical and mental labour. This notion sometimes lays down expectations from the employees to be able to work for long hours or sit in the same place without batting an eyelid. So much so, that disabled people are sometimes viewed as being ‘deficient’, as they would fail the set criteria of an ‘ideal’ or a ‘normal candidate’: one who can slog for long hours at a stretch, without displaying any signs of lethargy. Such expectations may translate into becoming trigger points for people dealing with chronic back problems or mental issues, such as bipolar disorder, that may not be noticeable at first. In this manner, many corporates consciously or unconsciously end up excluding many skilled candidates. Such bindings may lead to stigmatisation of disabilities, further discouraging differently-abled people from accessing professional opportunities and availing their basic right to work.