How to use the surge in teleworking as a real chance to include people with disabilities
COVID-19 unleashed the pent-up potential for telework. Over a third of respondents to Eurofound’s online survey of Europeans in April had started teleworking because of the pandemic. Never before had so many people been working from home. For people with disabilities, telework has long been viewed as the ideal solution to removing many of the barriers to their participation in the open labour market. But it has not lived up to its promise and people with disabilities remain strongly disadvantaged when it comes to employment. Does the current embrace of telework by employers offer a second chance?
Telework as route to better inclusion
Employment of people with disabilities has still some way to go: just half were in work in 2016, according to Eurofound research. When remote working became a realistic option in the 1990s, it was advocated as a key accommodation for people with disabilities, removing significant obstacles to work such as commuting and unsuitable workspaces. But, although statistics on telework practices vary depending on sector and occupation, it is clear that the increase of telework observed overall has not been mirrored among people with disabilities  and that there has not been a substantial ‘increase in employment for people with disabilities attributed to telework’  – something surprising, considering its potential to reduce employment barriers.
Employers were not always motivated to use telework as a means to including more people with disabilities in their workforces. And, that aside, telework was not widely taken up by companies. But the COVID-19 pandemic has proven telework to be a viable alternative mode of working, and this might provide the momentum for long-term change for people with disabilities, as it compels the reshaping of work. Where implemented in the past, telework often stimulated more general workplace innovation in the form of organisational changes, flexibility, online learning and new forms of cooperation. As companies revisit their work practices and embrace telework, the potential it offers for change could prove a useful angle in making society in general and work specifically disability-inclusive. This cultural change could become the newest megatrend, alongside technological, demographic and climate change.
- ILO and Fundación ONCE: Making the future of work inclusive of people with disabilities
Mainstream telework policies should be developed from a disability rights perspective and involve people with disabilities in their design. When new collective labour agreements are negotiated on telework, or when companies revise their telework policies, they should be disability-friendly. This means moving away from the idea that people with disabilities are a specific group. Instead, the focus should be on implementing telework so that it allows workers to use their vocational skills and talents to full capacity, regardless of whether they have a disability or not. Inclusion would become part of the gain for everybody.
What must be avoided is that telework is used for the wrong reasons. Previous experience proved that it can be a double-edged sword, especially when adopted as a strategy to cut costs or as an excuse to avoid implementing workplace adjustments, leading to a reduction in long-term physical and environmental planning for people with disabilities. On some occasions, people with disabilities were forced to work from home, rather than being offered the choice. It also entails the risk of isolation, loneliness and social exclusion.
Adopting telework practices requires an active engagement to foster the benefits and reduce the risks it involves, with the aim of ensuring the best possible working conditions for each individual. It can be a tool to customise work, allowing employers to better focus on the strengths and abilities of people with disabilities rather than on their support needs. For telework to be really inclusive and non-discriminatory, the default position should be for it to be available and voluntary to the extent possible. Where job tasks allow, people should be free to decide whether, and how much, they want to telework, as some may want to do less instead of more. Working remotely, or from the office, should be an option, a facilitator and not a condition for access to work or retention.
But good telework policies alone do not suffice
Teleworking is not possible in all jobs. Employment is ‘teleworkable’ only in part, with significant differences between high- and low-paid workers, white- and blue-collar jobs, and women and men. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, telework has increased mainly in high-paid, white-collar employment. In many sectors and occupations it is not viable, so telework policies will not benefit everybody equally, and less so all workers with disabilities.
What also must be considered is that COVID-19 exposes people with disabilities to multiple risks. The pandemic has already resulted in widespread job losses, particularly affecting people with temporary contracts and sectors where these contracts are more common. The unfortunate reality is that this may well squeeze out jobs held by people with disabilities, who may then face more difficulties and competition to re-enter the labour market.
Clearly, then, good teleworking policies alone do not suffice for the labour market to be fair and inclusive of people with disabilities. Retention practices must be equitable, and equality has to be at the forefront of decisions about redundancies. Social protection and quality public services must be available when those with disabilities lose their job. Both employers and governments have a key role here.
Eurofound is currently working on a study that examines the open labour market for people with disabilities in the EU Member States and the policies supporting their employment. The full findings will be published in spring 2021.
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Research carried out prior to the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union on 31 January 2020, and published subsequently, may include data relating to the 28 EU Member States. Following this date, research only takes into account the 27 EU Member States (EU28 minus the UK), unless specified otherwise.