Whilst, for many, the beginning of December will bring to mind sleigh bells, carol singing and perhaps even a Starbucks spiced latte, for others this time of year has a different meaning. 3 December 2021 marks the annual International Day of People with Disabilities. This is a global day of disability awareness, which has been endorsed by organisations such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission in the UK and, more widely, the United Nations, since 1992.

The theme this year is "fighting for rights in the post-COVID era", recognising that whilst COVID-19 has affected everyone in some way, it has had a particularly significant impact on disabled people. Their access to regular and vital healthcare has come under huge pressure, and many disabled people have been subject to more extreme and lengthier social isolation than the general population due to a heightened vulnerability to the virus.

Moving forward, it is also likely that some of the longer-term, societal changes brought about by COVID-19 will have a more pronounced impact on this group. This is particularly so when it comes to employment.

The disability employment gap

Statistics published by the government on 4 November 2021 show that, in Q2 2021, the employment rate for disabled people was 52.7%, compared to 81.0% of non-disabled people, resulting in a disability employment gap of 28.4%. The gap is still undoubtedly high. Whilst it has steadily narrowed over the past few years, coming down from 33.1% in 2013, it has stubbornly remained around the 30% mark for the last decade and progress, whilst positive, has been slow.

Traditionally, disabled people have encountered specific barriers to securing and maintaining employment. The disability employment gap can partly be explained by the fact that the traditional work environment is inaccessible for many disabled people. The structure of nine-to-five office-based working is not suitable for many disabled people's needs, and this has effectively locked many out of large sections of the employment market.

The impact of hybrid working on disabled employees

Whilst COVID-19 has undoubtedly created huge challenges for disabled people, many are of the view that it has also created a novel opportunity. According to ONS figures, by April 2020 46.6% of UK employees were working from home following the outbreak of COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions forcing a rapid shift towards remote working. This represented a huge shift, given that statistics from 2019 showed just 26.7% of UK workers had previously worked from home. Although many employees have now returned to office working, at least on a part-time basis, it seems highly unlikely that permanent office working will ever return to pre-pandemic levels.

What does this all mean? Well, the normalisation of homeworking adds a newfound flexibility to the employment system and makes it more accessible for disabled workers. Disabled employees, and non-disabled employees who have caring responsibilities for disabled relatives, have already benefited from this shift, as they are increasingly able to work in a way that suits their specific needs. As more companies offer remote working options to attract and retain talent, disabled workers who may have previously felt locked out from large sections of the employment market now have many more options that are accessible to them.

Considerations for employers

As we navigate the new hybrid world, employers should also be mindful of the potential drawbacks to hybrid working, particularly for disabled employees who are likely to be disproportionally affected. As many employees return to the office, employers should consider the challenges disabled employees who continue to work from home could face. These include missing social and teambuilding events in the office, as well as the opportunities for learning and development that exist in the office environment. To improve performance, welfare and retention, employers should consider taking steps to mitigate these drawbacks. For example, they could consider continuing to run training sessions via video conferencing platforms as well as in person, so that employees working remotely do not feel excluded or disadvantaged in their career development.

Employers should also be mindful that they have a statutory duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees with disabilities. Allowing disabled employees to continue to work from home does not by itself satisfy the obligation on employers. This is a continuing and individual duty, so employers are obligated to ensure that they make any adjustments that are reasonable to allow each disabled employee to do their job.

Think outside the box

Those employers who really want to set themselves apart from the crowd in the post-COVID-19 era will also be looking to engage with their disabled workforce with a view to truly understanding how they can best support them in reaching their full potential. Amidst the current boom in the employment market, fondly referred to by many as the "Big Quit", it is more important than ever for employers to be identifying and addressing any barriers that might prevent them from recruiting and retaining talent. This might include:

  • appointing mentors. P&G has implemented reverse mentoring so that managers without disabilities can learn from reports on how to make the workplace better.
  • creating accessible software programmes for disabled workers. Accenture has created an IT accessibility programme aimed at making 100% of the company’s technologies compliant with global accessibility standards.
  • natural lighting, noise cancelling headphones and a quiet room. The BBC now uses virtual reality to help managers understand how challenging it is for someone with a neuro-divergent condition to focus when overwhelmed by sensory input.
  • providing unconscious bias training. Fujitsu uses webinars to show what a typical day for a disabled employee looks like.

With more than 14 million disabled people in the UK, 8.8 million of whom are in employment, this is an issue that employers need to address now, or else risk losing talent in the long run.