Disability provisions for remote workers - what do employers need to know?

Posted on  Dec 20, 21 by Dee Coakley
Disability provisions for remote workers - what do employers need to know?

When Cat Noone, CEO of accessibility software company Stark, approached Boundless founder Dee Coakley to collaborate on a guide to ‘Disability at Work’ in Ireland, it sparked a broader conversation about the state of employment regulations and supports for disabled people in the age of global, remote-based working.

In this post, Dee and Cat discuss what role employers play in introducing good supportive practices as governments adapt to the new reality, the need for organisations to normalise conversations about disability and the talent opportunities available to companies that are truly inclusive in their approach to work…

Acknowledge what you don’t know

Dee: The first thing that I realised, when we started the Irish guide, was how little I knew on the subject of disability at work. It’s a bit shocking to think that you can be a senior leader, building teams, and have so little insight. So I’m starting this conversation by holding my hand up and acknowledging my need to learn more. I think many young companies, in particular, will probably find themselves in a similar position.

Cat: I think everyone needs to start with the willingness to accept that there are things we don’t know about – gaps in our education. In this day and age, people can be reluctant to admit what they don’t know. The reason why both of our organisations are trying to write these guides and compile information is that there is no central location you can trust on the topic of disability at work – it’s a subject riddled with taboo and stigma.

You have to go out there and show a willingness to engage, acknowledge what you don’t know and what you’d like to learn.

Remote working creates greater opportunity

Dee: It’s the right time to be looking into the regulations because the pandemic has changed company attitudes to how work is carried out, and there is a need to stay on top of where the boundaries are in terms of what companies and their employees can and cannot do. The purpose of the guides is to collate and make sense of the vast amount of information out there. Regulation around disability is an important part of that.

Cat: That’s right. By shifting to remote working and digital collaboration, the pandemic has shone a light on the disability ‘gap’ where people were previously excluded. Now, businesses are starting to realise that if they don’t account for disability, they’re the ones that will end up being excluded from the market.

Dee: Accessibility is the key issue here. Before lockdown, the majority of companies were still anti-remote working, especially on a permanent basis. So if you couldn’t make it into the office every day from 9-5, you couldn’t do the job. Now, remote working is making business leaders reimagine their future and reconsider their entire hiring strategy, while at the same time, there’s a massive battle for talent. So one logical approach is to proactively open doors to underrepresented talent.

Cat: It used to be the case that many employers would just say ‘we don’t support remote working’ as a way of avoiding the disabled question. It was a convenient grey area. Now companies don’t have that excuse, there’s growing pressure on them to be more inclusive. It’s forcing employers to educate themselves and to engage with underrepresented groups to educate the wider board.

Giving people the ability to shape their health benefits – including things like physio or different types of therapy – makes a big difference, irrespective of whether they have a disability or not.

Conversations about disability need to happen in the workplace

Dee: I spoke to a journalist recently about inclusivity, and she asked me what I could do personally to encourage and empower disabled people at work. I found it a tricky question to answer, which troubled me. But the truth is, the conversation doesn’t happen enough. I attend many talks regarding underrepresented groups, but it’s generally about women or other diversity issues. Disabled people are rarely discussed. So I’d say talking has to be the first step.

Cat: Absolutely, and it’s a conversation that has to happen internally as well as externally. If we weren’t building an accessibility company, I’d love to think (because of the dynamic we have at work) but I don’t actually know if people would be so willing to come forward about their disabilities. The talking aspect changed for the better once I started to bring it up internally. So often, there just isn’t a system in place to help disabled people succeed.

Dee: Internally, we’re actively having conversations around things like mental health. But it can be challenging to know how to start a conversation about something you don’t feel you know enough about. I increasingly feel that we just have to be uncomfortable with it and do it anyway – because silence is not the answer.

Cat: Do it anyway, and understand that you won’t always get it right. We messed up on social media once by referring to people with autism, as opposed to ‘people with autism / autistic people’—since we were uncertain of the true preference of label, and received a lot of criticism (rightfully so). We apologised, and we learnt from it. And that’s what you have to do. You have to go out there and show a willingness to engage, acknowledge what you don’t know and what you’d like to learn.

Dee: Does the fact that there is a spectrum of different disabilities make it harder for organisations to understand how to have these conversations and effectively support disabled people?

Cat: Yes it does. On a very basic level, you’ll support a d/Deaf person differently from a colour-blind person. We have two colour-blind people in our organisation, so you have to be cognisant of labelling things more carefully, rather than just using colour as an identification method. With a d/Deaf person for instance, you have to find out whether they sign (sign language), whether they prefer captions, what ensures they’re set up for success in working settings like meetings, etc. When office-based working was the norm for everyone in Ireland, it was painfully apparent that disabled people were not set up to succeed. For example, there were health system delays that meant people would be living in pain for months waiting to see specialists, taking a lot of sick days as a consequence and impeding their careers. It’s where working from home has made such a big difference.

Today the onus is absolutely on employers to provide the right equipment and ensure all employees are working in safe environments.

Bespoke benefits will empower disabled workers

Dee: The other aspect of this is employee benefits. As more companies recognise the commercial value of being a good, inclusive, socially-conscious organisation, they’re starting to pay more attention to what their people really need by way of support. For global employers, in particular, it just doesn’t make sense to have a specific pot of benefits and try to cram all employees into the same pot. So we’re now seeing companies put the decision-making in employees’ hands by giving them budgets to shape their own benefits package. Again, this is far more empowering for disabled employees who may want something very specific from a benefits package.

Cat: That’s so true. Giving people the ability to shape their health benefits – including things like physio or different types of therapy – makes a big difference, irrespective of whether they have a disability or not.

Dee: And therapy is such a low-cost benefit to provide too. It’s insane not to offer it!

Cat: Also, with more people working from home, the benefits they want are likely to change. And there are other aspects to working from home that employers must also address, like the equipment they’re using and their general work station.

Dee: It’s been an employer’s responsibility to perform workstation assessments for home workers for many years, but pre-pandemic, there wasn’t a lot of this happening outside of the large corporates. Today the onus is absolutely on employers to provide the right equipment and ensure all employees are working in safe environments.

We messed up on social media once by referring to people with autism, as opposed to ‘people with autism / autistic people’—since we were uncertain of the true preference of label, and received a lot of criticism (rightfully so). We apologised, and we learnt from it.

Breaking down employer misconceptions

Cat: Do you personally think some companies automatically assume that catering to disabled employees’ needs will be more difficult or expensive?

Dee: Potentially, yes, and it’s a misnomer. Of course, different disabilities will dictate different home office needs. But that’s true of all of us. We’re all different shapes and sizes – every workstation is personalised. So employers shouldn’t be afraid if disabled employees will cost more in terms of setup. You are personalising everything as it is. 

Cat: Ultimately, we’re talking about organisations doing what they need to support their people. And people are the most important aspect of any company, irrespective of what you’re producing or selling. So when it comes to supporting disability at work, I sense that we’re all becoming more aware, but now we need to move from awareness into action. And that may mean companies need to sit in their humility and discomfort for a while longer as they learn the information they need to go forward. They may also have to be proactive about offering support instead of waiting for governments to mandate it. What we sadly discovered as we were working on the Irish disability guide is that a lot remains to be done for disabled people to feel equal members of society. Society designs marginalisation into the system at each touchpoint of “othering”.We can do our bit to make them feel like equal members of our companies.

Dee: It’s an educational journey for us all, which is why we’re planning to publish more disability guides for different markets around the world. Employers are crying out for talent, and huge numbers of disabled people have amazing skills and education - just like any other human being. This is not new or surprising. The only barrier to career success is the difficulty of going into an office every day or having to work rigid hours. Fully remote, flexible working changes all of this. It’s a fantastic opportunity to change our working culture.

Don't be afraid that disabled employees will cost more in terms of home office setup. You are personalising everything as it is and everyone comes with different needs.

Conclusion

To understand the current disability rules and regulations in Ireland, have a look at our collaborative guide. Boundless can help you employ anyone compliantly, fairly and equally in Ireland and a growing number of countries around the world - get started here. Stark’s integrated suite of tools helps designers make more accessible and compliant software products. 

The making available of information to you on this site by Boundless shall not create a legal, confidential or other relationship between you and Boundless and does not constitute the provision of legal, tax, commercial or other professional advice by Boundless. You acknowledge and agree that any information on this site has not been prepared with your specific circumstances in mind, may not be suitable for use in your business, and does not constitute advice intended for reliance. You assume all risk and liability that may result from any such reliance on the information and you should seek independent advice from a lawyer or tax professional in the relevant jurisdiction(s) before doing so.

Written by Dee Coakley

Before founding international employment platform, Boundless, Dee Coakley was a three-time COO, having spent 10 years with B2B SaaS businesses (Masabi, Bizimply & Axonista). In her COO roles, she experienced first-hand the operational challenges of setting up employees in new countries, and so set about building a solution. Boundless handles cross-border HR compliance and payroll for small and mid-size businesses, removing the barriers to growing teams internationally.

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