PORTO, Portugal (Reuters) – As the world of work shifted during the COVID-19 pandemic towards flexible hours and remote offices, some disabled people who for years have urged companies to create more accessible and inclusive workspaces saw a window of opportunity.
Now, as more people get vaccinated and offices start opening up again, some fear the policies which made their working lives easier will be reversed and pleas for long-term change ignored.
“The changes are temporary … I thought we would get out of this better off but that’s not the case,” Miguel Azevedo, coordinator at Porto-based disability movement Cidadao Diferente, said. “The problems persist.”
The list of barriers disabled people face when looking for work is long, from discriminatory attitudes to poorly designed office spaces.
Some disabled people see their requests for flexible working hours refused, making it harder to attend medical appointments or avoid crammed trains and buses during rush hour, said Haydyn Hammersley, social policy officer at the Brussels-based European Disability Forum (EDF).
For others, especially those with debilitating chronic illnesses, being able to work from home is essential to cope. But not all companies are willing to make adjustments.
When the pandemic hit and millions of workers were confined to their homes, companies were fast to adapt. Remote work became the “new normal” and some employees were given more freedom to organise their day – there was a “window of opportunity” to keep such changes in place long-term, Hammersley said.
Keeping the option of digital events and meetings beyond the pandemic, would allow disabled people to attend if the physical space where they happen is not accessible.
“Working from home is something people have been asking for … ironically companies said it was impossible,” Hammersley said. “It was only when everyone was affected that, suddenly, we were able to work miracles. We learned many things during the pandemic so let’s not forget them.”
However, the normalisation of remote work could create a disincentive for companies to make physical office spaces accessible, EDF cautioned. “This goes against inclusion and risks segregating workers with disabilities,” it said.
For 47-year-old Rui Brito, who lost his arm in a machinery accident when he was 16, remote work “opened doors”, but he said it was important that companies give disabled people the choice of where to work.
Brito, who landed a job during the pandemic last year, prefers to work from his office in the Portuguese city of Porto as it helps him integrate with colleagues.
But he said: “If the cities and public transport are not accessible we create barriers and people end up giving up.”
Disabled people and rights activists also pointed to a rise in economic insecurity due to the pandemic.
The number of disabled people registered as unemployed in Portugal rose from 21,847 in 2019 to 23,646 in 2020 and around 24,500 in the first five months of 2021, the latest available figures showed.
“We’re fighting against the economic downturn,” Brito said.
Only 50.8% of disabled people are in employment across the European Union, compared with 74.8% for non-disabled people.
One of the reasons why so many disabled people lost their jobs was because many have low-paid, temporary contracts, making them easy targets, Azevedo of Cidadao Diferente said.
He said governments must do more to encourage companies, especially small- and medium-sized firms, to hire disabled workers and a quota system in place in several European nations was not enough.
The EU might be losing up to 1.2 billion euros of GDP annually because not all working age disabled people are in employment, according to a 2018 report.
EDF said many disabled people feared the prospect of “back to the old normal – where they are excluded and jobs are inaccessible to them”.