disabled community, working from home

Liz Johnson, former Paralympian and co-founder of The Ability People, discusses what we can learn from the disabled community about working from home

As we adjust to living our lives on lockdown and working from home, it’s important to remember that for the 13.9 million disabled people living in the UK, life in the face of restrictions, challenges and health anxieties is part and parcel of daily life. Having set up my own disability employment consultancy – The Ability People – since retiring as a Paralympian, I am acutely aware of the resilience and skill that exists in the disabled talent pool; and there’s much we can learn from this diverse group about adapting to lockdown life and working from home productively.

1. We need to be patient to overcome communication challenges

Sometimes technology doesn’t work. Sometimes people are too busy to respond straight away. Sometimes clear and efficient communication can be difficult when you’re working remotely. Certain disabilities also lead to communication struggles, be that verbal or otherwise. The key thing to remember is that patience and perseverance is key.

If you’re struggling to put into words what you’re feeling or experiencing during isolation, are worried about communicating a concern or worry to your boss over the phone, or are simply experiencing the frustration of a bad internet connection on a video call, be patient and remember that we’re all in the same boat. Also, it’s not your fault! You’re adapting to doing things differently and you’ll get there eventually, it might just take a little longer than it usually would to communicate what you want to. Go with the flow and don’t let yourself get frustrated as this never helps. Seek alternative ways to release your negative feelings and emotions – allow yourself a moment to hit the “reset” button.

2. With movement restricted, it’s important to take pleasure in the simple things and be willing to adapt

Most of the disabled people I know are also the happiest people I know because as a group we’re incredibly good at seeing the positives in situations and focusing on the things that give us joy. Yes, we might have a disability that presents certain challenges, but we overcome them, adapt, and make the most of life. We just do things differently. Similarly, right now on lockdown, it’s all about looking at what you’ve got to work with and doing things differently to how you normally would keep yourself healthy, occupied and entertained.

Staying positive, thinking creatively about your approach to daily life and being thankful for the little pleasures is essential when you’re facing any kind of limitation or difference. Train yourself to appreciate the little things and value what you’ve got. You’ll feel extremely lucky now, and even luckier once all this is over and you can get back to normal. Focus on the opportunities that have arisen out of trying to navigate the new obstacles.

3. We’re more than capable of adapting to new ways of working. Perseverance is key.

Disabled people have been adapting to new ways of working since forever. Many of us will work remotely at least some of the time. We’ll make use of tools like video calls and collaborative working platforms to take part in meetings or speak with colleagues, which might cause communication difficulties but we persevere. We might also have to adapt our workspaces so they better suit our needs and are productive in the long term, or make use of particular software to help us work more effectively. Tech might not always comply when we don’t have an IT department on tap. These are the kinds of challenges everybody is now facing up to as everyone adapts to working from home.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt since launching The Ability People it’s that there’s no group more resilient or resourceful than the disability community when it comes to adjusting to new ways of doing things, overcoming challenges and doing a great job regardless. We’re proof that human beings can adapt and achieve great things when doing things slightly differently. Perseverance and flexibility is key. Also, this is a group that has been living within these conditions for much longer than this pandemic, so we might already have advice and solutions to the operational issues that the majority are now experiencing.

4. Working remotely doesn’t have to mean reducing productivity

As many of those living with disabilities will know, working from home is a chance to be more productive, rather than less. Although it can be isolating, working at home also means more time to crack on with the tasks at hand without the interruptions you might face at the office. You can also strike a better work-life balance without the stress of a commute.

Find a quiet space or room to use as your office where you can really focus. Keep in touch with colleagues throughout the day through video calls, so you don’t feel out on a limb. Give regular updates, ask plenty of questions and stay engaged. It’s all about adapting and adjusting as best you can and making the most of the place and time when you’re most productive to do your best work. It might feel as though you are juggling more whilst working at home but don’t view this as a negative – be grateful for the additional time that you are able to spend with those in your household and appreciate that your work output can still be the same, the structure of your day might just look different at the moment

5. It’s not easy feeling vulnerable, so we must all act selflessly to protect each other

Every disabled person is different. Some will feel more vulnerable than others depending on the severity and nature of the disability. One thing that’s for certain: feeling vulnerable and worried about your safety is not nice. Many of us will sympathise with this now, perhaps feeling anxious to go to the shops or get public transport for fear of getting ill. It can also impact our work.

Learn from this experience by realising that this is how lots of disabled people will feel on a standard day. Learn to have empathy and to appreciate your health. Now and in future, help those who are struggling, be considerate and act as selflessly as you can to support the vulnerable and look after people’s specific needs. We all have a duty to support and protect one another. Vulnerability means something different for each individual and varies in different situations.


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