Image: ShutterStock

Our universities have shut, and we do not know for how long. Many of us are adjusting to working remotely. The global pandemic of coronavirus is changing the way we interact socially, and changing the way we work. While employers offer trite advice over how to work remotely, for much of the academic community, whether disabled, experiencing long term health conditions or not, covid19-triggered workplace adaptations equate to accommodations we have been requesting or working with, for years.

Universities are sharing ‘self-help’ blogs to maximise the productivity of employees working from home. They offer bland advice about dressing smartly, despite being in your living room, trying to maintain a routine, keeping the workspace tidy and ordered. What they also suggest, almost universally, is that any given work area should have good lighting, storage and space for equipment and documents, that any screen used should be raised to eye level and if needed an ergonomic keyboard and mouse should be used. Essentially, universities are acknowledging that to produce your best, and most creative work, you should be comfortable in your workspace.

So are why universities not already providing the necessary equipment for their staff to be comfortable while working, whether at home, in the office or the laboratory? Our work shows that basic accommodations for work are often not met for disabled academics.  Many are required then to work in discomfort or to finance their own workplace adjustments while waiting for suitable equipment.

Having sent staff home, what are universities doing to ensure that staff are safe and comfortable in their new workplaces?  What are their organisational strategies to ensure in a time of national crisis, disabled staff and staff with long term conditions are adequately supported, given the context of inadequate support prior to the Coronavirus outbreak?

Working from home might help minimise the impairment effects experienced by some disabled staff. For example, commuting to and from work drains energy that could otherwise be directed toward managing symptoms, completing work-related tasks, or fuller and more varied leisure time. DISC research so far has highlighted a continued issue with disclosure of long term health conditions or impairments in academic workplaces. Our homes might well be better adapted to our needs than workplaces where line managers can be unaware of which budget to draw from to make workplace adaptations, or indeed, unwilling to make them. There might also be some freedom at home from concerns about the bureaucracy and paperwork of universities, that rightly or wrongly situate HR as part of the disciplinary apparatus. Remote working, then, might be equalising. We are all having to learn to manage isolation now, positioning ourselves almost exclusively at the human-technology interface where so many disabled people have no option but to work. We are using distance communication, seeing faces on screens rather than across tables in inaccessible offices, in often poorly kept buildings.

However, in this same vein, we lose in-person access to British Sign Language interpreters, hearing loops and alternative format document printing. Shared working environments have different strengths and weaknesses. Many of the ‘how to work from home’ blogs discuss minimising disruption, despite how many academics are now full-time home-schoolers as well as academics. This is interesting when considered in relation to the increasing appetite in UK universities for open-plan offices, loaded with disruption irrespective of whether you are disabled or not. The visual and audio pollution present in large shared office spaces renders them poor spaces for the successful management of many impairment effects, including mental health conditions, some neurodiversity, visual and audio impairments and people who have compromised immune systems.

Some universities have recommended preparedness as a key strategy to manage working in a new environment. They suggest preparing for the unanticipated, including alterations to government advice, equipment failure and last-minute schedule changes. It will be gratifying to see universities employ this advice as time goes on, and prepare for diverse employees in advance, rather than by the reactive means we have identified in our project so far. As it is incumbent on universities to assume there will be disabled students and students with long term health conditions in the cohort, it is not unreasonable to anticipate a workforce that is reflective of the population too. 16% of the working-age population in the UK has a recognised disability.

The flexibility some employers are showing in the times of pandemic does not have to be temporary. If nothing else, the current practice of social isolation has clearly identified job parameters; which jobs can be conducted outside of work premises, outside of standardised working hours. Other university policies have also been shown to be more malleable than first thought. Professional development reviews no longer have stark deadlines, the desperate race for REF2021 (research excellence framework) is seemingly deferred, though the census date remains the same, as are all the metrics by which universities measure performance – and the universities will endure. It is almost as if the increasing drive for scores and performance measures did not enhance scholarship or pedagogy. Who would have known?

Though the Coronavirus outbreak is frightening and disruptive, it does provide an opportunity to learn from disabled people about useful coping strategies for isolation, contingency plans for when technology fails and practical advice about which are the better platforms for communication. It allows time for those new to remote working to reflect on their prior freedom to attend post-work networking events, (international) conferences, seminars and workshops without the worries of budgeting for a carer to attend, organising access logistics, being considered difficult for having specific diary requirements, particular anxieties or being neurodiverse.

We hope that employers across sectors will take time to ask their disabled employees how home working can be best supported. As we make our way through this crisis, we hope that employers will remember that remote working is a viable way to work and be more accommodating of their employees who ask for it.

Finally, we hope that everyone is keeping safe, has what they need and we look forward to seeing you all soon


About the Authors: Kate Sang is Professor of Gender and Employment Studies at Heriott Watt University. Her research focusses on how women and disabled people navigate highly skilled employment. Her research projects include disability in scientific and academic careers, gynaecological health in academia.  Sara Shinton is Head of the Researcher Development Team at Edinburgh University, her work has focused on supporting researchers in higher education, principally through training workshops, published guides and partnerships with institutions, funders and professional bodies. She is a Co-investigator on the DISC project.