The human cost of inflexible work

Analogue clock with hands pointing to 12 o'clock reads: "Time to adapt"
Image/Local Jobs Network

I’ve recently experienced the impacts of inflexible reasonable accommodation policies which favour regulations over people’s needs.

Since September 2020, I’d been planning to intern with the European Network on Independent Living (ENIL), ideally involving moving to Brussels to do that and experience the culture. The programme the funding comes from considers this mobility aspect of particular importance.

However, over the last couple months, I realised that my long Covid had not been easing as fast as I would like, significantly curtailing my available energy and forcing me to reassess whether moving was worth the risks. The intersections of blindness and chronic illness mean that relocating is a particularly high-energy endeavour, and because I also don’t know when I’ll be vaccinated, I have to consider Covid reinfection risk on top of that. Belgium’s pandemic situation remains grim and working from home there has been compulsory since last October.

Taking all this into account, I informed ENIL of my circumstances and explained that it was the best long-term decision for my body not to move, but that I would be more than happy to work remotely. Unfortunately, the funding agency for the position, which is separate from ENIL, declined. They did so on the basis that this was a mobility programme. They made an exception for Covid travel restrictions last year, but weren’t willing to make any exceptions on other grounds now, not even with a doctor’s letter and ENIL’s full support of my decision.

Things have worked out okay and I’ll still do some volunteering with ENIL, separate from this programme, and I’m excited about that.

I’ve opted to not formally complain about this or call out the organisation in question and I ask everyone to respect that. But I’m choosing to share my experience here because it highlights two important principles.

  1. Saying no to remote working is saying no to human needs.

At its heart, the un- and under- employment of disabled and other marginalised people is a systemic failure to embrace flexibility. When businesses and institutions confine working from home (WFH) to a temporary, pandemic-only switch, they neglect the needs of all those for whom working at home is either a necessity, or a difference which significantly eases stress. This attitude stung last year when disabled people who’d been asking for remote working for yonks discovered it could pop up in a week when non-disabled people needed it too. Now that WFH is well-established, it stings even more when employers consider it an expendable practice, and the people reliant upon it expendable from their businesses and organisations along with it.

  1. Our changing needs shouldn’t take away our jobs.

Until about a month ago, I had not anticipated that the risks to my long-term well-being could significantly outweigh any gain from a short-term move to Brussels. You can call me overly optimistic, but the point I want to make is that we’re all human. We never have–and never will–accurately anticipate all of our future needs, illnesses, life circumstances, you name it. Putting rigid attitudes and policies ahead of our needs takes away people’s jobs and livelihoods, impacting those already disadvantaged the most.

It doesn’t need to be this way. When employers prioritise flexibility and care, unforeseen changes need not cost us our current or potential jobs. Changing work culture to make this a reality is about commitment: a commitment from the employee to be upfront about a change in circumstances that means they have new work-related access needs, and an equal commitment from the employer to honour that confidence and seek to be as accommodating as possible.

My being refused a WFH reasonable accommodation request on bureaucratic grounds alone is only one instance of institutionalised regulations, attitudes and practices which perpetuate systemic un- and under-employment of disabled people. For some, those barriers that employers and policy-makers choose to leave erected mean the difference between food on the table or going hungry, having a healthy sense of self-worth or experiencing significant mental distress, enjoying a concert or meal out now and then or being constantly anxious about how far this week’s budget will stretch. I recognise my privilege in that none of these circumstances apply to me which makes it easier to speak out against these injustices.

Please share. It’s time for policy-makers, institutions and employers to put us as people, in all our wonderful diversity, ahead of outdated and close-minded regulations and attitudes that needlessly limit our potential and shut us out of jobs.

By Áine Kelly-Costello

Blind freelance writer/journalist and campaigner from aotearoa NZ.

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