Employers need to do more to make workplaces inclusive for workers with disabilities or risk alienating a huge potential talent pool, a new report has warned.
A study by Lancaster University's Work Foundation found that workers with disabilities were being forced to come back into the office or take on unfavourable working arrangements despite the distinct benefits that remote working offered them.
It also found that some disabled workers were being refused requests for additional support or equipment, or otherwise paying for this equipment themselves.
Addressing these issues is key to ensuring that hybrid and remote working policies are inclusive and designed with accessibility in mind, the report authors said, rather than a broad-brush approach that does not account for the experiences, perspectives or requirements of employees with disabilities.
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In his foreword, Paul Martinelli, chairman of the City Bridge Trust (CBT) Grants Committee, said hybrid working "not only empowers disabled people to manage their health and wellbeing, but also increases the likelihood of their securing work, staying long-term and progressing in their careers, to the benefit of employee and employer alike."
People with disabilities remain significantly underrepresented in the workforce. According to The Work Foundation, just 52.7% of disabled people are in employment, compared with 81% of people without disabilities. A key driver of the disability employment gap is workplace inflexibility, the organization said.
The 406 survey respondents and 20 interviewees canvassed by the Foundation cited clear benefits to working from home, including having more autonomy and control over when and how they work that enables them to better manage their health and wellbeing.
This brings wider benefits for organizations, with 85% of respondents saying they felt more productive working from home. The researchers noted that commuting, working in noisy environments and changes to meetings and events had "distinct and much greater impacts for disabled workers," which could be reduced or eliminated by allowing them to work from home. Likewise, people with autism and with conditions that affect sensory processing reported the benefits of being able to control lighting and noise levels while working from home, which is challenging to do in an office.
However, the report concluded that support for workers with disabilities had been patchy since the switch to remote working, with respondents experiencing alienation and isolation, as well as a lack of equipment to support their remote working.
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Of the respondents who requested additional support or new adjustments while working remotely, close to one in five (19.1%) had their request refused, with no alternative arrangement put in place, The Work Foundation found.
In addition, while 89% of survey respondents reported they had access to specialist equipment or software at home, interviewees often reported that they had purchased equipment themselves, using their own money.
"Truly inclusive work is not just about eliminating discrimination, it has to be about proactively tackling the range of barriers disabled people continue to face throughout their working lives," the report said.
The Work Foundation drew up a number of recommendations for the UK Government and employers to "support an inclusive transition to hybrid work", including: making flexible working the default position for all employees, increasing funding and resources for occupational health support; the requirement for large organizations to publish their approach to flexible and hybrid working; and updates to the UK Government's Disability Confident scheme, which encourages employers to think differently about disability and take action to improve how they recruit, retain and develop people with disabilities.