Posted 29 Apr 2020
We Have Been Disabled: How The Pandemic Has Proven The Social Model Of Disability
For those who have never heard of the social model of disability it is best explained as the civil rights view of disablement. It separates impairment from disability and focuses on the responsibility that society holds for the disablement of others. For example, if everyone was taught sign language at an early age a deaf person would no longer be disadvantaged. If towns were built and planned with physical disabilities in mind and there was no social stigma attached to looking or sounding different then having a physical impairment would no longer be disabling. Much of my work involves helping businesses to remove barriers for their disabled employees who are struggling needlessly because the environment and workplace culture has not been designed with them in mind.
This led me to thinking about how the current environment is leading to disability accommodations becoming widely available, not because of some ethical awakening or increased empathy but because now everyone is disabled. If we follow the logic of the social model of disability, we are now working in an environment that is not ideal for the vast majority rather than an unseen minority. Allow me to expand on that for you by giving you some examples.
Has Your Value Changed?
One statistic that people are often shocked by is that 83% of all disabilities are acquired, and the average age of acquiring them is 53 (Source: Business Disability Forum). Adjusting to a new world in which you are suddenly disabled is difficult, people must learn to advocate for themselves and their particular needs whilst remaining confident and focused on their skills. This can be tricky in a world where few understand their experience.
A few months ago, the world was suddenly plunged into a situation where physical proximity to others became a no go. In one swoop, a whole group of people were placed at an immediate disadvantage without having done anything to deserve it.
If people skills and face-to-face interaction are your key skill, then your greatest professional asset is now useless to your employer. You have been devalued by forces beyond your control and the world changing in ways that don’t play to your strengths.
Even putting the professional aspect aside, if you NEED to socialise to feel stable and happy, you are now disabled. This is what it is like to have a disability; this is what some people grow up with.
Leading Through Increased Empathy
During this time, we can as leaders review the ways in which we are now disadvantaged and use this increased insight and empathy to review what changes could and should be made to support the disabled community.
Zoom fatigue is the new widespread irritation of working people everywhere. Not all communication is ideally suited to video format, it can be hard to read body language and know when it’s your turn to speak. There can also be technical problems preventing you from hearing or being able to connect with someone over an urgent matter. Sounds similar to the everyday experiences of autistic people to me!
No doubt after the crisis the majority of people will be enormously grateful to return to having certain communication face to face and yet Deaf and people who are Hard of Hearing will still be receiving their medical sign language interpretation via a tablet in many cases. Women will be told that they have miscarried by a stranger on a video link up, gravely ill people will have to communicate through writing to their doctors when the video link up cuts out.
During this time where we are struggling so much to feel connected to others, perhaps we can review how disabling our society is to the Hard of Hearing and reconsider widespread teaching of sign language, the use of in-person interpreters over technology, and ubiquitous closed captioning in video content.
Currently, if you have hay fever or perhaps a smokers cough you most likely dread your trips out of the house. Are you doing the weekly family shop at the supermarket whilst trying to suppress your cough because you know everyone will stare? Afraid of a hay fever sneezing fit in case people react in horror? Consider then that this is similar to the experience of those with involuntary physical and verbal tics. Let the currently disabling nature of your condition give you insight into what it feels like to be a social pariah simply because of a bodily function that you cannot control.
Some people are currently unable to wear masks over their face because they find them claustrophobic or anxiety inducing. This is a perfect example of how it feels for people with sensory processing issues who are made to wear school uniforms or formal office wear that they find completely unbearable. It’s not a resistance to the rules that’s the problem, it’s a genuine physical reaction. Surely accommodations can be made?
The literal isolation from society that is causing you to feel lonely and disconnected is how it feels for many people who are simply not included or accepted because of their differences. Loneliness is a huge problem for disabled people and takes its toll on mental health. Now that we all know better, we must do more to help.
Flexibility Will Be The Key
For those who have found home working and the absence of a commute positively liberating, let’s remember that when lock down restrictions are eased we don’t have to spring back to business as usual. It will be much harder to argue that remote working is ‘unreasonable’ as a disability adjustment, and we should note the productivity gains of our less extroverted colleagues right now.
As business leaders planning a return to work, we can sort the last few weeks into categories:
· New things we will keep
· New things we will cease
· Old things we will reinstate
· Old things we will drop
Let’s notice those who have thrived at this time and allow them to keep their working conditions. Forcing people with cognitive disabilities and fatigue to concentrate in an open plan office is like telling someone with hearing loss to “listen harder,” or making someone who excels at a sales pitch through body language observation to write a power point. It’s borderline discrimination and an obstacle to talent.
Let’s remember how it felt to be battling communication channels that don’t allow us to free flow our thinking and be less judgemental of dyslexia and dyspraxia.
Let’s remember how much effort we put into technology in this time, such as alt-text for images, so that those who rely on technology for all communication feel included.
Let’s keep all these options open once we regain the freedom to choose.