By Sarah Botterill
Due to COVID-19, many people are now working from home. It’s a challenge for everyone but can present additional barriers if you have a disability or a long-term health condition. Employers and employees need to collaborate. Homeworking is often more inclusive if you consider everyone’s needs.
There are ways the environment and technology can be adjusted to help all types of disabilities, with tips for anyone with a visual impairment, neurodivergent workers, those with cognitive impairments, as well as physical and hearing impairments.
It’s a legal requirement for employers to adapt to the needs of workers with disabilities. Under the Equality Act 2010, employers must make reasonable adjustments to support job applicants and employees with disabilities.
Reasonable adjustments means that you aim to reduce as many potential barriers as possible. Where people are working at home, you need to consider the individual’s needs.
Here are some tips:
- Find out about your employee’s specific needs
You may already know employees who have particular needs. However, you may not, and some may come to light that you were previously unaware of during this crisis.
AbilityNet’s online tool can help you, and your employees identify the needs to make reasonable adjustments to the workspace.
- Ask employees with disabilities to help you
It’s society that disables. People with disabilities face challenges that others don’t every day and are often fantastic innovators. So, if you’re wrestling with an accessibility issue or something that’ll help everyone, they’re the best people to ask.
Take Haben Girma, for example. The deaf-blind Harvard Law graduate spoke eloquently about a job working in a gym at TechShare Pro 2019. One of the clients was struggling to turn on a machine and couldn’t make it operate.
Haben went in and felt her way around the machine and found the button that fixed it. As Haben tells it, the delighted customer quipped how fantastic it was and that she “hadn’t seen the button.” Haben’s reply, “Neither did I.”
- Remote communications
Many employers will be looking for new ways of communicating remotely with employees. There are many options available, and you must consider disabled people when you’re deciding how to communicate.
Do platforms work for people with visual- or hearing impairments, for example?
Video-conferencing platform Zoom is a simple to use platform for video calling. You can add closed captions to the video-conferencing system for the Deaf and hearing-impaired, or embed a third-party captioning service.
Other options are available for collaborating, including MS Teams, which also enables you to set-up a video call. You can also set up video conferencing with background blur. This feature was developed by a `Microsoft employee who would lip-read during calls but was struggling because of background interference.
Teams also include an Immersive Reader. Features include the ability to read text aloud.
- Adapting your physical workspace
Physical needs are varied and may relate to using a computer, or setting up a workspace. For example, some people may not be able to use a mouse at all or for long periods.
In this instance, voice dictation might be useful. Adjustments include the use of dictation and/or text-to-speech software.
You can find out more about using dictation with AbilityNet’s FREE online tool, My Computer My Way.
While this link is for Windows 10, My Computer My Way has dictation tips for all operating systems including Apple and Google Chromebook.
- Makeshift sit-stand desk
Some employees may find it uncomfortable to sit for long periods. In the office, they may have access to a sit-stand desk. If it’s not possible to get a sit-stand desk to employees in extreme times, then an ironing board could fit the bill. Ironing boards have adjustable heights, and you can raise it as a standing desk.
- Neurodiversity and homeworking
You may have neurodivergent workers in your workforce. Neurodiversity is a term that refers to where the brain works differently from others and covers a broad range of people, including those living with ADHD, Autism, Bipolar and Dyslexia.
How we’re communicating is changing, and there may be more online and telephone communication than usual, which can present particular difficulties for the neurodivergent community. It’s easier to miss social signals and to misinterpret.
Conversely, online and telephone communication is also preferable for some people
You’ll need to provide extra support, and recognize that the neurodivergent community, notably people with ADHD, may be more prone to anxiety than others.
- Regular breaks and routines
For some, it can be harder to take a break when you’re working at home. For those with specific disabilities, MS (Multiple Sclerosis), for example, fatigue is a genuine concern.
As an employer, stress the importance of regular breaks.
There are apps out there that encourage taking a break:
- The Pomodoro Technique is a study/work practice that says to work for 25 minutes at a time, with a short break in between and a more extended break after four cycles (or pomodoros— Italian for tomato).
- Big Stretch Reminder is a free break reminder tool for Windows computers. It prompts the user to take regular breaks with different options on how intrusive the messages are.
- Stretchly is another app that reminds you to take a break when working with your computer. Stretchly is customizable and can provide instructions on what to do with your breaks, whether it takes up the full screen and how often breaks occur.
AbilityNet has published a list of apps, which will remind you to take a break. You’ll also find tips for ergonomic adjustments if you’re living with MS.
- Tips for repetitive strain injury
Good posture is vital for all workers, but especially if you have RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury).
Employees may have had special equipment in the workplace they’ve been unable to transport home such as monitor stands, and ergonomic keyboards. If you can replace them at home, then do, but it might not be immediately possible.
There are, however, some things you can do. For example, instead of a monitor stand get a stack of robust books to raise your monitor to the correct height.
The right height is to position the top of the screen at or slightly below eye-level. Books can also double up as a makeshift footrest to reduce thigh strain.
- Keeping organized
Some employees may have worked at home before; others won’t. For some disabled people, this will be more challenging than others.
Employees with dyslexia may find organizing themselves challenging, for example. Encourage people to make a simple list of tasks at the beginning of the day.
Mind mapping software is an excellent way of organizing everything, from tasks to difficult thoughts and emotions. The good news is that there’s a lot of it that’s freely available.
Some options include Mind Node and XMind. We also have first-hand tech hacks for dyslexia.
- Emergency help
People working at home will be going out to buy essentials. Typical environments, such as supermarkets and drugstores, are busier than useful. The Emergency Chat App designed for someone having an autistic meltdown. In such situations, talking can become impossible because speech becomes non-functional for a while, even after the person has recovered. In addition, any kind of physical touch is often uncomfortable for the person experiencing the meltdown. But with the Emergency Chat App, the person in distress can bring up a pre-determined message on their phone for those around them. The message would then explain what is happening and what they need.