The Pandemic Forced Employers to (Finally) Offer Workplace Accommodations
The accommodations are measures people with disabilities have long asked for, but were often denied.
Years ago, I had agreed to speak on a mental health and academia panel. I was still dealing with the trauma of taking legal action against a former employer for white supremacist workplace harassment. But my commitment to my students, integral to my job as an accessibility advisor at Canada’s largest university, forced me to push through my fears. As I looked to the right and left of me, I was reassured by the lineup of BIPOC professionals. A researcher introduced himself, and he shared frustration over how the institution had just doubled its team of accessibility advisors, likely without hiring folx with actual lived experiences of disabilities.
I have been navigating migraine disorder since my teens, and sleep issues and back pain for years. Especially when my period comes, it is not uncommon for me to be bedridden for days. And although I can access 15 weeks of sick time according to my union’s collective agreement, I still have an absenteeism warning letter in my HR file (despite not using even close to that allotted time). So, in fact, the institution had hired someone with lived experience—but they didn’t know it. I wasn’t yet comfortable with identifying as disabled, even to myself. When it came to my turn to speak that day, I described myself as a social worker.
Since then, I have unpacked much of my internalized ableism through my work with students, which helps me cope with the reality of a life with disabilities. Over the last 18 months, I have reassured students that their delays with coursework were likely related to limited executive functioning as they attempted to manage the uncertainty of COVID-19—and I realized those insights applied to me too. When my chiropractic treatment, an essential tool for managing my chronic pain, was suddenly unavailable because of lockdowns, it was devastating.
When the pandemic hit, I saw an immediate expansion in the academic accommodations deemed “reasonable” for students with disabilities. In the past, when students had reported difficulty attending lectures on campus and inquired about the possibility of getting instructors to provide them with recordings for disability-related absences, they were told repeatedly that we were not an online university. Those in positions of power, who often lack lived experience of disabilities, were simply unwilling to provide the necessary accommodations. Thanks to COVID-19, we have successfully operated remotely for over a year, just like many of us have always known was possible.
According to the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability (CSD), among staff with disabilities between the ages of 25 and 64 years old, 37 percent had required at least one workplace accommodation to be able to complete their duties. Based on these statistics, over 772,000 Canadians made use of workplace accommodations to manage disability-related challenges. Of those, 59 percent reported having all their needs met, while 19 percent reported some and 21 percent reported none.
With those numbers in mind, I’m unsurprised that both students and employees with disabilities are apprehensive about disclosing their challenges. I also recall my students describing their bittersweet realization that it wasn’t until folx without disabilities were unable to attend lectures on campus for the sake of their health that accommodations for remote learning were finally put in place. It made my students feel that they had not mattered.
According to the Canadian Psychological Association, approximately eight percent of Canadians who experience a traumatic event develop post-traumatic stress disorder, and these figures are likely under-reported. As a mental health professional for over a decade, I know the mental health impacts of this traumatic global pandemic have yet to be understood. As we look toward the future, it is more crucial than ever to develop trauma-informed approaches to effectively meeting the needs of folx with disabilities—especially for those of us who are marginalized in other ways, such as being BIPOC and/or LGBTQIA+.
Greater autonomy to manage our work responsibilities remotely may be one of the few ways employers can accommodate us. I know I have benefited from not having to sit in brightly lit office spaces that trigger my migraine—just as I’ve benefited from not sitting through meetings where my colleagues exchange opressive, racist views. If these are my concerns as a queer, disabled, racialized woman in a unionized job, I shudder to think of BIPOC LGBTQIA+ students with disabilities whose experiences of multiple marginalizations put them at great risk.
Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” And that is what this disabled social worker hopes will be embraced as folx plan for a return to some semblance of workplace equilibrium following the pandemic.