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Covid-19 Work Flexibility Improves Accessibility for People With Disabilities

8 June 2020
Eleisha Foon, Journalist

More flexibility with hours and working from home will help people with physical and intellectual challenges to be a part of the workforce, disability advocates say.

New Zealanders with disabilities have been calling for more flexibility in working arrangements for years and Covid-19 has made that more of a possibility.

Disability Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero said one in four New Zealanders have a disability, so workplaces must stay flexible, and have improving the diversity of their workforce on their radar to fully utilise their skills.

“During Covid New Zealanders at large got real insight into the disabling world that many people with impairments or chronic health conditions have to deal with on a daily basis,” she said.

She said about 30 percent of public sector respondents in a 2019 survey on diversity reported disability as an important issue compared to 19 percent for those in the private sector.

Both numbers were low in her view and she encouraged employers to understand the benefits to having people with disability in the workforce.

Tanya Harrison is blind and has a sleeping disorder due to low melatonin, and has been looking for work since January.

She said her ideal job would be working from home for a company like Emerge Aotearoa providing support for people needing mental health services.

“I was telling people months ago, I really want to work from home because for me it is much more suitable.

“People used to say ‘oh, bet jobs like that would be scarce’ … now you don’t get that response. There is a fresh canvas where we can put new ideas out there and hear how things work for others.”

Disabled Persons Assembly New Zealand chief executive Prudence Walker said most of the staff she hired had a disability.

“Catering for the flexibility that people need, the access that people need is day-to-day heart of what we do. We have a really talented team and it they didn’t have the flexibility – people wouldn’t work for us.”

Before the coronavirus, 39 percent of young people with disabilities were not in any employment, training or education. There is hope the government’s free apprenticeship scheme could help change this.

Walker said employers needed to remove all barriers within the recruitment process to make things accessible and welcoming to all. Employers must understand what they need to perform best and not assume people’s needs.

“Employers really lose out when they undervalue what disabled people might be able to bring. That could be to do with people’s personal bias, discomfort or not knowing a lot around disability.”

Deaf Aotearoa chief executive Lachlan Keating said there had been increased awareness and interest in learning sign language thanks to the daily press conference on Covid-19 case updates.

More opportunities for interpreters had been opening up and sign classes had been hugely popular, with some selling out across the country, he said.

He said greater awareness of New Zealand Sign Language – one of three official languages in New Zealand – must continue.

“Sometimes the greatest hurdle disabled people can be up against is others’ low expectations and assumptions about abilities and that can start when disabled children are at school and it continues right throughout the recruitment process.”

Paula Tesoriero agreed a change in mindsets was a must and said a lot of that responsibility rested with employers and recruiters.

She said the greatest barrier to employment for disabled people seeking work was employers’ assumptions.

The commissioner pointed out there was generally little to no added cost to hiring someone with a disability.

Belong well-being and equity specialist Jody Brownlie works with businesses to help their staff and organisations thrive, and said well being and staff retention would be at the forefront of most employers’ minds.

Covid-19 had forced changes to how companies operated, and the ones continuing to embrace flexibility would hire and attract better people for the role.

Tesoriero said “now is the time to have the conversation around how we increase the participation rate of people with disabilities.”

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