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As someone with a congenital spinal disorder and chronic pain, Jewelles Smith, a PhD candidate in B.C., knows all about the pothole-strewn world of workplaces and the halting ways in which managers respond to employees with disabilities. There are the stigmas, the poorly planned responses to accommodation requests and the unspoken pressure to show up for work even on the bad days filled with discomfort.

So for Smith, the year of working from home spurred by COVID-19 has been, as she puts it, “amazing.” Like most disabled people, her living space is set up well for her particular needs, so the pandemic has brought greater productivity, less disruption and an abrupt end to employers’ long-standing reluctance to grant work-from-home requests. “I hear this across the board,” says Smith, who is the spokesperson and chair of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. She often relies on voice-to-text software, which doesn’t work well in open-concept offices. “People with disabilities,” Smith stresses, “know what they need.”

Despite almost two decades of accessibility laws and their enforcement by human rights tribunals, many Canadian workplaces still don’t do especially well in hiring or retaining people with disabilities. For this group the employment rate is about 49%, compared to 79% for the general population. Yet advocates like Smith hope the pandemic has been a societal wake-up call on chronic workplace issues ranging from mental health stigmas to allowing telework to “presenteeism,” the once accepted but now epidemiologically scorned practice of getting sick but showing up at the office anyway. Others say elevated levels of pandemic-related depression and anxiety are triggering a wave of requests for stress leave, despite work-from-home arrangements.

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“I absolutely know businesses that are more inclusive are better businesses. COVID has brought that to light,” says lawyer Ken Fredeen, Deloitte Canada’s senior partner of accessibility and the former chair of a 2012 federal panel on disability in the private sector.

Based on his years of experience in this space, Fredeen concedes that it’s still not so easy to walk the talk. “It’s complicated and, to be honest, most organizations struggle with it.”

New research from the University of Calgary and Queen’s University, though conducted before COVID-19, offers some important insights into the ways in which managers and companies are dealing with physically and psychologically disabled employees.

The study, led by PhD candidate Zhanna Lyubykh and Nick Turner, distinguished research chair in advanced business at the Haskayne School of Business, focuses on employee disability disclosure and managerial prejudices in the context of “return to work”—both highly topical subjects as Canadians begin to trickle back into offices.

Their research, based on interviews with 240 managers, found that employees with physical disabilities tend to fare better than those with psychiatric illnesses, who still tend to face increased skepticism, ostracism and doubts about their commitment to the workplace. “People aren’t necessarily looking for an opportunity to discriminate,” says Lyubykh. Rather, adds Turner, managers bring implicit biases into those relationships, and the result is that employees dealing with mental health issues may get passed over for promotions, denied participation in interesting projects and so on. “Over time,” Lyubykh says, “those things add up.”

Donna Ferguson, a clinical psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health who specializes in work stress, says employees returning after a leave related to a condition such as stress or depression often face strained relationships with their managers or co-workers. “If the manager doesn’t foster a healthy relationship in the workforce, then the hoped-for prognosis for getting back to work is going to be guarded to poor.”

One way of mitigating negative responses and smoothing the transition, according to Lyubykh and Turner, is to limit the medical information shared with managers. Their surveys showed that managers dealing with employees who have psychiatric disorders worry about danger and disruption. If, however, the medical information provided to the employer only states that a diagnosis is “pending,” managers tend to treat the individual no differently than they would a worker with physical disabilities. Yet despite the benefits of this workaround, the practice of withholding some medical data is legally ambiguous.

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Fredeen points out that many people won’t disclose their mental health problems out of a fear of being stigmatized and instead try to soldier on. In his view, companies that want to ensure genuine accessibility must put in place policies that don’t depend solely on the presence of compassionate managers or even a high-EQ CEO, although enlightened leadership is crucial. “It has to be a system,” he says. “It can’t be based on a champion.”

The ingredients include ongoing training and education, accessible office design, flexible accommodation policies, generous employee assistance plans and intentional recruitment efforts designed to find and hire people with disabilities. “Accommodation is not going to cost as much as you think,” says Smith. Indeed, as the number of disabled employees in an organization grows, so will the awareness of managers and co-workers, predicts Lyubykh. “We’ll see some positive differences in how people acknowledge those things.”

It’s entirely possible the post-pandemic workplace may become more empathetic; employers will almost certainly be more receptive to work-from-home accommodation requests than they were before COVID-19. “There’s already been a change,” says Ferguson. But Fredeen offers a caution: Firms shouldn’t inadvertently isolate their disabled employees at home and shirk the responsibility of ensuring an integrated workplace.

Ferguson and Fredeen both note that while companies are legally obligated to remove obstacles, there’s an equally compelling business case to be made for providing a barrier-free work environment: It reduces workplace disability claims, but also creates opportunities to draw on the untapped talents of highly capable people who’ve been shunted to the margins of the labour force, either for logistical reasons or due to bullying and prejudice.

Perhaps the world of work has changed since March 2020. Smith, who describes herself as “forever hopeful and optimistic,” argues that employers should use the lessons of the pandemic to make the changes disabled individuals have long sought, such as reframing work around deliverables instead of clocking a nine-to-five day in a specific place. “The main point,” she says, “is that we need to keep talking about it.”

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