Australians with disability say working from home should be possible after the pandemic

As a Royal Commission hearing begins into the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on people with disability, some say the shift towards working from home has been a long time coming.

Elie El-Khoury Antonios

Elie El-Khoury Antonios works most days from home. Source: SBS News

Elie El-Khoury Antonios has navigated countless hurdles while seeking employment. 

“There are probably two main barriers for me; one is accessibility and the other is attitude,” he told SBS News. 

“Sometimes physical spaces weren’t as accessible, and at other times being in a wheelchair made it difficult for them to accept the skills I have and the strengths I have.”

Elie is 24 and was born with cerebral palsy. 

After completing a master's degree in research - centred on the experience of people living with disability in the workplace - he is now pursuing a PhD at Western Sydney University and works as a public policy officer at disability services and support organisation Hireup. 

Elie works predominantly from home, only coming into the office once a fortnight and says finding a flexible employer has been life-changing.

“Travelling to work every day is sometimes a bit difficult,” he said.

“They’ve given me opportunities to be productive and contribute to the organisation from the comfort of my own home.”

He says employers should now learn from the effectiveness of working from home arrangements established due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think for employers, COVID-19 gives them the chance to see the benefit of being more flexible and challenging those prejudices around disability,” he said.

“Being able to provide more remote working opportunities for people with a disability will not only increase their financial and social independence but also challenge some of those barriers associated with disability. 

“That will not only educate [employers] but also educate others about disability inclusion.”

For Hireup CEO Jordan O’Reilly, the discussion around support for people living with disability is personal. His younger brother Shane had cerebral palsy.

Jordan O’Reilly
Jordan O’Reilly is the CEO of disability support organisation Hireup. Source: Hireup

“Growing up, I had a little brother who had a disability and struggled to find access to great support in his life,” he said. 

“He also struggled with other things like getting a job, moving out of home and making great friends, all of those things were challenging for him.

“Sadly, our brother passed away, but the work goes on in his memory.”

The next hearing of the Disability Royal Commission, which begins on Tuesday, will investigate the experiences of people living with disability during the pandemic. 

People with a disability, their families, advocates and experts, will give evidence across the four-day hearing. 

Before COVID-19, 53 per cent of working-age people living with disability in Australia were employed, compared with 83 per cent of those without disability.

Mr O’Reilly, an occupational therapist who founded Hireup with his sister five years ago, says there should be no excuse for employers to impose barriers on hiring people with disability, especially following the recent success of remote working.

“A lot of my friends are people with disabilities who for years have been saying - whether it’s the workforce or whether it’s university studies - that we should be more flexible and think about ways that we can include more people,” he said.

“I think for a lot of people it’s understandable to have that ‘I told you so’ moment when as a society we are really rethinking the way that we engage in things like learning and employment [due to COVID-19].

“I am hopeful that it’s going to lead to a brighter future and more inclusive future for everyone.”

Overcoming ableism

In Australia, almost half of unemployed 15 to 64-year-olds with disability say they have experienced discrimination by an employer.

For Greg Bruce, who lives in rural NSW, the search for flexible employment hasn’t been a smooth journey.

Although his vision impairment hasn’t stopped him from volunteering for the NSW Rural Fire Service for more than 26 years, when it comes to employment, his inability to drive serves as a major barrier.

Greg Bruce
Volunteer firefighter Greg Bruce has faced barriers to employment. Source: Supplied

“There’s a very strong emphasis on having a driver’s licence … even if the job doesn’t require you to drive,” he said. “It’s frustrating, it’s depressing.”

“You think, ‘I’ve got all of the qualifications, I’ve done all this study, why won’t they look at me, why aren’t I good enough?’”

The former fleet manager has spent the last six years looking for regular work, submitting hundreds of job applications. He says the roles he has applied for, such as administrative positions, could be completed from home if employers were open to the possibility.

Even though the disability community “has been asking for this for years”, he says, “it’s now being done because we’ve had to”. 

“Realistically, doors should be opening but I still see jobs advertised that want you to have a driver’s licence.”

Jackie Leach Scully, a bioethicist and director of the UNSW Disability Innovation Institute, says the pandemic has proven that working from home arrangements are widely achievable. 

“The take-home message is that it was always possible [despite] all the times that employers were saying it was not,” she said.  

“It is a form of ableism in the sense that it’s concentrating on the proportion of society who fit within a certain norm.”

Ableism is a something Emily McIntyre knows all too well. 

Living with complex regional pain syndrome and fibromyalgia, the 29-year-old’s condition can change day to day, hour by hour.

“I’m always in pain, there isn’t a time where I am not … it’s a part of me and sometimes it’s all of me,” she said. 

“When I was at university I was working in retail and that’s where my pain journey started.

“I had nerve pain that started after an operation in my wrist which then developed into fireball pain and I couldn’t write. I had to retrain my hand to write and pick up a cup of tea without excruciating pain.” 

Emily McIntyre
Emily McIntyre wants employers to think about the culture they are setting in an organisation. Source: SBS News

After the operation, Emily says her employer at the time didn’t allow her to sit down at the counter so she could manage her pain and ignored her need for an accessible mouse.

Seeing the quick switch to working from home due to COVID-19 has been frustrating.

“To have everything done overnight when able-bodied people have asked for it was just a bit of a kick in the leg because we’ve been told we’re too lazy if we wanted to work from home, or that Zoom meetings aren’t the same as being in the office,” she said.

“I think it’s time for organisations to actively seek out people with disabilities and say: ‘great, you’ve got the tech, we’ve got internet connection, here’s a screen, here’s a laptop, let’s get you connected’.”

With a focus on access needs and open communication, Emily is calling for flexible work arrangements to continue.  

“We actually do have the potential and capacity to facilitate these changes,” she said.

“Let’s not lose this scaffolding and let’s make it a normal part of working life.”

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

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7 min read
Published 18 August 2020 at 7:40am
By Jennifer Scherer