The pandemic greatly magnified inequality – so what now?

Caroline Casey speaks out on the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the disabled community

It has been just over two years since the first case of COVID-19 was discovered in the UK. The pandemic cast a magnifying glass over society’s norms and values and has truly shown us our ability to innovate, pivot and adapt when we lean into our strengths.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has showcased the dark side of ‘sticking to what we know’ and the shackles of conformity. The past two years have seen the disabled community suffer disproportionality in the face of the pandemic. From cancelled medical appointments to reduced social interactions and the inevitable minimised profile of these issues within the news agenda, the pandemic revealed the intense vulnerability of the disabled community.

In 2021, the BBC conducted a survey which found that 73% of respondents reported a deterioration in their disability, with a further 78% experiencing worsened mental health.   

According to the ONS, the risk of death involving COVID -19 for people with a medically diagnosed learning disability was 3.7 times greater than for those without a learning disability. Between 24th January and 20th November 2020 in England, the risk of death was over 3.3 times greater than that of non-disabled people.

Eighty per cent of disabilities are invisible, and many disabled employees do not feel comfortable self-declaring their disability within the workplace.  Employees with underlying disabilities were likely identified as clinically extremely vulnerable and told to shield for considerable parts of the year – many shielded for over 400 days. Being away from the workplace and separated from their colleagues left many questioning their job security.

As the world ‘reopens’ and people celebrate the lifting of restrictions, many vulnerable people are concerned about their safety, reconsidering shielding or being forced to return to work in environments in which they do not feel safe.

The ONS reported that more disabled employees were made redundant than their non-disabled counterparts. Between July to November 2020, 21.1 per thousand disabled employees were made redundant, compared to 13.0 per thousand employees who are not disabled. This suggests that employers sought to retain employees who could cover a range of roles and left many disabled employees in a devastating predicament. Employees should not be punished or made to feel less than for putting their health first or advocating for their needs.

Despite these woeful statistics, many businesses were able to adapt, innovate and rise to the challenge of responding to the demands of the pandemic. In just seventeen days, businesses were able to overturn years of assertions that the business system was incapable of accommodating divergent requirements. Companies transformed their operations by making their workforces remote, implementing flexible working policies and making their ways of working more accessible for all. What was previously ‘impracticable’ or ‘too costly’ was made possible in a matter of weeks.

The pandemic has provided the world with an opportunity to take time out and reflect on what truly matters. This brought on the onslaught of the ‘Great Resignation’ and an enthused chorus of ‘Build Back Better’ chants.

We saw brilliant technological advancements, a huge boost in productivity levels, the rise of Zoom and greater accessibility for all. Sulaiman Khan, Business Owner and Chief Purpose Officer of ThisAbility said: “The pandemic was just as much devastating as it was delightful. My business grew exponentially, I landed my biggest clients, and I was afforded the opportunity to lean into my strengths. I know the same cannot be said for my global counterparts, and many remain fearful that the progress towards ‘accessibility for all’ will be forgotten.”

We have seen the statistics – fully inclusive ways of working positively affect businesses’ bottom line, so why not embrace it? Lockdown brought home how much we value human connection, and the requirement of facemasks served as a devasting blow to the deaf community who lost the chance to utilise lip reading.

This was not only a concern for deaf people. A survey conducted by YouGov found that 89% of the general public struggled to communicate with people wearing facemasks, and the National Deaf Children’s society found just 23% of the public knew how to communicate with deaf people whilst wearing a mask. Moreover, a Brazilian study found that 43% of people with epilepsy experienced worsened seizure control and were adversely affected by COVID-19 factors beyond infection or mortality.

Moving forward, in line with this new way of working, we need to have accessibility in our online and digital experiences. People make choices, and in turn, choices create culture. Actively developing our emotional intelligence skills and how we communicate will result in implementing new accessible communication practices and allowing for greater freedom in employees’ working arrangements.

We need to move away from the emotional idea of weak or less than when it comes to the framing of disability. By moving past the medical model of disability and recognising the societal structures that serve as a barrier for many, we can truly begin to balance the playing field. Systematic change requires a willingness to acknowledge our own discomfort surrounding questions of disability to create a space from which to learn.

In this post-pandemic phase of living and business, empathetic and human-centred design should be at the forefront of innovation. At CES2022, robotic shelves and conveyor belts designed to help disabled users with retrieval were unveiled.

The next generation, people with or without disabilities, will demand full inclusion from the companies they choose to spend or work with. The past two years have shown us that we cannot segment our approach to inclusion as there is no hierarchy. We should embed flexible working and consciously accommodate access requirements into business operations as now, more than ever, we are acutely aware that one size does not fit all—no more excuses. We cannot unknow what we know.

Caroline Casey is the businesswoman and activist behind The Valuable 500, the world’s largest CEO collective and business move for disability inclusion.

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