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Accessibility, workplace diversity and Covid-19

How increased flexible working during the coronavirus lockdown improved the working lives of chronically ill and disabled people everywhere.

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At the age of 38, Lucille Whiting had taken longer than most to build the career she wanted.  Owner of one of the UK’s premier baby keepsake companies, her chosen career was a dream come true.  More so because that dream was realised against a backdrop of 20 years of chronic pain and 9 difficult recurrent miscarriages.

Yet her story is not that unusual

Working in relative isolation, she did what up to 15 million other chronically ill people in the UK do – she found she couldn’t work a conventional job, so she trained and built a flexible work life around her condition.  One that wasn’t dependent on working long regular hours, going to meetings and being away from home.

Permanently working from home

Despite all this, self-employment wasn’t without its own challenges. Chiefly, being isolated and having a frustrating lack of access to training and networking opportunities.

I stopped being able to attend business events years ago and quickly realised that it was impeding my progress, so I started searching for good online membership communities. 

These have been invaluable, and I now have some amazing remote-working relationships, but that’s only half the story.  Being chronically ill has meant I’ve automatically missed out on courses, conferences and networking events”.

An Upside?

Then in 2020 the coronavirus pandemic swept across the globe and alongside many chronically ill people, 49.2% of employed adults in the UK started to work from home as a direct result of social distancing measures.

Suddenly, the problems I faced when working from home, were everyone’s problems, and they needed solving urgently”.

Within the space of a few short weeks, rapid advances were seen in the development of secure online conferencing tools.  Everyone became proficient at using Zoom and people who had never even looked at social media before were setting up groups.

For millions of chronically ill people around the world, coronavirus had one totally unexpected side-effect.  It increased accessibility.

Whereas before, I’d always been told that virtual access to events wasn’t possible or feasible, it now clearly was”.

The new work-life rules not only had immediate implications for freelancers and the self-employed, they opened-up a whole world of employment opportunities to people whose career choices had been unfairly limited by their poor health.

They could gain access to traditional employment and apply for jobs on a level playing field to able-bodied individuals in what could be the most significant step towards work-equality we’ve known. 

Employers could no longer fall back on those same tired excuses to disallow flexible working arrangements.

It hadn’t been an unmitigated disaster, people weren’t lazy or ineffective when working from home, instead, not having to commute to a place of work each day was a largely positive experience for those involved.
It saved them money, time and worked around childcare commitments.

Going forwards towards the end of lockdown, chronically ill people now have a chance to shake off the negative stereotypes associated with their conditions because of their need to work from home.

They are often highly self-motivated, positive, organised and highly adaptable.   Personal strengths acquired through years of self-management.

I’m so proud of what I’ve built in Sophia Alexander Jewellery.  It’s taken 14 years of slow progress and resilience to make it a reality.  Despite being born from a When Life Gives You Lemons situation, I love my clients and what I do, but I’m sure I wouldn’t have spent years trying to figure out what I could do if we had seen these changes before now.  I wouldn’t have been limited to only self-employed roles”.

Not going back to the way things were

Today in the UK, there are up 15 million people living with limiting chronic conditions, defined by the NHS as long term health problems that cannot currently be cured, but can be controlled with the use of medication and/or other therapies over a period of years or decades.

As a group, they are more than twice as likely to be unemployed.

If there’s one upside to this whole awful situation, it’s that coronavirus might have just changed all that. Actual workplace diversity could now be a reality. 

The isolated lives which many of us lead just became a little less isolated.  We’ve been given permission to step out of the shadows to mingle with the rest of the world, and I can’t see us going away quietly”.

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