Hands typing on a laptop resting on a wooden surface.

Working and Studying at Home Shouldn’t Be Pandemic-Only Accommodations

The following post is part of our series on perspectives from disabled and chronically ill people regarding COVID-19. This post is not intended as medical advice.

As a disabled person with an autoimmune disorder, I of course find myself worried about being more susceptible to coronavirus. I’m concerned my recovery would be a lot more difficult. But here’s what’s also been on my mind: as a writer, I’m frustrated by how easily accommodations are now being made to allow people to safely continue working and studying from home.

I’m not saying these accommodations aren’t warranted in the time of a pandemic. We need to do what is necessary to prevent infection. But when these kinds of accommodations have been repeatedly denied to me and other disabled people, it hurts to see how easily they’re becoming the norm now that non-disabled people need them to be.

The reason I work as a freelance writer as opposed to a full-time writer and journalist is, quite simply, that society won’t allow it. My illnesses prevent me from being able to go into an office for 40 hours a week, and while I’ve been looking for more permanent roles for a long time, I’ve always been told that staff writer jobs can’t be remote. I’m told that I need to be in the office to work with the team. But now, the very businesses that turned me down and told me I wasn’t good enough are proudly boasting that they’re allowing their staff to work from home to protect them. Why, then, couldn’t these accommodations have been made for me or many other disabled people?

Take Ruby’s story, for example. She is a call center agent who lives with a host of illnesses including fibromyalgia, myalgic encephalomyelitis, and asthma. In her five years’ experience she had always been told that working from home would pose too much of a security risk and would create too much work for her employer.

“I’ve asked about the work from home policy in my current role, as my chronic pain condition fluctuates,” Ruby said. “Having some flexibility to work from a comfortable environment during flare ups would give me a lot more energy to give my best work, and reduce my time off. It’s always been denied as the equipment isn’t there to offer that to everyone.”

She goes on: “Since the coronavirus has progressed, though, our office has suddenly issued everyone laptops and headsets within just a few days. It doesn’t feel great to see that a medical issue had to have the potential to impact my healthy colleagues before our office would offer working from home arrangements. And, I’ve got a feeling that after the virus settles down, we’ll be back to business as usual.”

What Ruby shares resonates with me. While I was studying at university, I was going through a tough time with my mental health. When I started falling behind, I asked if I could work from home as going to class made my anxiety worse. I was told it wasn’t fair on other students. When I missed too many classes, instead of reaching out to me, my course leader rang my mother (listed as a next of kin) to get me in trouble, which was incredibly infantilizing considering I was 23 at the time. I subsequently failed my degree and didn’t graduate. I can’t help thinking about how different it would’ve been if I’d have been allowed to study from home.

Dreana, a former student whose illnesses include asthma, Ehlers Danlos syndrome, Crohn’s disease and epilepsy, shares similar sentiments. She struggled to get help while in college.

“I was told that maybe college wasn’t for me,” Dreana said. “I was told that it wasn’t feasible for a small, private school to pull off those changes. And then, just now, they were able to convert all courses to online courses.”

Dreana reiterates that the isolation is a good thing, but reflects that “the message is very clear: it wasn’t urgent enough when only chronically ill and disabled students needed accommodations. It only became important enough to work on once the larger population was at risk.”

So many disabled people put themselves through more pain to attend work and classes that won’t accommodate us. We had to reach a breaking point to see these kinds of accommodations being made more broadly, which makes it feel that disabled people are deemed less worthy. My hope is that this pandemic sets a precedent for home-based working and studying and leads to serious discussions around how we can make businesses and schools more inclusive for not only disabled people, but everyone.

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