2020 was a year of change and adapting, something disabled people are already pros at doing.
One of the biggest shake-ups was the move to working from home. As much of the workforce shifted from the office to wherever we could set ourselves up at home, a school of thought that disabled people have had to contend with for years reared its ugly head: you shouldn’t work from bed because it’s lazy. But all of the comments, think pieces, and tweets about it were missing an important voice: disabled people, for whom working from bed opens up a world of possibility.
The notion that working from bed lazy is rooted in the idea that people are only useful when they are productive and that they are only productive when they are physically in a workplace. But as a disabled freelance journalist, writer, and activist I’ve always worked from home. A a full-time office-based job just isn’t an option for me.
My arthritis, osteoporosis, and endometriosis pain makes sitting at a desk for too long unbearable. While I have a desk at home, I probably only sit at it for a few hours a week, using a blanket and pillow to support my hips and back. The rest of the time, I alternate mostly between my sofa and my high-backed armchair. My sofa is a comfy place to work as it means I can cushion myself and put my legs up if I need to. My armchair means I’m sat up, but not uncomfortably so like I would be at my desk.
For a long time, I refused to work from bed. I held a lot of internalised ableism that made me feel as though I was not good enough unless I was pushing myself, so I suffered through the pain and would force myself to work for a full day at my desk. But then the stress and chronic fatigue I experience due to lupus would leave me unable to work for the rest of the week.
Now, I no longer allow myself to think such awful things about myself and only work where I know I will be comfortable and able to do my best. If that means working from bed, I’m happy to do so. In fact, my favourite “business expense” so far in my freelance career has been a bamboo adjustable bed desk, which is perfect for propping my laptop on and even has a space for a cup of tea!
Disabled people know what works best for us. In a world that wasn’t built for us we’ve learnt how to modify what we have in order to be able to do what we love and make a difference in the world.
I’m not the only one who has different spots in the house depending on their pain level. Freelance copywriter and social media specialist Chloe Metzger, who has fibromyalgia and hypermobility, told me she floats between the kitchen table, sofa, and her bed. “It means I’m more productive and it normally makes me feel more in control of my health rather than my disability controlling me,” she said.
“I found I get much more accomplished when I don’t have to expend energy holding myself vertical,” shared Kathy Flaherty, a lawyer and non-profit executive director, who’s worked from her bed since her COVID-19 symptoms developed into what is now known as Long COVID.” “I’m usually lying down until 2 witnesses before me, and that’s when I get out of bed and sit in front of the computer,” Flaherty said.
Working from home gives disabled people the ability to work absolutely anywhere that works best for our needs without the judgment that we would face in a traditional office setting. Communication and outreach specialist Denise DiNoto, who has spinal muscular atrophy, revealed: “I frequently respond to work email while sitting on the toilet. It takes me some time for my bowel regime to work and I can’t justify not using the time to do something besides crap.”
One place I’ve never worked is the bathtub, but it’s a favourite of John Loeppky, a writer and theatre artist with cerebral palsy. “If my pain is bad,” he explains, “I’ve found water really helps.”
Many disabled people have been able to work pain-free for the first time because of the flexibility in working conditions resulting from the pandemic. We must continue to foster working environments that support comfort. And when we have discussions about the most productive way to work in the future, we need to remember that productivity is not one-size-fits-all. We need to recognize the perspectives of a wide range of people—especially from those who are benefitting from a more adapted and flexible world.