Boris Johnson's Obsession With Office Working Punishes Disabled Workers Like Me

As a blind employee unable to socially distance, I’ll need a risk assessment just to walk from my desk to the photocopier, Amy Kavanagh writes.
Woman in home office during Covid-19 lockdown
Woman in home office during Covid-19 lockdown
Kathrin Ziegler via Getty Images

My morning commute used to be an hour-long obstacle course of bumping into dockless bikes, my white cane sticking in pavement cracks and having to repeatedly ask for someone to offer me a seat on the tube.

Now, it’s a stress-free five steps from my bedroom to my home office.

As a disabled person, working from home has made me happier and more productive. I’m no longer exhausted from the struggle in and out of London every day. I start my day fresh rather than flustered.

So this morning’s announcement by Boris Johnson that we all better get back to the office or risk the sack has left me reeling.

Next week, a new government campaign will instruct us all to get back into work. It will be full of assurances that the workplace is safe and that we can confidently return to offices in the knowledge that life is “Covid secure”.

Of course, many workplaces are safe, and employers have put excellent measures in place to support staff. Lots of people are comfortable with returning to work and have missed the 9 to 5.

“This will do little to tackle the barriers to employment disabled people already face, and instead risks further entrenching the idea they are too difficult to employ.”

I also recognise the impact of home working on town centres, but my concern is that this messaging will further stigmatise disabled workers and anyone with a health condition who is anxious or unable to go back to the office.

Undeniably, as well as the ongoing threat of the virus, the workplace poses a few practical challenges for disabled people at the moment.

As a blind employee unable to socially distance I’ll need a risk assessment just to walk from my desk to the photocopier. Whereas at home, I’m safe, productive and only risk bumping into my partner on his way to the fridge.

Most of all, I’m concerned this latest government policy will do little to tackle the barriers to accessing employment disabled people already face, and instead risks further entrenching the idea we are too difficult to employ.

It is a worrying and toxic message from the prime minister; employees get back to the office or you might get fired, employers don’t encourage home working, it’s bad for business.

This rhetoric is made more problematic by Ministers talking about home workers as “vulnerable”. The very same language deployed to homogenise disabled people and those with health conditions who needed to shield during the height of the pandemic. Except, it’s not just Covid-19 that poses the risk, but also a looming P45.

“Working from home has really levelled the playing field for many people with disabilities, mental or physical health conditions.”

The implication that working from home is for slackers is a myth that has been used against disabled people for years. Allegedly, if a boss can’t keep an eye on you, you’re likely to skive off from the spreadsheets.

This narrative of distrust does home workers a disservice and it is also interwoven with the ableist narratives of disabled people as lazy scroungers who are out to cheat society and get a quick buck.

Of course, working from home isn’t for everyone or every business. We’ve all been facing the challenges of the colleague who doesn’t know how to unmute or kids crashing conference calls.

I miss the watercooler moments and post-work pint too. However, I simply can’t agree that I need to be in front of my colleagues all the time to do a good job.

I’m not sure about Boris, but I’ve been working damn hard from home. Like many people around the country I was part of a small crew manning the helm as my colleagues were furloughed. I was busier than ever and in the comfort of my own home I had more time to focus on the tasks at hand.

Working from home has really levelled the playing field for many people with disabilities, mental or physical health conditions.

“Government should be helping employers to adapt, not forcing them back to a model of business that feels old fashioned and less dynamic.”

Disabled people have been calling for home working for decades, especially as technology has advanced. I’ve been repeatedly told by previous employers that roles were office-based and that they couldn’t accommodate my reasonable adjustment needs for even one day working from home.

Yet, suddenly, in a matter of weeks workplaces, businesses and universities have realised remote working was possible after all. What once used to be an extraordinary request has become the norm.

For a brief time, it felt like the rest of the world was finally waking up to the value of virtual connections, the benefits of remote working and the possibilities for a different kind of work life balance.

Disabled people face a significant employment gap in the UK, but with everyone adapting to working from home, there was a glimmer of hope that maybe we could finally be recognised as a valuable part of the workforce. Now it feels like a more accessible and equal working world is slipping way.

I want to see workplaces embrace the “new normal” and find a flexible solution to support employees to be productive and safe at home and in the office.

Government should be helping employers to adapt, not forcing them back to a model of business that feels old fashioned and less dynamic.

As a nation we should fight for the 5.30pm family bike ride, the lunchtime spent playing with our children, and the disabled colleague who can work from home and still be a valued member of the team.

Dr Amy Kavanagh is a visually impaired activist and campaigner