Indian corporations ought to have adopted do business from home earlier than coronavirus for individuals with disabilities
Imagine that you are a wheelchair user and have been invited to an interview for your dream job. You reach the office and discover that despite the mention of your disability in your application, the company does not have the infrastructure to meet your needs.
Two untrained employees carry you to the interview panel while the rest of the office stares at you. The interview is not going any better. The panel focuses on your disability and treats your skills and achievements as afterthoughts. It explains to you in a bizarre way how ill-equipped the organization is to deal with your disability.
This is the experience of most of the disabled, like me, in India. For us, our choice of place to study and work is often limited to institutions and organizations that are willing to take what is known as “reasonable accommodation” – adjustments to a workplace or work environment that enable us to “perform essential tasks” “.
That most Indian jobs fail in this regard is shown by the fact that less than 0.5% of the workforce in the country’s top companies are people with disabilities. Even companies hiring people with disabilities often deny them the infrastructure to reach their true potential and get promotions. The government is also to blame. In the recent past there have been times when would-be civil servants have been denied service of their choice because of their disability.
Because of this injustice, people with disabilities demand strict adequate accommodation policies. Unfortunately, everyone has decided to ignore the idea. That is, until the coronavirus pandemic hit them. Now governments and corporations are making changes to the way they work and inadvertently making reasonable arrangements the new normal.
History of ideas
The idea of reasonable accommodation has been around for some time. It was first used in the United States Civil Rights Act of 1968, which required employers to “adequately consider” an employee or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice unless placement would place undue burdens on the employer’s business.
Half a decade later, the concept found a home in the United States Rehabilitation Act. The 1973 law outlawed discrimination on the basis of disability and made the term “reasonable accommodation” a rallying point for people with disabilities. As outlined by the US Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, reasonable accommodation is “any change in the work environment or the way work is done that enables a person with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities.”
A strict reasonable accommodation policy covers all aspects of employment – from applications to use of facilities. This can include anything from improving physical or virtual accessibility to changing work tasks, enabling flexible work schedules, to purchasing a new product or software for an employee to overcome a barrier due to a disability.
All reasonable accommodation for accommodation contains a limiting clause called “undue hardship” which is used by many organizations to get people logged out. For example, in India, the Disability Rights Act 2016 defines reasonable accommodation as “necessary and reasonable changes and adjustments, without placing a disproportionate or unreasonable burden in any particular case, in order to allow people with disabilities to enjoy or exercise rights guarantee equally with others ”. A number of factors can be considered in determining the “unreasonable burden”, including the type and cost of accommodation and the financial resources of the organization.
The world has changed
The unprecedented coronavirus pandemic and associated physical distancing norms have led organizations in India to adapt through reasonable precautions. Employees are encouraged to telework and purchase software to facilitate their new work realities. This has rightly angered many people with disabilities. For them, it is proof that the accommodation they had requested for all of this was always feasible to no avail. Organizations just didn’t make the requirements important enough.
Organizations with well-developed housing policies are likely to be better positioned in today’s world. An opinion by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lists the information employers can get during a pandemic: While inquiries about flu symptoms are allowed, inquiries about immunity are not allowed as they are considered “disabled-related”.
The coronavirus and our response to it have reminded us that our policies and standards are arbitrary and reflect the will of the majority. In the past, people with disabilities encountered resistance and resentment when asking for reasonable accommodation. It was up to them to explain the need. Can you identify the number of people with disabilities who have not reached their potential in education and work due to self-serving organizations?
A pandemic changed things. For one thing, it has taken reasonable precautions. Second, it has made it possible for people with disabilities like me to call up our organizations using a vocabulary that was made available to us by the disability rights movement. As India prepares to kickstart the economy and gradually return to work from home to offices, we hope that reasonable accommodation ideas and practices are not abandoned.
Tony Kurian is a PhD student with disabilities at the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay.
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