The 2021 theme ‘Leadership and participation of persons with disabilities toward an inclusive, accessible and sustainable post-COVID-19 world’ inspired me to write a blog post from staff with disabilities perspective. ANU students need strong role models to see how they fit within a working community. Here is ANU’s opportunity to show our students with disabilities that they too are employable and can achieve great things.
An ANU student with disabilities said that during remote learning they finally understood the social model of disabilities and how remote learning was beneficial to them, so to reciprocate I wrote this blog post from staff with disabilities perspective on remote working.
During remote working and learning people complained loudly in meetings, across social and traditional media about not being able to read people’s body language during meetings, or people turning off their cameras, finding the intensity of faces close-up wearing, finding new ways to increase team socialising, replicating the water cooler/corridor convo, no noisy team lunches or birthday cakes. For people living alone it increased their isolation as they could no longer work at the office.
Now flip it.
Imagine if you’re someone to whom the corridor/water cooler convo is practically non-existent, you cannot read body language and miss many verbal cues. You find it difficult to look people in the eyes IRL, find it difficult to make small talk, have dietary issues and have acute hearing so noisy environments mean you can’t hear people sitting next to you or across the table and the noise volume makes you feel cross and then shortly pain (sensory processing difficulties)? If you also have a physical disability then you probably spend more time getting around on campus because the accessibility entrance is often on the side or back of a building, or you need to use stairs where there are no handrails.
This model is the daily life of someone with disabilities only because there are barriers erected thoughtlessly by others because life’s okay for them with these barriers. This is known as the social model of disabilities. The discomfort you might have felt during remote working and learning is the same discomfort your colleagues and peers with disabilities feel on a daily basis when life is ‘normal’.
Ebe Ganon wrote eloquently about her disabilities and the impact that unconscious bias has potentially played in her life, and opportunities lost to them. What struck me was how closely wound unconscious bias and social disability are and how they can be used together to thwart the dreams of people with disabilities.
When we talk about work life balance, from a person with disabilities perspective it would be nice if the impact of working didn’t diminish your capabilities of a life balance. If you weren’t worn out from face-to-face meetings or social settings that affected your senses, if people accepted you behaved differently so you didn’t have to try and mask for the eight working hours on campus, that your physical appearance didn’t draw attention because you had scabs on your skin, or your skin was discoloured or your tic heralded your difference. There’s also those amongst us who are trauma affected and live with bouts of PTSD, depression or anxiety. How do we cope with our heightened sense of anxiety in a space where our different reactions to incidences large and small set us apart? How much nicer, safer, and relaxing to be in environments in which triggers are reduced and/or where we can turn off our screens or audio, or both without comment because no-one has noticed.
A few months into my role at ANU a colleague gave a presentation without a content warning. Whilst my trigger was not the issue being discussed per se but the analogy being used to convey the concept. I felt locked down. I couldn’t leave without provoking comment and I didn’t want to explain. I sat there frozen and overwhelmed and I couldn’t not hear what was being discussed. I took nothing in except the analogy. If it had happened during remote working I could have feigned a faulty internet connection to remove myself or pressed the mute button. That’s not possible face-to-face. After that presentation the flashbacks started and I upped my medication and got as much exercise as possible to best manage the flashbacks.
During remote working and learning those who aren’t beneficiaries of the ‘normal’ mode of working ie. staff and students with disabilities, benefited. Those with physical disabilities didn’t need to leave home. That’s not to say that we want to remain at home all the time, but for some, that’s their reality, or their preference. It would be great to normalise this way of working at ANU for staff and students with disabilities.
Here are some contributions from other ANU staff:
- Home based work was extremely positive for me as feeling safe is a key issue for me and so being in my own space was wonderful
- Being able to engage using written communication was also helpful as it gave me more time consider and structure my responses rather than feeling “on the spot” as I do in face-to-face settings and sometimes missing the chance to raise a point or make suggestions
- I was surprised by how much difference not commuting made – the anxiety of driving and being fearful of road-rage incidents and other aggressive behaviours had become so normal that having a break from it was very enlightening as I didn’t realise how much hard work that was for me!
- Sometimes I find online meetings hard, in that when someone is speaking they feel very much “in your face” and if that someone is a challenging person for you, that was very tough. My solution was to attend Zoom/Team meetings with post it notes on hand to cover up certain peoples’ faces because it was so provoking.
- Being able to attend meetings with camera off, gave a sense of safety as well as allowing me to put my energy into listening and considering my responses rather than having to work hard to manage anxiety AND be creative and interesting in my responses
- Working from home went well with me. I normally work in an open-plan office and I have always disliked it. I find it chronically distracting, and I feel I need to be “all ears” not to miss being spoken to.
- Inadvertently in open plan spaces I listen in to other peoples’ conversations! With hearing aids this is even worse because I know I shouldn’t and realise quite often my meerkat alert levels were unnecessary – quite exhausting. In my quiet home office I don’t need to worry about any of this. And I can think for quite a while without interruption or desperately trying to shut out the noise around me. Greatest win.
- My colleagues and I chat on teams quite professionally and have been very creative, and I can use all my supportive tech stuff unnoticed, if necessary. A hybrid workplace with more than one WFH day per week (as we are granted right now) would be great.
Dr Scott Rickard is autistic, an Educational Designer at the Centre for Learning and Teaching and the Chair of the ANU Disability Action Plan Education Provider of Choice Action Group.
- An ANU staff member who identifies as hearing impaired
- An ANU staff member with a psychological disability
Other staff chose to remain anonymous