Polo Lonergan writes about the importance of accessibility being built-in from the ground up to improve the workplace experience and inclusion of all employees.
In my first two years of university, I survived. I partied, but nowhere near as much as my housemates as it took me many days to recover my energy each time. I routinely fell asleep mid-conversation, head on the table. My housemates were used to it and continued without lowering their volume, knowing it wouldn’t wake me. I was always, always in pain.
At some point it became untenable and a doctor suggested that I should see about getting help as a disabled student. It had never occurred to me. Within a couple of weeks I received an extra monitor, a table to work on my laptop from bed, and free taxis to lectures. Life-changing: my grades shot up within a month.
Before that, I hadn’t realised that I was navigating an environment not designed for me.
As I continue through my career with fluctuating but ever-present chronic health problems, that feeling has never quite left me. Who are our offices designed for, and why do we shape our days in the way we do? Why do so many of us have the perception that being present in an office is the optimal choice for everyone’s careers? With the corporate world in flux, I’m convinced we can use this time to change the way we create and adapt our working culture so that no one has to feel out of place, no matter how their bodies and minds function.
My body has been through a lot. As a child, I had malfunctioning kidneys, mild incontinence, and epilepsy, so I was already familiar with crusty hospital food. At the age of eleven, I broke my leg femur twice in four months - once in a road traffic accident, and then again when the leg refused to heal properly. Then in 2011 I spent a week bedbound with the worst headache I could ever have imagined: the urgent care doctor told me it was sinusitis, then my GP told me it was stress. Thankfully, I asked an optician to check why I couldn’t see properly, and he sent me to the hospital immediately. Turns out I had an uncommon, incurable disease which accounted for many of the issues I had faced before.
Idiopathic Intracranial Hypertension (IIH) is an excess of cerebro-spinal fluid in the head/spine that results in headaches and other pain, difficulties with vision (and vision loss for some), pulsatile tinnitus, and intense fatigue. Though weight loss helped me manage some symptoms, I still have numerous difficulties with my eyes and deal with pain and fatigue to varying levels every single day.
All this makes my experience in the office space much harder than it needs to be, and easier than it once was; having spent ten years in retail and call-centre environments, I want to stress that I know office workers are already fortunate compared to some environments.
Last year I had surgery to give me a better chance at getting chronic severe anaemia under control. Six weeks off work felt terrifying; I would return to find my role unnecessary, I thought, or people would judge me for needing it at all. I realised I was afraid because I had done such a good job at hiding how chronically unwell I was that this was a form of ‘coming out’ as disabled. My own internalised ableism was harming me: it was easier being out as non-binary and queer as at least then I didn’t have to worry about (most) people assuming I couldn’t do my job.
Disabled people navigate a world not designed for us, and while no one is designing our work spaces with the intention of limiting access, that’s still the end result. It’s time to open up our idea of work beyond presenteeism to give more people the space to thrive.
There is no one right answer. Sharing space with others while working has its clear advantages: our quick chats can put energy and connection into your day. That connection can often facilitate collaborative work more efficiently than online professional communication. For some, working in an office provides a social outlet and a way to build morale to get through the more difficult or mundane daily tasks. I enjoy larger events where I can connect with my colleagues face-to-face, and it has made important relationships much smoother.
However, did we learn enough from three years of many corporate spaces moving to a work-from-home model? When we saw our workplaces adjust immediately to a virtual environment, many disabled people realised that those accommodations were already possible in practice, and only impossible through culture. To return to the previous style of work without these discussions can feel discouraging and ultimately alienating.
We have designed our office spaces and working arrangements with only abled people in mind. This is not good enough. In the last few years, we have had the opportunity to expose opportunities to change the way we work. Many of those adjustments would make it much easier for some people to thrive.
Imagine a workplace where each person can be trusted to uncover the best option for themselves. Instead of being required to be present in the office a certain amount of days per month, we could assess our own health and abilities day by day without the assumption of laziness or “quiet quitting”. I have consistently worked hard through these strange years; arguably I have been more productive as I can reduce the effect of pain and fatigue on my work. I can sit in the dark when I’m having difficulties with my vision. I can wear earplugs or turn down the headset volume when I can’t handle noise. I know I’m not the only one, and none of this means I’m less invested in doing well in my role. In fact, all of this makes me much, much better at my job than when I dragged my painful, overstimulated body into the office five days a week.
While we’re at it, what other futures can we imagine? What if accessibility became a moot point? We could build offices with it as standard, so that few accommodations are needed for people with various needs. We could bring disability activists into the planning of these spaces and look for opportunities to create a new standard. We could provide screen readers, braille signage, and low-light spaces. We could uncover new models of workdays, bending the hours around our needs as well as the needs of the company. We could encourage remote work when it’s the best fit for an individual, no matter the reason. We could normalise and encourage virtual connection between colleagues and provide mentoring opportunities to avoid any stagnation of career due to less physical presence in the office.
This conversation is an important first step, and what matters now is using this unique opportunity to change the shape of our office culture before it becomes solid and unchangeable once again. Together, we can shape a future where no one feels out of place, and where the true measure of success lies in the fulfilment and well-being of each person, rather than conforming to outdated norms.
Polo Lonergan (they/them)
Polo is a queer, non-binary person navigating the intersection of activism and corporate culture. With years of experience as a queer community builder in their area of Canada, Polo is focused on bringing the same enthusiasm and support to the workplace as an out(-spoken) agender/non-binary person. You can find more information about Polo's work here.
If you would like to book Polo as a speaker for a workshop or panel event, please get in touch with us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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