When the adjustments need adjustments: managing the COVID-19 work from home challenges

Careers Consultant, Viki Chinn, reflects on the challenges faced as a disabled individual in a time where COVID-19 has changed the way we work and collaborate:

Before COVID-19

I wonder what I would have said if someone had told me six months ago that there would be a period of time, in the not too distant future, when I would be able to work from the relative comfort of my own home without having to navigate the tube on a twice daily basis – to and from the end of the Northern line no less. That I would be able to get up, turn my computer on and start work without rushing anywhere. I wonder how that would have looked to me…then.

As someone who has worked from home, initially one day a week and more recently two, as a reasonable adjustment to help me manage the effects of my disability and allow me to work to the best of my ability, I have always massively valued my work from home days.

Having lost my hearing during my time at university I am now profoundly deaf and rely on a combination of lipreading, interpretation of sound, and piecing together of context to follow and understand what is going on around me. This is, quite simply, exhausting. By the end of each and every day my eyes are tired, sore, and heavy, my brain’s cognitive function ability is significantly lowered, my tinnitus – the noise that sings its merry tune inside my ears 24/7 – blasts away as the more tired I am the harder it is to direct focus away from it, and my ability to balance is impaired placing physical strain on my whole body as my muscles work extra hard to keep me upright and stop me from walking into things!

My work from home days have always allowed me to get the physical rest I need to manage my ‘outside communication’ days better and allow me to work quietly without distraction as I cannot tune out environmental distractions in the way that others can. They also, when time allows, give me the chance to go over transcripts of previous interactions or slides of forthcoming presentations to try and fill information gaps I have. In order to retain information, I need to immerse myself in it, fully focus and process it without any conflicting sensory interruptions. My work from home days allow me to do this.

So, if working from home two days a week works so well surely five days a week can only make things even easier, right? Or at least that’s probably what I would have thought….then.

Tackling challenges

Well! What a learning curve the past few months have been. The biggest thing I have learnt so far is that this is precisely what it is. A learning curve. I have always taken pride in my expertise in the field of disability and recruitment/workplace adjustments. I take great pleasure in helping the students I work with understand and get the adjustments they need. I am a firm believer in the Social model of disability and genuinely think that with the right adjustments and a supportive employer anything is possible. I still believe that. I have, however, learnt that working from home full time is a whole new ball game. One that has pros and cons, one that poses challenges that can make me feel like giving it all up on some days yet on others makes even the smallest of wins feel like the greatest of achievements. Adapting to new technologies, many of which fail abysmally on the accessibility front, dealing with technical hiccups whilst struggling to access the information needed to resolve them quickly, experiencing extreme screen fatigue and increased screen exposure, not only due to increased interactions but also due to my need to spend more time than my counterparts having to go over information and learning that I haven’t been able to process instantly, working late into the evening simply to try and keep up, and experiencing the physical effects from having done so, have all exacerbated an already difficult situation.

On a positive note, not having to commute is undoubtedly a huge benefit of working from home along with the ability to manage my work environment to minimise noise and distraction. Meetings are now filled with colleagues politely waiting their turn to speak rather than speaking over each other. Realising that I have mastered skills that I never would have used otherwise, overcoming hurdles I never would have previously considered, and having far more substantial one to one conversations with colleagues I barely interacted with before are all definite positives of full time working from home. Having the right adjustments in place are vital in order to manage the additional difficulties effectively, so it is important that you have a candid conversation with any employers you work with, or will be, working for. Whilst there are still real challenges for me the one thing I do feel sure of is that I can discuss them with my manager and seek support where needed.

The key thing to remember is that this is a constantly evolving situation. We are discovering new things all the time, we don’t have all the answers, something I find particularly hard to get my head around as I have always prided myself on being able to come up with logical solutions for myself and others. I don’t take well to not being able to give answers, feeling I need to ‘justify’ my worth and to not be able to immediately show how my disability is not a barrier. This situation has found me at risk of slipping into a medical model mindset, a model that makes me feel I have to apologise for causing extra difficulties, for holding up others who are themselves having to adjust to a difficult situation, for not being able to be like colleagues, for constantly responding with objections when others are trying to find solutions. For being a problem. A situation where all my previously agreed adjustments are getting skewed due to the change in circumstances. Home days are no longer home days. Quiet time is no longer quiet time.

It is easy to slip into a negative mindset, to feel pressure to provide answers, conform, withdraw. It is also easy to feel that you should know the answers or solutions. The past few months have shown that simply isn’t possible. We are learning as we go along. Trial and error is key. Software is changing (and I pray will be improving) all the time. It’s time to give ourselves a break. To try and go with the flow. Be willing to try as much as possible but also to be honest and say when things are hard or even simply not possible. To understand that this does not mean you cannot do your job but that you may need to do it in a different way. To also realise that certain things may be challenging now; video chat is particularly difficult for me and something I never used before this period outside of talking on a rare occasion to immediate family, but hoping that, whilst I will never ‘operate’ like a hearing person these challenges will get easier over time as technology becomes more accessible and disability friendly. To not beat yourself up for having a bad day. To stay positive. To remember things will get better. And to remember that those that don’t, can be changed.

I had planned to write this outlining some of the technological issues I’ve faced but to be honest, most people are facing them too. Whether you are working from home on a job, a recruitment process, or on your studies I have no doubt we share similar anxieties about poor internet connection, about screen fatigue and the constant overload of virtual communications. We share a conflict of feeling isolated yet overwhelmed with contact. Disconnected but overly connected. Having less options for doing things yet feeling busier than ever. Worry about what the future will hold. I don’t need to tell you this. There are of course additional issues for those of us who live with disability. Additional paradoxes.

Poor internet connection, bad communication practices, low quality technology, and substandard captions turn a video conversation from difficult for everyone to downright impossible for a deaf person (and those with other disabilities too). It’s like being asked to complete a jigsaw with most of the pieces missing. Trying to look at slides or documents at the same time as reading a speaker’s lips whilst also scanning captions is a feat beyond the best of us. Add in a bit of chat box chatter with comments from various participants popping up to join the party and you have a maelstrom of confusion and a complete sensory overload! At the end of the day we can only look at one thing at a time-our eyes are our ears and we only have one set.

The saving grace of all this is quite simply the fact that I am extremely lucky in having an extremely supportive and forward-thinking team around me. Throughout this entire period (and before when we were still in the office) there have been times I have had to speak up about things I have found difficult or have felt anxious about saying. Even though I know I have a good team and am a strong advocate for disability inclusion myself I am not exempt from the anxieties that most disabled people feel in certain situations. Without exception, I have been responded to with kindness, positivity and in many cases a response that indicates I have in fact helped my colleagues by saying what I have said. It may be an ongoing learning process and it may take time for us to get some things right, but their positive attitude, interest, and support allows me to feel I am not in this on my own and that in itself is half the battle won.

Adjustments to adjustments

Since transitioning to working remotely, my line manager and my whole team have gone out of their way to try and make sure I am fully supported. Some of the adjustments to my adjustments have included:

  • Allocating caption correctors for every meeting we have (if you’ve seen auto caption fails you will know why this is necessary and even with my Communication Support Worker typing things need correcting as she tries to keep up with speech)
  • Happily jumping between different platforms and communication modes to accommodate whichever provides a better experience for each individual meeting
  • Maintaining good humour and patience when meetings are delayed as we try to iron out technical issues to get my communication support working
  • Providing comprehensive written notes of meetings
  • Producing video recordings with captions, and ensuring their cameras are on and faces well lit
  • Checking in with me before meetings to see whether extra adjustments need to be made
  • Supporting me with technical issues and software guidance
  • Making sure I never feel anything less than a full, contributing, valuable member of the team!

For those of you thinking about jobs and planning your careers, take some time to think about any adjustments you may need in the workplace. Start off on the right foot. You are there to do a job. Your adjustments simply allow you to do that-they do not define you. Give the employer the opportunity to put the adjustments in place and allow you to perform to the best of your ability. That is what a decent employer will want too. You may know some or all of the adjustments you will need, you may not.

The students I work with know I say what I think, and I hope this post reflects that. I emphasise the importance of working for an inclusive employer as being key to a disabled person being able to thrive and flourish in the workplace. Having a good inclusive employer and working together to achieve success is important at the best of times. It is vital in the current situation.

Viki Chinn, Careers Consultant, LSE & co-chair of DAWN (LSE’s Disability and Wellbeing Staff Network)


One thought on “When the adjustments need adjustments: managing the COVID-19 work from home challenges

  1. When 2020 began, the average manager may have supervised a handful of remote workers. Now, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies are having some or all of their employees work from home for the foreseeable future. Working remotely, also known as working from home or telecommuting, is performing work at a location other than an “official duty station.” With laptops, high-speed telecommunications links, and ever-present pocket communications devices, many employees can work almost anywhere at least some of the time. Telecommuting provides benefits for both employers and employees. Research shows that remote work can improve the quality of work/life and job performance (i.e., reduces office overcrowding and provides a distraction-free environment for reading, thinking, and writing). Studies have also found an improvement in retention, leave usage, and productivity. Employing remote workers also creates flexibility in hiring. If the company is restricted by location, it can hire the best and the brightest individuals from just about anywhere.

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