I am disabled because of the world around me – it took me many years and a pandemic to finally realise this.
I have a late acquired disability – muscular dystrophy triggered by an accident. As expected, it comes with its own day to day challenges but for me that was the only “normal”, I knew.
But this pandemic changed my whole perspective about workplace productivity, career progression and the meaning of equitable environment for people with disabilities (PWDs).
Reflecting on the last year, what I realise is that there are so many barriers in our society which unconsciously restricts opportunities and choices for people with disabilities. Yet there I was, thinking the condition was all just mine.
The rapid pace of digital transformation, forced in many cases during the COVID-19 pandemic, has enabled an unprecedented level of digital inclusion in our society.
Digital adoption has completely changed the scale of inclusion and accessibility. The key is now to maintain the momentum when we come out of the pandemic.
I consider myself very lucky to work for an organisation like Microsoft where our culture cultivates an extremely inclusive environment. This has enabled me to deliver my best work – in fact, the last financial year, pre-pandemic, was one of my best years; with big deals closed, customer accolades and many awards….
But behind this success, there were infinite challenges. Challenges which were part of my “normal” routine. Being in a customer facing role meant, I didn’t always have the luxury of utilising Microsoft’s inclusive environment. I remember several occasions when I had to wake up at 4am to be in front of the customers for the morning face to face meetings, requesting my wife to assist me at odd hours as my carer couldn’t attend that early, travelling 3 – 3.5hrs for a 2-hr meeting and making the arduous journey back. There were several incidents where I came across meeting rooms that were not accessible or panic that I felt when the fire alarm went off! The list goes on… but in all this, I never felt that I was doing anything extraordinary because that was the only way I could get work done – that was my “normal”.
But when COVID-19 hit us, it changed everything. Overnight everything became more accessible. All those customers that I couldn’t travel to were now in my reach. With all the time saved and most importantly mental space available, which was previously occupied with the fear of all the unknowns, I became much more productive. This year, I am handling three times the workload compared to last year and still have time to publish new intellectual property, mentor colleagues / students, advise start-ups and spend more time with the family.
There were two key takeaways for me out of this experience:
- Workplace adjustments and corporate inclusive culture is great but equally important is the ecosystem we operate in. In the pre-COVID-19 times, our ecosystem was far from inclusive and people with disabilities had to work much harder to deliver the expected output.
- While no one knows what the new normal will be, we need to influence our organisations, our customers and partners to keep the momentum on inclusion in the hybrid model. Otherwise, we risk losing this amazing extra productivity that PWDs have to offer due to digital inclusion.
A few weeks back, I surveyed professionals with disabilities outside Microsoft, spread across a few countries to understand a couple of things – the impact during COVID-19 and factors behind lagging PWDs representation in leadership positions. While there was a big thumbs-up for Digital inclusion during COVID-19, I was surprised to see that around 56% of the respondents were just happy to have a job and had compromised on their dream job. And the remaining 44% were doing what they wanted to, but they were so busy in the day-to-day rigour that career progression was not even a consideration. This kind of explains one of the key reasons why we have such low representation of people with disability in corporate leadership roles across our society.
It’s not an easy topic by any stretch of imagination, and I recognise that pandemic impacted different segments distinctly, but I genuinely think this topic warrants a wider debate. COVID-19 has showed us what’s possible. Now it’s on us to reflect and take this opportunity forward. PWDs have so much more to offer, only if we can take away the barriers around them.
Technology can be a major catalyst to enable the full participation of PWDs in the digital economy. As we move forward, we should continuously remind ourselves –
How can we influence our ecosystem better to drive inclusion?
How do we identify better career progression opportunities for PWDs? and
How do we tackle the gross underrepresentation of disabled people in senior leadership roles?
The dial on PWDs in leadership roles needs to move.