Imagine you are a wheelchair user and have been called for an interview for your dream job. You reach the office and find that, despite you mentioning your disability in your application, the company does not have the infrastructure to accommodate your needs.

Two untrained staff members carry you in to face the interview panel as the rest of the office stares. The interview does not go any better. The panel focuses on your disability, treating your skills and achievements as an afterthought. It explains to you, in bizarre ways, how the organization is ill-equipped to handle your disability.

This is the experience of most persons with disabilities, like me, in India. For us, our choice of where we study and work is often limited to the institutions and organisations willing to adopt what is defined as “reasonable accommodation” – adjustments to a job or work environment that will enable us “to perform essential job functions”.

That most Indian workplaces fail on this count is evident from the fact that less than 0.5% of the staff in the country’s top companies are persons with disabilities. Even the companies that do hire persons with disabilities often deny them the infrastructure to realise their true potential and get promotions. The government is guilty of this as well. There have been times in the recent past when aspiring civil servants have been denied the service of their choice because of their disabilities.

It is because of this unfairness that persons with disabilities have been demanding a strong reasonable accommodation policy. Sadly, everyone chose to ignore the idea. That is, until the coronavirus pandemic hit them. Now governments and corporations alike are making modifications to their work environments, inadvertently making reasonable accommodation the new normal.

History of idea

The idea of reasonable accommodation has been in existence for a while. It was first used in the United States Civil Rights Act of 1968, which required employers to “reasonably accommodate” an employee or potential employee’s religious observance or practice unless an accommodation would cause undue hardship on the employer’s business.

Half a decade later, the concept found a home in the United States Rehabilitation Act. The 1973 law prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability and made the term “reasonable accommodation” a rallying point for persons with disabilities. As described by the US Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, a reasonable accommodation is “any change in the work environment or in the way a job is performed that enables a person with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities”.

A strong reasonable accommodation policy covers all aspects of employment – from job applications to availing facilities. It could include anything from improving physical or virtual accessibility, changing job tasks, allowing flexible work schedules, or even buying a new product or software for an employee to overcome a barrier on account of disability.

All reasonable accommodation provisions come with a limiting clause called “undue hardship” that is abused by many organisations to opt out. In India, for example, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 defines reasonable accommodation as “necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments, without imposing a disproportionate or undue burden in a particular case, to ensure persons with disabilities the enjoyment or exercise of rights equally with others”. Several factors can be considered while determining “undue burden”, including the nature and cost of the accommodation, as well as the organisation’s financial resources.

World has changed

The unprecedented coronavirus pandemic, and the accompanying physical distancing norms, has impelled organisations in India to adapt by adopting reasonable accommodation measures. Employees are being encouraged to telecommute and software being bought to facilitate their new work realities. This has justifiably angered many persons with disabilities. To them, it proves that the accommodation that they had been demanding all this while, without success, was always implementable. Organisations just did not deign the demands important enough.

As it happens, organisations with a well-crafted accommodation policy are likely to be better placed in today’s world. An advisory by the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lists the information that employers can elicit during a pandemic: while enquiries regarding flu symptoms are permissible, enquiries regarding immunity aren’t allowed since they are considered “disability-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, whenever persons with disabilities have asked for reasonable accommodation, they have been met with resistance and refusals. It fell on them to explain the need. Can you fathom the number of persons with disabilities who have not realised their potential in education and at work because of self-serving organisations?

A pandemic has changed things. For one, it has enabled reasonable accommodation measures. For another, it has allowed persons with disabilities like me to call out our organisations using a vocabulary that was given to us by the disability rights movement. As India prepares to kick-start the economy and work gradually moves back to offices from homes, it is our hope that the ideas and practice of reasonable accommodation will not be abandoned.

Tony Kurian is a PhD candidate with disability at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay.