AXSChat Podcast

AXSChat Podcast with Joan O'Donnell, author of Future of Work - a Remote Opportunity for Open Doors in Ireland

February 04, 2022 Antonio Santos, Debra Ruh, Neil Milliken talk with Joan O’Donnell
AXSChat Podcast
AXSChat Podcast with Joan O'Donnell, author of Future of Work - a Remote Opportunity for Open Doors in Ireland
Show Notes Transcript

Joan O’Donnell is a longstanding advocate for inclusive employment practices. She is the author of the Future of Work a Remote Opportunity for Open Doors in Ireland and also evaluated the effectiveness of Irish employment policy as part of an EU study for Eurofound. She is the Project Manager of FreedomTech, which aims to ensure that we develop a comprehensive ecosystem of supports around AT, conceived of the concept of the AT Passport which has since gained recognition internationally as a way to put users in control of their own technology and Assistive Technology. Joan has a background working with complex social issues associated with disability from a social policy perspective. She lectures in Systems Thinking in Practice MSc programme with the Open University and is a doctoral researcher with the ALL Institute, Maynooth University.

This is a draft transcript produced live at the event and corrected for spelling and basic errors. It is not a commercial transcript and will need to be checked if you wish to publish it.

AXSCHAT:

JOAN ODONNELL Friday, 4th February 2022

NEIL:

Hello and welcome to Axschat. I'm delighted that we are joined today by Joan O'Donnell. Joan is a lecturer in systems thinking. Now, I'm a big fan of this systems thinking because I think it's that interconnectivity of the complexity of things that really makes the difference in the inclusive world and has been lecturing on the topic for a long time now. So welcome Joan. It's delightful to have you with us. Can you tell us a little bit more about the work that you're doing around disability and systems and how you're using systems thinking to include people?

JOAN:

You're very welcome. Thanks and I have to say I'm really delighted to be with you today. This is a subject that is really important to me, and I think that about 12 years ago I was handed this policy brief to say look at employment and disability and I realised that actually it was not on the agenda a lot of the time. We were talking about disability in terms of care. We were talking about disability in terms of education, of therapies and so on. But really the issue around employment and people with disabilities was not really on the agenda. And technology was even further away. So in terms of being a systems thinker, it was really hard for me to work in the kind of siloed way that we usually look at issues. So, I was thinking that work and poverty are really, really tied up together here. You know the meaning of work and what it brings in terms of a breath of opportunity as well as lifting people out of poverty was not being addressed and looked at. And really, a lot of people were either getting on with their lives and out working or they were actually part of a larger system and a family system which was protecting them or they were actually out there on their own or living in very poor circumstances which curtailed not only their sense of belonging and doing something meaningful at work but also that sense of having a poverty of experience in life and that is something that really began to concern me. When I used to go to a disability service, you could often see people sitting around and they didn't. There was no Internet access in services. So neither the staff nor people attending them might have had the digital literacy skills. And so, you know as the world of work has progressed, you could see the sort of divergence happening more and more. Also, traditional services were really adverse, risk averse really in terms of introducing people to social media. That really got me thinking about the world of work and the future of work. The interlinkage with poverty and also poverty being more about poverty of opportunity as much as lack of access to resources. And how technology really seemed to me to be a really keyway in which people could be more included.

NEILL:

That is quite a lot to unpack. But I am with you on all of these core things because without the access to the plumbing of the internet, you're essentially excluding people from being able to access learning and information and access cheaper services and products, access government services and help and all the rest of this kind of stuff. And by using these things, acquire the skills that enable them to have jobs, economic opportunity and also that sense of self-worth that we, probably too much attach, to our employment status and the jobs that we do. Because I think we worked, we are not working to live anymore. We are living to work and that as a society we often measure ourselves on our job titles and our sort of status rather than whether or not we're good human beings. So, I think that that positioning of people in society is dependent on the access to tech and the access to those sorts of hygiene factors that enable people to participate fully. How, once you identified the problem how did you then start getting into working with people to try and resolve it?

JOAN:

Gosh, I'm not sure, this might come in as a disappointment to you. I am not sure there are answers or solutions to these issues. I think we need to shift from thinking about solving very complex and messy social situations and looking at them more as, how do we learn and how do we continuously learn around them? And the reason for that is because as soon as we set up a response to something like, for example with regards to work we would have workplace adaptation grant systems. No grant system that I have ever seen has been able to keep up with the rate of technological change for example. So you know you're going to have people constantly arguing about whether an iPad is an assistive devise or whether we are afraid that you will use it for nonwork or non-related reasons than the one we are giving it to you for. So, within all of these things I think that there is a number of different ways of going at it and one is to create all the structural changes. So structural changes, we have all the institutional changes. We have got the CRPD. The Convention of the Rights of people with Disabilities. We have all of these things. Then we need to figure out ways in which we can move towards them. And very often we'll find there is a big gap between our aspirations and then the institutional arrangements that we have catching up with them. What we need to remember when we're thinking at that high strategic level is that we all live our lives in local situated immediate sites, situations in our homes, in our communities, offices, when we used to go to them etc. So that is really, really critical in terms of understanding what it is that we need to change. A lot of what we need to change are the practices that we engage in. And I think that remote working has provided a really good opportunity to reinvent and reimagine work and not just trying to move the office home but actually reshape what it's all about. As you say Neil, it's more of a human centric system where people have got a reason to get out of bed in the morning. If you flip Maslo's triangle hierarchy of needs on its head, I think you have got the real proper triangle you know. They say we need food and water and shelter etc. But actually, we need a reason to get out of bed to resource ourselves to have those things. To resource we to be able to live and to get on with it.

ANTONIO:

Joan, I was reading the report and looking into some of the conclusions and then going back to some of the reflections that myself Debra and Neil did over the last couple of years. I would like to have your take; do you feel is it possible to move forward to create spaces for disabled people in the workplace without CEO support?

JOAN:

Without?

ANTONIO:

CEO support?

DEBRA:

CEO.

JOAN:

Okay. Just to frame that. The report that we're talking about is the Employers for Change Report, where we had focus groups with both employers, employees and then brought them both together. And some of the organisations that we are speaking to were large multinational organisations and they certainly said the employers were saying, yes, we need leadership to come from the top. They were really struggling with diversity and inclusion to include disabled workers. And this was exacerbated by the Pandemic obviously when people were not being seen in their workplaces but also, they were saying even to recruit people for D&I networks was becoming more difficult. They weren't seeing the posters by the lift, that things were beginning to become even more difficult. So, they were saying, and this certainly came out in the report, that CEO support is absolutely critical. I think one of the other things that came up though was that during the Pandemic, when employers were creating a lot of spaces for people to come in together and mental health spaces and so on that the take up was not so great. So, there was a sense in which there was a need for a different kind of conversation between employer and employee. We are all very familiar with Zoom fatigue now but there was this sense of loss and a lack of disability confidence amongst employers and that is their words not mine, around what actually would be really useful here. What did people need in order to thrive in these new circumstances?

ANTONIO:

Well, we definitely need CEO support. That is clear.

JOAN:

Yeah.

ANTONIO:

So, we need to find a way that then other elements of the organisation are also able to deliver on that and for me, HR is particularly critical. So people in human resources they were never, somebody might have mentioned about disability employment somewhere in one semester at the end of one of their lectures. What we need to do in order to move forward within the organisation is to make people aware of the importance of this and somehow be in a position where they find ways instead of coming with solutions that they are able to, you look into a report, we listen to people. How can they listen to employees in order to be able to deliver to their needs?

JOAN:

I think you're asking a couple of things there. One thing that came up in this piece of research was that there was, as I said before, employers weren't very disability confident. And there was this chicken and egg situation between we don't have a lot of people with disabilities on our team. Should we provide disability awareness training as part of our diversity and inclusion training, or should we recruit first and then provide the training and so the way the conversation evolved around that was that it was really useful during Covid to begin to have these conversations because there was a lot more self-disclosure happening. You know? People began to reach into each other's homes a little bit more. We all began to, humanised work in a way and you know people began to disclose disabilities that nobody at work knew that they had. Also everybody became more aware of each others caring responsibilities and so on. So, there is that humanising of the workplace which needs a different kind of a conversation. People said look we want a different kind of a space, as I said before. But we also want employers to understand that it's not just about mental health because that is where the employers conversation, there was a greater comfort but it's also about needing and having the technology that you need to work effectively at home and there was some disjoins really there because employers didn't understand that maybe employees needed something at home and assumed that people would all be really set up basically. So, the other thing that was, so technology was a really, really big factor here. Access to technology, assistive technology, in order to be able to work better. And clearly there were a lot of really good practices that build up during the Pandemic. We all learned to listen to each other and not talk over each other so much. The flip side of it of course were that meetings were happening faster being called faster and the drive to return to business as usual meant that over time some of the really good stuff that people started doing at the start kind of faded away as large companies began to bring in their own platforms and so on. So, the more comfortable we got with it the less au fait, or you know the less inclined people were to make an effort to make sure that things were more inclusive. I'm not sure if that answered your question. I think I veered off somewhere along the way.

ANTONIO:

No, no. My only purpose is to generate discussion. So there is not really, I was not looking for an answer. I was just looking for your opinion, you know. That was it. Back to you Neil and Debra.

DEBRA:

Yes, and Joan, we sure appreciate all of your work, and we would really like to get a copy of the report that we can share with the Axschat community, and I would like to get a copy of it too. And I know you started talking about assistive technology and one thing, we have learned so much and what I pay pray is that we actually as society's remember what we have learned because we have been talking to society for years. I feel I have been nagging to society to include us. If and when we are not included, we are lonely, we do not fail we can find our own purpose and contribute. Of course, during the Pandemic a lot of people learned by what we meant by isolation and loneliness, and we are still walking that. And I know that Antonio, the other day, shared an article with Neil and I that 87% of employers saying that telework will continue and by the way employers, if you want access to the best talent, you better make sure that telework continues or we are not going to work for you. During the time of the great resignation, it's already happening. That is why once again, I think your work is so important Joan and all the work that our entire community is doing. I was wondering because you mentioned offline a little bit of what you're doing with assistive technology, and I was just wondering if you would not mind telling us more about that because I love the work you're doing.

JOAN:

Sure. Thanks so much Debra. What we are doing around assistive technology has been going on for a number of years. It really prompted this piece of work for employers for change around looking at the potential of remote working. And what we have done is really sought a comprehensive ecosystem for assistive technology services here in Ireland. We weren't alone and we are certainly still not alone, but we don't have a comprehensive or coherent assistive technology system of provision, right? So, we were very aware that a lot of the provision was very ad hoc, it was fragmented. Again it wasn't working in the world of work anymore than it was working in education. d then the two systems didn't meet together. If you needed it for independent living, you weren't getting it over here and there was funding silos and it was a very, very long road to get anything at all. So together with the disability federation of Ireland and Enable Ireland came together. I worked with the Disability Federation of Ireland at the time, and we developed a community of practice which was to bring together all of the, everybody who was interested in assistive technology in Ireland. So, we have got a thriving community that has been going since 2014 and we have, people who use the technology, design and develop technology. We have the academics, we have industry. We have also got educators, service providers and OT's, physios, etc. All involved and we come in together, prior to Covid, we used to come together four times a year in different venues so from the City Council Offices s to universities to large service providers who could hold us all because we have up to 100 people or more at a meeting and it really was designed as a learning space and as a shared space where we focused on different topics at different times. But the value of it was that you might be presenting one week but you're in the audience five minutes later and that we were a learning community and during Covid we took that online and it has been enormously successful and valuable in terms of having conversations whereby people could learn and resource themselves and each other to actually continue to deliver services or to do what they were doing online. And also, of course as part of that work, we developed a model which we call the AT Passport which in conjunction with that community we saw was the best way forward for creating a systemically viable system of introducing AT supports. So, we needed to get the procurement right. We needed to get the training right. We needed for people to be able to have ownership of their own records because so much is held back from people as well without meaning to because and so there is a lot of duplication, there was a lot of duplication of assessments where you could get them, and nobody knew where anything was at. So the philosophy was that the person who was using assistive technology is the expert in their own lives and needs to be able to drive what it is that they need. So, it would include both the assessment, the trialling of AT funding options and resources and the idea was that that would work a. ss government departments. So it doesn't matter what I need the technology for, I need to be able to have it in my home if I'm working remotely and so on.

DEBRA:

And we found that a lot. And that has been a problem for years and also of course, some people attack assistive technology and say it's not needed and it's actually something that prevents people with disabilities from being included which always confuses me because I think that is the opposite. I think assistive technology is really important and also recognising that assistive technology is also mainstream. It is mainstream and it's part of the assistive technology field. And so, one thing that we found happening over and over and over again, especially for example with my daughter with Down Syndrome is that she would have assistive technology at the school and then at home and of course we saw this happen during the Pandemic. They had it at the office, but they did not have it at home and as you said, Joan we found in the United States that more people finally identified as Americans living with disabilities because finally there was a reason for us to identify. There was some reason that would benefit me more to tell you than my fear of you discriminating against me, which is sort of sad but that is the way people have to think. They have to try to protect themselves. So, I just love the work that you have all done in Ireland and I know Antonio did share the link with us in the private chat. So it's really, really a good report compliment to you Joan and everybody that was part of it.

JOAN:

Thanks so much. I suppose that the work of CHAT is really cored to creating the ground. CHAT is what we call the Community of Practice. It stands for the Community Hub for Assistive technology, and we are centred of course around digital assistive technology. It really does provide a ground and a source for learning and an entry point where you know, you don't have to be an expert to turn up. You know, if you have an interest, you're welcome and we make that really, really clear and I think that communities of practice are really, really critical to learning in different ways because all of our entry points, like you say, are different.

DEBRA:

Yeah, and we don't even know who we are as a community. We don't even know, we're still figuring it out and I know there are many, many people for example here in the United States that don't even realise they are part of our community. They don't know the definitions of disabilities and society has decided that disability is bad. We are all broken which is ridiculous. And I think society is starting to understand who we are. Is Neil for example, yes, we all know Neil is broken because he has ADHD and dyslexia or if we educated him correctly, could he actually change the world with a brilliant of his mind because he thinks differently. So, I think there is a lot for us to unpack and to learn as we move forward as societies. But your work is just really important, and I also think we need a lot more communities of practice that are welcoming to all. Because as you say Joan, if you're interested in this, if your intrigued then join the conversations because actually you do have something that you can give because we all have different perspectives. So, compliments once again to the work you are doing. We are very pleased to be turning up the volume for you.

NEIL:

We all know that I am a lost cause.

DEBRA:

Don't you like how I picked on you. I could have used myself as somebody who struggled with school quite a bit.

NEIL:

Fine, you pick on me. I think that I am going to zoom right the way back to some of the things you said about we can't solve all of the problems, but we can make progress and we can create frameworks and these communities of practice and engagement that can really help incrementally improve things and of course, nothing is static either. Technology is continuously moving. Like you said, there is no point in having these fixed approval lists, you're better to have processes and ways of doing things than lists of approved things. And to a certain extent, flexibility and the acknowledgment that people with the disabilities are the experts in their own conditions because I think that that is something that quite often, we end up with I'm an assistive technology expert, I'm going to tell you what you need when that is really probably not something that someone might need. So, I think that it's great that you are engaging with the community, and I think that this is really useful. There are communities within the workplace. You have got your employee resource groups and networks depending on which part of the world you're in. Same thing really. And getting the feedback from them is really important. They have been a big driver for some of the initiatives inside our organisation ATOS in terms of pushing us to become disability confident. In the UK there's a scheme that classifies you at Level one, two and three. And we made it to the end of that and I know Debra has got to drop off so bye, bye Debra.

DEBRA:

Joan I loved your work.

NEIL:

And I think that those conversations with the groups and the employee groups are really helping employers understand what they need to do and drive that forwards to a certain extent but there is also an element of, there has to be some viability in what they're asking for because when you're looking at remote working and the complexity of delivering that in really large organisations and we work in a really large one and that we supply the remote working solutions to other really large organisations, there are some constraints in this because you want to make the stuff work and the assistive technologies are complex and then they have got to operate with other technology. So, there is some significant effort that goes into making all of this stuff work together and be interoperable. So, while in an ideal world everyone would have a perfect choice and be able to choose whatever they wanted. There is a balance to be struck between giving people choice and making sure that the things that they choose continue to work as technology continuously evolves and get updated. So those are some of the things that we, as best practitioners and our customers in enterprise are seeing a lot of because it's how do we balance all of this stuff? We want to be inclusive. We want to talk to our users. We understand but we are getting different messages about all of these different things. How do we find that balance to give them something that is reasonable and still enables them to be as engaged and productive and having the opportunities as anyone else? Are those conversations happening in the groups that you are working with too?

JOAN:

I suppose that one thing that employees were saying is that we are not being asked. We are here. We have the expertise. Please ask us. We want to be involved in the conversation whilst managers and employers are running around in the background going, we don't know what to do. So, there was that disjoint. There was also a sense in which the conversation needs to go wider than HR and include the technologists in the organisations, a greater sense of attention to the accessibility of the products that are now being, you know people are engaging with to keep work forces connected. But the key thing, I think was that we need to have different kinds of conversations that aren't about blame throwing, that aren't about your department verses my department and that actually are coming together to try to solve a problem. So, it's in line with the kind of social learning that a community of practice provides and the term that we came up with for the kind of learning that needs to happen in organisations is systems convening. That at a systemic level within both the organisation and across organisations that there was a need to convene a conversation that was different about how do we figure this out. How do we sit down together and look at what are our resources here and how do we deploy them most effectively? So you have got finance involved in that as well which you would not expect to but we need to decouple the person, involve the person who wants the accessible tech but decouple the problem from them and that's a tricky thing because it's not their problem, it's a companywide problem. And the employers are saying hands up. We are going back to more inaccessible ways of connecting people because the drive to get back to business as usual is really strong. They're also saying, which surprised me is that they are having difficulty keeping ERG's going around disability.

NEIL:

I'm not surprised.

JOAN:

You're not surprised, okay. Why are you not surprised?

NEIL:

Because advocacy work is exhausting. And unlike other advocacy, other ERG's, people are going to have energy limiting conditions. So if you're familiar with the idea of Spoon Theory, you have only got a certain amount of spoons to be able to or energy to be able to give to the employee resource group. And if you need to use all of your spoons just to be able to do your work to keep employable and make sure that you're hitting your objectives and everything else then it's naturally going to detract from the long-term viability of those ERG's because you don't have the energy or the bandwidth to really dedicate to keeping these things going. So, on top of that you have got all of the additional work around that you need to do in order to it's like a disability tax on you. So, it does not surprise me. And most of these ERG's are side of the desk jobs. Very few organisations that are giving people additional time or additional money to do this stuff. You're expected to do it on top of your day job. So that is why these things are often failing. And the people that can maintain it generally, either in organisations that recognise that there needs to be funding and time set aside for this stuff, or they have enlightened managers that are supporting them and making sure that enough load is removed that they can do this. So, I think that there needs to be an examination about what it means to be an ERG lead or even contributor and that if businesses really want them to succeed, they need to invest in some of that stuff.

JOAN:

And do you think as well, sorry I'm asking you questions, do you think as well that there is something around the degree to which we have been working even more hours since we have gone online?

NEIL:

Yeah.

JOAN:

People are giving over their commutes. We are squeezing more meetings in. It's tiring. Everybody is saying this is more tiring. We don't have the bandwidth, the spoons like youre describing. But there is another thing is that you're in an ever-decreasing cycle because in Ireland for example we have the lowest rate of employment amongst people with disabilities across Europe and some euro found research came out on that. And I wrote the Irish case study. Ireland was used as a case study in that, and I wrote that, and we realised that you will of the things that are there to support and to help people into work are not working. So, the people who are there and who have already made that transition because getting into work with a disability and then retaining work, if you acquire a disability so engulfs all of your resources. And it's the similar situation if you live in poverty then you're thinking on a day-to-day level. You're just trying to survive.

NEIL:

Well guess what, the disability and the people that are living in poverty populations have a huge overlap. So yeah, so for sure.

JOAN:

I think that is something we really, really need to be aware of. I am really conscious of the ethical positioning of encouraging more people with disabilities out to work without negotiating a really, really good deal.

NEIL:

It needs to be meaningful work and well supported. So we can take the various different models of disability and we apply the bio-central one within our own organisation because it's the sort of half-way house, if you like between the social and the medical model in 70 odd countries. So have different views around disability but equally it's about making sure that you assume capability with support and make sure that support is there. The thing is that support is not just about assistive technology that is the support in the societal infrastructure that educates people and skills them in the first place. So actually, as employers there is some work, we have got to do that goes far, far back down the chain into the education system to get people to support to get those skills so that you have qualified candidates and all the rest of it. So, they can get into work but that the playing field is levelled much earlier on because it's so uneven. We have reached the end of our time which is a shame because we could go on for a good deal longer. I would just like to continue to thank My Clear Text who support us and make sure that we are captioned and keep us accessible and look forward very much for you joining us on Twitter on Tuesday night.

JOAN:

Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. It's been a real pleasure.

ANTONIO:

Thank you. Page | 2