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Reflections on work life as a disabled person

13 April 2018

Reflections on work life as a disabled person

My name is Caroline MacDonald, and I’m a policy adviser for the Government based in Whitehall but from my accent you can probably tell I’m a Northern lass and I live in Durham. I’ve been asked today to talk a little bit about my personal reflections as a disabled person with a varied career and then my experience with my last employer, the Big Lottery Fund, and the work we did together with the Percy Hedley employability service. As I’ve now moved on from the Big Lottery Fund I can only give you my personal thoughts but I am aiming to leave you with some positive messages and different perspectives about employing disabled people. I’ve had a great career with some wonderful employers, but it didn’t start off that way …

In 1996, I was in my first year as a teacher of Maths and Physics, just bought my first house and thought things were motoring along quite nicely. Then, I very suddenly became disabled and, amongst other things, lost my mobility. In hospital I was actually pretty cool about it, I just figured I’d be living my life sitting down rather than standing up, and I saw my first wheelchair as a step towards freedom rather than something that defined me. However, things were very different when I left hospital and I quickly realised that the world now saw me through a very different lens. In those days, before the Disability Discrimination Act, there was no question of continuing to work as a teacher and I was retired at the grand age of 24 – health and safety, don’t you know. Ok, I thought, I’ll just re- train and do something different. A joint honours maths and physics degree and a teaching certificate have to count for something! So I went along to the jobcentre, and spoke to a ‘Disability Employment Advisor’. His advice, “Caroline, if you really really want to work, why don’t you do a typing course, there are some offices that you might be able to get into or you can take some typing in at home.” I had a mortgage to pay, so that’s what I did for the next year, typing at home. But the very loud message was that I wasn’t supposed to work and if I did then I shouldn’t expect to have my skills and qualifications recognised. These types of messages are often still the first barrier for disabled people to overcome – and for employers to see past.

Since then I’ve had a myriad of jobs and also completed a masters degree. At first I lacked confidence, experience and knowledge in asking for adaptations to enable me to be successful at work – and the least successful jobs were those where I was expected to do the same job as everyone else in the same way. For instance, one of my first jobs was an education officer at a museum. I had a excellent feedback from the children and teachers about the sessions I ran, but I was constantly berated by my manager as I couldn’t empty the bins or move the furniture at the end of the day – she told me that equality should mean I did the same job as everyone else, in the same way, regardless of the physical cost to myself. This was a pretty awful experience which really dented my confidence and self-esteem and in the end I left, but in retrospect a simple solution would have been for me to teach an extra session to free up someone else’s time to help me with the physical tasks. However, where I’ve worked with supportive employers who have been willing to look at things differently then I’ve been enabled to thrive. Those employers have had a very loyal employee who wanted to repay my employer with my very best effort.

Most adaptations have been either very low or no cost – for instance, at the Big Lottery Fund I was supported to work at home wherever possible. At that time, this was quite new and innovative – and I found that working from home without distractions my output rose dramatically and I had much more energy for the times I needed to be in the office. I was able to act as a pilot for how homeworking could be successfully managed at the Fund, and they are now moving to an operating model where the many more of their employees will be either home based or working flexibly out of regional hubs, rather than in a small number of large and costly centres. Part of my role at the Fund was to take a lead on their work around disability. At the Fund we were very aware, through research and consultations, that achieving equality in employment was one of the key issues facing disabled people so this became a priority for us too. The Fund have had a strong relationship with Percy Hedley, and we were particularly keen to support the Employability service as it aims to help disabled young people with a wide range of impairments to move towards employment, including those that might, like myself, have traditionally been told that employment wasn’t for them. The Fund initially helped the service by providing funding, but we were also keen to be more proactive and to provide work placements for young people. We were able to identify a range of tasks that were suitable for new entrants into the workplace, and were able to welcome three young people into teams across the Newcastle Centre. At the Fund, we had had a very stable workforce since opening the centre in 2006, so bringing in young people on work placements with their enthusiasm, energy and verve was like a breath of fresh air across the centre. We identified a mentor for each young person who came to us, and this also provided a development opportunity for an existing member of staff who was able to take their first steps in management. Where we did find small adaptations were needed, this often had a much wider benefit, for instance one of our young people couldn’t reach the printer as it was placed on top of another unit. We moved the printer, and everyone who used it found that they could now actually read the messages on the top of the printer so when it stopped working they didn’t have to guess whether it had run out of ink or paper or just jammed! Anyone considering becoming part of the scheme, I would say that you will find the opportunity to be very rewarding in ways you might not even have considered.

I’ve got one last message I would like to leave the potential employers in the audience – if you’ve got a person sat in front of you for an interview who has a significant impairment, I can tell you from personal experience that that person might have:

  • Needed a team of carers to help them get up, dressed, breakfast and through the door
  • Got on their bus to find the wheelchair space full of luggage and buggies
  • Arrived for their train to find the staff hadn’t received the message that they had booked assistance, or the wheelchair space had been double booked, or that the toilet didn’t work so they couldn’t board
  • Faced abuse by the taxi driver who didn’t want to go to the effort of getting his ramps out or clamping their wheelchair in place

What I would say is that you are a very lucky employer, you’ve got someone in front of you that already that day has:

  • Managed a team of people and conveyed a set of complex instructions in difficult circumstances
  • Negotiated with a bus full of people and influenced them to do something they didn’t want to do
  • Problem solved to get over a long set of barriers to enable them to continue on their journey

And is still resilient enough to arrive on time with the drive, enthusiasm and energy to carry on with their interview as if nothing had happened!

Thank you!

[1] This is excerpt from a speech made by the Chair of Difference at the Percy Hedley Foundation in Spring 2018.