Employers should treat disabled people with the same respect as anyone else

Guest post from Tom. After being diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, he was shocked to be dismissed from a job he loved as an engineer. With the support of his family and a firm of local solicitors, he won his case for unfair dismissal as a result of disability discrimination.  

Up until early last year I had a job I loved as an engineer at a cleaning company. I used to wake up each morning and think “what’s today got in store?” I’d had a couple of different jobs since leaving the army but this was by far my favourite.

About ten months after I started working there I started to get twinges and a weakness in my arm. At first I put it down to a strain caused by walking our dogs, but when it got worse I went to the doctors.

Motor Neurone Disease has taken the lives of my Dad, my Uncle and my sister, so when I got the diagnosis it didn’t come as a surprise. I spotted the signs and even told the consultant what it was before she broke the news.

Most people know it as the disease that Stephen Hawking has got, it’s a terminal condition that attacks the nerves in the brain and spinal cord.

At this time I was fit enough to walk my dogs five miles before work each morning and I decided that I wanted to stay active and stay in the job I loved as long as I could.

I decided to be open about things and tell my boss that I’d been diagnosed with the condition. I said that I’d know when it got to the point where I could no longer work, I thought he understood.

My wife Linda and I were coming up to our 40th anniversary and we really needed a break – so we took a fortnight’s holiday to the Caribbean. When we got back I was feeling really well rested and raring to get back to work. But on my first day back I was invited to a meeting with the HR Manager as soon as I arrived in at 8am – I knew something was up. It was the first time ever that I’d had to speak with her.

She took me into an office and asked how I was feeling. I said I felt great and was really enjoying my job. Then she left the room and went to speak to the company’s owner in private. When she returned she told me that I no longer had a job. I hadn’t had a day off sick, so it came as a massive shock.

It felt like because of my illness I’d been thrown on the scrap heap – it was a double blow, first the illness and then being sacked. I thought to myself – what have I done wrong? The only thing I’ve done is to have the disease.

I went into a depression, wouldn’t go out of the house, I stopped doing the gardening and I even gave away my season tickets for Newcastle football club away, and I’m a massive fan. If it hadn’t been for my wife Linda, well, I don’t know what I would have done.

Then my brother said that he wasn’t sure if what they’d done was legal.  I got in touch with my local solicitors Muckle LLP and they took up my case.

It went to an employment tribunal and they said I’d been unfairly dismissed – subjected to disability discrimination. After the hearing I was awarded damages. But I wish I’d just been able to keep my job.

I think my health has deteriorated as a result of losing my job. I liked going to work, I liked being active, and without my job to get up for each day, I haven’t been as active as I was and it shows. My legs have become very weak and I have to use a wheelchair. I can’t walk the dogs any more.

The case was really stressful too and there were definitely times when I felt like giving up, but my wife, Linda, and my family kept me going. And it was worth it, I wanted to stand up for my rights. I want all employers to know that people who are disabled should be treated with the same dignity and respect as anyone else.

Today Scope published a new report exploring disabled people’s working lives. The report – ‘A million futures’ – shows that last year alone, 220,000 more disabled people fell out of work than found a new job.

A million futures: halving the disability employment gap

Today we published a new report exploring disabled people’s working lives. The report – ‘A million futures’ – shows that last year alone, 220,000 more disabled people fell out of work than found a new job.

We wanted to explore why disabled people are struggling to stay in jobs.

Our new research with hundreds of disabled people found that a lack of flexibility in the workplace is a critical issue.

“I, like thousands of others, fall into the grey area of too disabled to hold down a job without health implications, yet not disabled enough to get help from the Government.” – Sarah, Isle of Wight

Nearly half (48%) of the 700 respondents to a Scope survey said that flexible working time and practices could have helped them stay in work.

Many disabled people told us that a key benefit of flexible working is that it can allow them to manage changes in their lives related to disability, or to manage a fluctuating condition, or recover from treatment.

Yet our survey found that only one in three had been offered the flexibility they needed.

“If I’d been given the opportunity, I could have sat down with them and said ‘look, this is what I’m capable of doing, this is what would help me get back into the workplace” – Jane, West Midlands

As a result, too many disabled people and their families find themselves relying on taking sick leave to manage this need for flexibility – often against their wishes.

Over half (60%) of those on long-term sick leave are disabled people. Once in sick leave, it can be very difficult to return to work.

Providing better support for disabled people must be a priority for Government and employers – and can bring benefits for everyone.

For those disabled people who are able to continue working, it means they can continue working, contributing, and taking home a pay packet.

Employers are able to keep hold of the knowledge, experience and contacts that often experienced disabled people can bring.

Crucially, better in-work support can bring benefits to the Government, by rebalancing spending on expensive programmes back to supporting those in work.

For more details, see the full report.

Find out more about our previous reports: