My job was to advise employers on disability issues…then I became disabled myself

Guest blog from Jane. Jane was working as a trainer advising business on the benefits of a diverse workforce, including the need to employ more disabled people. Then in an unexpected twist of fate she became disabled herself, and had to look at her own employment situation.

Inclusive recruitment and employment has been an important issue to me all my working life. As an independent diversity trainer I travelled around the UK for 14 years, talking to employers about the benefits of a diverse workforce including, of course, disabled people. I would talk about the business benefits of employing disabled people, backed up by research which demonstrates that disabled people are, on average, easily as productive as their non-disabled colleagues, and have less time off sick, fewer workplace accidents and stay in their jobs longer.

They also bring additional skills they have had to develop to navigate around a world not designed for them – tenacity, creativity, problem-solving, determination and innovation. And, of course, they bring with them intelligence about how to access the “disabled market” (10 million disabled people in the UK spend up to £80 billion a year – that’s a big market!).

Twist of fate

Then, in an unexpected and somewhat ironic twist of fate, I became disabled myself. I knew that most disabled people acquired their disability as adults rather than being born with them, and I was now part of this statistic. Instead of talking about disabled people as “they”, it was now “we”.

After some soul searching, and having various treatments and surgery to try and “get better” I had to finally accept that my spinal condition was degenerative, and was not only incurable, but would get worse. Unable to sit, stand or walk very well, I could no longer drive around the country standing up all day to deliver training. I had to put my money where my mouth had been for the previous 14 years, and look at my own employment situation.

I adapted my workplace

I started a diversity training business (using my knowledge and experience) and employing others to deliver the training. The logistics were challenging, and Access to Work funding turned out to be a major source of support. Unable to sit at a desk I would lie on a platform to work with a laptop suspended above me, and they also provided a height adjustable desk where I could stand to work for short periods.

Jan standing at a desk

Jane lying using a laptop

A new start

This arrangement worked well for seven years, and then the economic climate and my health both rapidly deteriorated. The training business ceased trading, and I founded Evenbreak. This was a whole new venture – a social enterprise to help disabled job seekers find work with inclusive employers who would value their skills, through a specialist online job board.

Access to Work funding saved the day again. I now work lying on my bed with a laptop suspended above me. When I go to work-related appointments I am driven lying flat by a driver paid for by Access to Work. When at the destination I can stand for short periods of time with a back brace and neck collar, and if I need to be there a long time I have a reclining chair I can lie on.

Evenbreak grew, attracting employers such as Network Rail, John Lewis, E.ON, Greggs, BBC and many more, and soon I needed to employ people to help. In order to promote good practice, we only employ disabled people, and currently there are four of us, all disabled and all working remotely from home.

Opening minds

However, I was lucky. I was self-employed or running my own business. For disabled people who are unemployed, or working for employers, they have to rely on the employer being enlightened enough to see their talents beyond their disability, and be prepared to be flexible if necessary in order to access that talent.

Many of our candidates report that they have previously been discounted for jobs because of a completely unrelated disability (e.g. someone who uses a wheelchair considered unsuitable for a telesales role – why??). Or if they have acquired a disability whilst in employment the employer has not been flexible enough to accommodate new needs and the person has left.

My advice to candidates is to leave the discussion about disability and reasonable adjustments as late in the process as they can. Of course, this is difficult if reasonable adjustments are required to access the first stages of the recruitment process.

Emphasising the skills the candidate brings with them is important – making the employer see the benefits of the candidate’s skills before having to think about reasonable adjustments. Also, it’s good for the candidate to put the employer’s mind at rest regarding cost, explaining that Access to Work will pay all or some of the costs of any reasonable adjustments required.

One of Evenbreak’s aims is to promote the business benefits of employing disabled people so that in future disabled candidates won’t have quite so many barriers to overcome. We work with employers to help them adopt good practice around inclusion and accessibility, in the hope that one day all disabled people will have an even break.

Jane on a special chair, upsidedown on the phone

Scope have 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.