Lauren sitting on the grass next to her guide dog

“I want to make the extraordinary seem ordinary” – disability and employment

At a fringe event at the recent Labour Party Conference in Liverpool, organised by Scope and the Fabian Society, senior Labour Party parliamentarians, policy experts and disabled people shared their experiences of employment. The group considered how to ensure disabled people played a key role in the changing world of work.

The panel consisted of Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Debbie Abrahams MP, Neil Coyle MP, General Secretary of the Fabian Society Andy Harrop, Scope’s Head of Policy, Research and Public Affairs Anna Bird and Lauren Pitt.

In this blog Lauren talks about her experiences of employment and her thoughts following the panel event.

I lost my sight at the age of 13. When I graduated from university in 2015, I began what turned out to be a long and difficult job hunt. I applied for over 250 jobs but despite being qualified, I only got interviews about 5% of the time. The interviews were generally very negative about my disability. They’d ask “How are you going to be able to do this job?” and I would think “Well I can, otherwise I wouldn’t have applied” but it’s difficult if you’re not being given the chance.

“In phone interviews, when I mentioned that I was disabled their attitudes changed. Potential employers were suddenly less interested in what I had to say.” – Lauren, in her opening speech

I eventually got offered a job and I’m really enjoying it.  When Scope invited me to speak at this event, I immediately said yes. For me, none of the process of getting into work was easy. I came because I wanted to make that process easier for other people. I’m keen to change attitudes towards disability in the workplace and by sharing my story, I want to help disabled people have the confidence to get jobs.

I want to make the extraordinary seem ordinary

People think it’s extraordinary that disabled people work but I want to make the extraordinary seem ordinary. We want to contribute to our communities as much as an able-bodied person. We have no reason not to be and we shouldn’t be stopped from doing that.

Employers may see disabled people as having certain disadvantages, but those disadvantages can actually be very advantageous. We have to be problem solvers, we’re determined, resilient and we want to work.

A massive barrier is people’s attitudes. People see us in the Paralympics and think “oh look at that blind person running” but we can do so many other things. People need to see the variety of jobs that disabled people are in.

The panel sit behind a white table in front of a screen that reads "An inclusive future"

Policies and support need to be better

At the Job Centre, there was the assumption that I only wanted part-time work. Well, no. I might be disabled but I can still work full time. I want to contribute as much as anyone else and I can.

Information about the support available also needs to be better. Technology is essential in supporting me to do my job as well as anyone else can and that’s provided by Access to Work. But it took four weeks after my assessment for my equipment to arrive – four weeks where I wasn’t able to do my job. Also, research done by Scope showed that around half of people said they don’t know about Access to Work or don’t know how to get it. Well, that needs to change. Without Access to Work, there’s no way I could do my job.

Stories show people what’s possible

We need to share success stories and use them to show disabled people and employers that disability doesn’t have to be a barrier. Stories change people’s minds. Scope’s End the Awkward campaign has changed people’s minds already – people often talk to me about it. By seeing disabled people doing things, you believe that it’s possible.

It’s also important that disabled people believe in themselves. When you see others succeeding, you think “Maybe I can do that”. Commonly more negative stories are shared and people see those and think it’s not going to happen. I know towards the end of my job hunt I wanted to give up. I just didn’t think I was ever going to get a job. I knew I could do it but by the end it was like “Can I?”

A massive thing for disabled people is confidence. The world is not an easy place to live if you’re disabled – you’re faced with barriers left, right and centre. But there are also ways to overcome those barriers. And it’s about learning those ways and being given the right support. You get ground down by applying for jobs and not getting anywhere.

Lauren crouching down with her guide dog, both wearing robes at her graduation ceremony
Lauren and her guide dog at her graduation ceremony

Sharing knowledge is really important

Another thing I would love to see would be the option to have a mentor – either another people who is disabled and currently in work or an employer. Sharing experience is a massive thing because it builds up that self confidence and that knowledge. You’re not going to learn something unless you’ve got someone showing you. I want everyone to see that disabled people can work just like everyone else. My line manager went for an interview and said that she worked with someone who’s blind and they were like “How?” and she was liked “Well, like this…” and that’s the thing, it’s a transfer of knowledge.

I also think it’s important to educate people when they’re young, which is something Scope are doing at the moment, with their Role Models programme. The more people see at a younger age, the better their attitudes will be. Sometimes older people say it’s amazing that I’m working – well, it’s not really that amazing and they wouldn’t say that to my brother, who’s sighted.

Working together to change the future of employment

Today was great. Everyone on the panel spoke about the many things that can be done to help disabled people find and stay in work. We also spoke about things that aren’t being done that should be – some things that can easily be implemented and other things that may be more difficult and how funds can be better used.

I really enjoyed having this opportunity to talk to disabled people, politicians and people who worked for different charities, all of us coming together to share the knowledge and ideas that we have, to help change the future for disabled people in employment.

Scope has partnered with the Fabian Society to produce a series of essays that look at how the modern and future world of work can be inclusive for disabled people.

To read more about Lauren’s journey into work, read her previous blog.

If you have an employment story you would like to share, get in touch with the Stories team.