Abbi was born with a genetic bone disease called osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as ‘OI’ or brittle bones. Having had various experiences of employment, Abbi attended an event in which details of a new government Green Paper were announced.
This Green Paper marks the start of a consultation period to discuss a variety of different things including the support for disabled people in and out of work. In this blog, she talks about some of her own experiences and what she thinks needs to be done next.
As a person with both musculoskeletal and mental health conditions, I was really interested to hear about the Green Paper. I think that one of its real positives is the recognition that increasing the number of disabled people in employment needs to be part of a wider conversation about how we support sick and disabled people in this country.
The healthcare system and, in particular, the mental healthcare system, does not expect me to be in full-time employment, and my employer does not expect me to be as ill as I am.
Personally, I was very lucky to get a job straight out of university. I work in a large advertising agency in London which can afford things like a wheelchair accessible office, ergonomic furniture and any software I might need. My physical access to my office is faultless, but employing disabled people isn’t just about building ramps.
Having the confidence to ask for what you need
When I started my job, I was never given the opportunity to explain what my disabilities are and what effect they have on my life. As a junior employee, I didn’t feel comfortable asking for that conversation.
After a year of working 10 to 12 hours a day, five days a week, when I could no longer disguise my illnesses my employer didn’t know how to respond. I ended up having to take an entire month off work for reasons which could have been avoided had I felt comfortable explaining my conditions, and asking for a little flexibility, earlier on.
My agency is now working to make changes to my role but it’s been a real knock to my confidence in the workplace and has had a real effect on my mental health.
We live in an increasingly technological world, yet many employers consider employment to mean being physically present in a place of work, nine to five, five days a week. That’s something that for many disabled people is simply not possible. It’s something that I’m not going to be able to maintain forever and it’s not necessary to do a good job.
Feeling like a burden
In my experience, many disabled people at the moment have a real fear of appearing as a financial burden to employers. I recently worked with a disabled actress who was attending a casting for the part of a disabled character, and she didn’t want to bring her PA with her to the audition because she didn’t want to be seen as an expense. That’s wrong, but it’s a position with which I can only empathise.
I’ll say it again, wheelchair access is about more than building ramps. The key is flexibility. We need to create a culture in which disabled people feel confident asking employers and potential employers for what extra flexibility they need to do a good job. Whether that’s working four days a week, reduced hours, working from home or just taking a lie down once a day, a little flexibility can make all the difference for people with disabilities, especially those with fluctuating conditions.
We need the government to provide employers with the advice, education and perhaps even the financial support to make employees with additional needs, who might not work the same hours or in the same way as their non-disabled colleagues, still attractive to potential employers.
Disabled people have a lot to offer the world of work, and I genuinely believe that the world of work has a lot to offer us in return. But in order for disabled people to gain and maintain permanent employment, we must change opinions on what access to work really means.
We’d like to hear from disabled people about their experiences with things like claiming ESA, taking part in employment support programmes and getting support while at work.
We’ll put out more information over the coming weeks, but in the meantime, if you’d like to get involved please contact Mel Wilkes, a Policy Adviser on firstname.lastname@example.org