Abbi, a young disabled woman, smiles and sits in her wheelchair behind a table

“Employing disabled people isn’t just about building ramps!”

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.

Abbi, a young disabled woman in a wheelchair, smiles and laughs

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.

Abbi, a young disabled woman in a wheelchair, smiles and poses for a photograph

Read Scope’s reaction to the Green Paper here.

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 melanie.wilkes@scope.org.uk

2 thoughts on ““Employing disabled people isn’t just about building ramps!””

  1. I enjoyed this blog and agree with many of the points in it. I lost my job due to disability in 2009 and miss working a great deal. But, as a chronically disabled person, I do work; Rare Diseases UK believe that anyone with a chronic condition needs to spend 2 hours per day managing their condition – this is work. But it is unpaid and the skills we develop go unrecognised and unsupported. I’d like to see people with disabilities get paid for this work and have their skills accredited.

    For someone with a rare condition I’d estimate that the work load doubles, especially for people involved in activism on behalf of others with the same condition. Situational depression and anxiety are recognised co-morbidities for people who have to co-exist with Mal de Debarquement Syndrome (MdDS) – as I do – and there’s hardly ever a day that goes by when someone with MdDS doesn’t need reminding that these are natural feelings and not a sign of weakness. This is good work to do but it all takes time. As does liaising with the researchers, updating information for patients and their employers, attending relevant conferences and webinars, giving feedback on the UK Rare Diseases Strategy etc etc.

    Ironically, partly because I can do these things, I do not qualify for PIP, although I did qualify for DLA when still in the episodic phase of MdDS. So I can’t work officially and I don’t get paid for the work I do. My father (a retired GP) supports me financially but that is not OK. He’s an old man and not in the best of health himself. However he recognises the value of the work I am able to do and also knows that I can get depressed if I am not doing something positive with my time.

    If the government wants to support disabled people I’d appreciate it if they understood that empowering patients (which is a key element of the Rare Diseases Strategy) can be achieved most easily by paying us for the work we do.

  2. Unfortunately my son who who is a disabled electric wheelchair user has had a much less positive experience than you. Despite having a degree in geography and also an MBA he has found the most awful disability discrimination in trying to find work in his chosen field. Sadly I think you are the exception as I think is is generally much more difficult for people than you have found.

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