Today we publish ‘Working for all?’, our new research about experiences of employment support among disabled people with high support needs. Aidan is 27 and works in London. In this blog he talks about his experiences of accessing support and colleagues’ attitudes at work.
Like many people, I get up at 6am each morning and commute to London to do a long day’s work at a job I love and an organisation I’m proud to be a part of. The only difference is that I’m blind, having been born with a genetic condition that affects my retinas. I’ve experienced a lot as a disabled employee: the amazing and the truly awful. I want to share what I’ve learned and explore where in-work support goes wrong and, most importantly, how we can get it right.
Not all employers think flexibly
I have had experiences in work where my disability has been viewed as a problem. The simplest adjustments have been refused, despite many adjustments not being expensive or requiring a lot of effort to implement. I once asked a line manager if I could structure my tasks in a way that would enable me to get the most out of my Access to Work support worker on the days she was in. This was met with the dismissive retort that it wasn’t “a part-time role.”
In another job, it was virtually impossible to get the managers to commit to the highly practical job descriptions that Access to Work require. I was refused simple requests such as using an alternative to PowerPoint or recording meetings. As a consequence, I’d often be working at home until 11pm to catch up and require far more support than would otherwise have been necessary. I was even told that because I had help with minuting, “you don’t look like a leader. You don’t look in control.” The message was always the same: I was presenting them with problems, and that is all they were. It was one way or no way.
I can’t hide my disability and wouldn’t want to, but I’ve developed tricks for subtle positive advocacy. At interviews, I always ask a question about the practical day-to-day work involved with the role. It allows me to slip in that I’m considering whether I’d need to use certain bits of equipment, or seek some support from the Access to Work scheme. I use a question to give them a crash course in case they were hung up on the disability. I believe that, right from the start, disabled employees should have a strong partnership with the employer. We are, after all, experts in our own disabilities. We need to support our managers, who in turn must take into account our needs in order to get the most out of us.
Employers’ mindsets need to change
In my experience, there are many people willing to challenge themselves and learn more about disabled colleagues. In my current organisation, for example, describing slides in meetings and running through proposed events in advance, have all become standard practice.
Colleagues understand that a disabled person is a person first and foremost. Combining their adaptability, my skill in offering solutions, good will and a sense of humour on both sides, we just make it work. Indeed, the fact that I require help sometimes has brought me into contact with colleagues in many different departments and roles. What might be thought of as a weakness is actually an asset for building strong networks, knowledge about other areas of the organisation and relationships that enable us to work better.
I want to see us get to a point where, instead of persuading employers to take a chance on disabled talent, they would say, “Why ever wouldn’t you?” I believe that with disabled people increasingly willing to express themselves and talk about their experiences, more and more employers are going through that game-changing mindset shift. That’s a great thing, but we’ve still got many more battles to fight before we win the war!
Find out more about experiences of employment support amongst disabled people with high support needs. Read our new research report, Working for all?