Person using a calculator at work desk

“There is still lots of stigma around mental health”

Today Scope has published Let’s talk, research on having conversations about disability at work. The research found that 48 per cent of disabled people have worried about talking about their impairment or condition with an employer.

Here, Gladys, who took part in the research and whose name has been changed to protect her identity,  talks about her experiences of employment. She is based in London and works in a school.

I was previously an Aid Worker with various charities for around 15 years. The work was sometimes arduous and required stamina as well as rigorous analysis. We worked very long hours in often difficult conditions. I was also involved in training other people from around the world. When I noticed that my memory was going and I was struggling with analytical thinking, I tried to continue as best I could including taking on ‘distance’ work based at home. Eventually even that became difficult and I didn’t know what to do. I was also in a lot of pain. But because the symptoms of my condition develop so slowly, it took nearly seven years to get diagnosed.

A few years after treatment had started I needed to get back to work as my benefits had been stopped after the first year, but I knew I couldn’t work full time as I had limited energy and so many medical appointments. I had been supported by the Job Centre, but they thought I was over-qualified for the stuff I was applying for. It was incredibly painful, because basically I was negating my career, and I had to ‘dumb down’ my CV. The fact that there was a break of a few years in my work experience didn’t help either. Due to my reduced energy levels, I tried to find work within a couple of miles of home so that the journey to work didn’t tire me out.

It was hard to get beyond the first interview

In one interview, with a call centre, I explained that I wouldn’t be off sick all the time; and that for example if I wasn’t in on a Tuesday, I would come in on another day to make up the hours. I thought this demonstrated my willingness to work. But they said, ‘Oh no, I would need you at this particular slot, because that is when the chair is available, we can’t be flexible’. A music school director rang me and said they had really liked me, and thought I was good, but they felt nervous about my condition and hospital appointments. I just wasn’t getting anywhere.

I wasn’t getting in through the normal channels and then I was advised by someone in the Job Centre that it wasn’t necessary to disclose, which proved to be valuable advice.  That’s how I got this job at a local Primary School. Whether the Headmistress assumed I’d taken a break for family reasons, I don’t know.  My qualifications were at the bottom of my CV and she reminded me that the job I was applying for was basically cleaning tables at lunchtime. But she didn’t probe further. She said that her main priority was that I would be reliable and turn up to work. I was relieved that I didn’t have to justify myself and I promised her that I would be reliable.

I am still at that school, working just four hours a day, four days a week.

I have never disclosed my disability

A couple of years ago I tried to increase the number of hours I worked and my grade but it was too exhausting and I had to stop after a year. During a chat with a teacher an early experience of teaching English as a Foreign Language slipped out and she identified a vacancy as a part time Learning Support Assistant. Although I preferred this work, I struggled to manage the 25 hours a week and I reverted to my former job, they found someone who could work full-time.

My former line manager was very friendly, and I tried to tell them I simply cannot work full-time, if I’m going to function in this environment.

I have never disclosed, but they know there’s a reason. I tried to say something once but decided against it because I was not sure how that might affect the dynamic in the office. I read that if you don’t need adjustments to be made to the workplace, then you don’t need to tell your employer. I don’t know if that is correct but if I don’t need to tell them, then I won’t. I am not yet psychologically strong enough to be surrounded by people who ‘mother me’.

Because I haven’t disclosed my impairment, I’m not sure what my rights at work are. I haven’t disclosed, because I wouldn’t have got this job if I had. It’s as stark as that.

A graphic showing statistics from Scope research. It reads "48 percent of disabled people have worried about sharing information about their impairment or condition with an employer"
48 percent of disabled people have worried about sharing information about their impairment or condition with an employer

People assume you are okay when maybe you are not

There’s still lots of stigma over mental health, I overhear negative comments from other colleagues. ‘So and so seems to be depressed – they just need to pull themselves together’. ‘So and so shouldn’t be doing this job if she feels that thing.’ I’ve heard that a lot. A couple of people know that I’m on anti-depressants but I usually keep quiet about it.

There was one colleague who started crying a lot. I went to comfort her and suggested that she speak to her doctor. She said that her doctor wanted to put her on anti-depressants and she was very worried about that. I told her that I’m on them. It seemed to help her to know that there was somebody else in her shoes.

It is important that disabled people are able to make informed decisions about if, when and how they talk about disability at work.

Based on the experiences of the people we spoke to, we’ve outlined ideas in our report for disabled people to consider when sharing information about their impairment or condition. 

Read more about our findings and recommendations and show your support on social media using #EverydayEquality.

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