Employing Disabled People Isn’t An Act Of Charity

girl in jeans and t-shirt in wheelchair on an outdoor balcony

After being diagnosed with a chronic illness halfway through my time at university, one of my biggest achievements to date has been continuing my studies, and graduating with a 2:1 BSc degree from a Russell Group institution in 2016. What I didn’t know at the time was that this was only the beginning of the battle; that the subsequent search for accessible employment opportunities would be even more difficult to navigate.

We’re now into 2018, and what the world needs more than ever is a much more refined approach to accessible employment: a better understanding of how to go about it, and why it’s necessary. Unfortunately, we have Phillip Hammond instead. Not only were his comments of late (stating that the UK should be ‘extremely proud’ of the high participation rates of disabled people in work but wondering whether they could be responsible for decreased productivity) derogatory and factually incorrect, they also gave an unsettling insight into the attitudes of those in power regarding those with long-term conditions. To me, what Hammond appeared to be saying was “you know, we should all give ourselves a hearty pat on the back that we’re going to the bother of making these helpless disabled people feel included and as if they were *guffaws * EQUAL to us non-disabled folk or something, and it’s good that those poor souls are having a go, but it does mean we have to pick up the slack to deal with their obvious lack of capabilities”. As you can imagine, that made me, as a chronically ill graduate, feel just brilliant about myself.

What I’d like people to know is that employing disabled people isn’t an act of charity. We aren’t here for you to complete a tick-box on your company’s inclusivity form, we aren’t here for some sort of inspirational television series about improving our life chances, and we certainly aren’t here for you to treat us as if we’re incapable work experience candidates and then congratulate yourselves for your selflessness. We need to change this inherent notion that employing disabled people is just an act of kindness; something so unthinkable that employers should be applauded for doing so.

This may come as a surprise, but did you know that us poorly folk are valuable members of the workforce too? That, with reasonable adjustments in place, we are just as capable as your non-disabled employees, and want to work towards careers of our own? Instead of patronisingly congratulating the country on being noble enough to *shock horror* treat us as human beings and employ us, whilst simultaneously placing the blame of the country’s decreased productivity on our shoulders, why not take a step back, look past the disability at our skills, and focus on facilitating those instead? Yes, chronic ill-health is a huge part of our lives and something that cannot be ignored (as much as we’d like that to be the case), but it isn’t everything. The fact that my autonomic nervous system doesn’t function properly does mean that walking can be a challenge, but it doesn’t mean that I’m any less competent in my field of work.

Whilst it’s important to remember that not all chronically ill people are capable of employment and should by no means be forced into work detrimental to their health, there are so many of us who want to use our albeit limited wellbeing to pursue a career, and to contribute towards the economy. What with the recent push in getting disabled people into work, you’d expect social attitudes to be evolving, that the benefits of having a diverse workforce were being realised, and that people would be ready to listen to our experiences and take these into consideration when hiring employees. However, not only do we still have huge hurdles ahead of us in terms of demonstrating what accessibility really means and how this applies to the workplace, we also have comments such as Hammond’s, reminding us that all too often we’re still seen as burdens, rather than as equals.

Of course, an individual’s needs will vary according to their disability and the field they are interested in. As the debilitating symptoms I face on a daily basis mean that I have to carefully balance my activities with rest, and prevent me from being well enough to leave the house more than once a week (sometimes more, when I’m having a ‘good’ week) my own battle was finding opportunities where I could work from home. I myself have been incredibly lucky to recently find employment that couldn’t be better suited to both my interests and strengths, and to my health. The fact that I feel so fortunate in having a fulfilling and safe job, where I’m not thought less of because of my condition, just goes to show how low the bar is currently set for disabled people wanting to enter the world of work.

There are thousands of people in the country who want to work, who are continually being excluded from traditional occupations due to their disability or health condition. If the UK wants to bring more disabled people into the workforce, the answer isn’t reducing the benefit payments of severely unwell people so that they can no longer afford a quality of life. Instead, we need to listen to the experiences of those who ARE well enough to work, look at their capabilities, and consider how accessible employment can be implemented safely and correctly. I hope with everything in me that 2018 is the year when this is finally realised.

Have you struggled to find work suitable for your chronic illness/disability? I’d love to hear about your own experiences, whether good or bad: it’s crucial that we point out where we’re going wrong with accessible employment, but it’s just as important to highlight examples of good workplace practice too! 

7 responses

  1. My Russell Group uni point blank refused to accomodate my ME saying adjustments gave me an advantage over my able bodied peers and it was more ‘realistic’ to the real world not to accomodate me.

    I had applied as a self funding mature student and had to take a year out in my second year because I literally couldn’t afford to eat when they turned down my hardship grant application.

    I had to work three jobs to survive while studying, had a massive relapse and ended up homeless and unable to complete my degree.

    It’s been impossible to find any paying work since because I have no qualifications and the kind of remote jobs I need want educational achievements. I also don’t have up to date tech skills for the workplace because it’s been so long and courses cost money I haven’t got.

    So it’s about broadening skills as much as just making the workplace accessible. My talents tended toward the vocational and therefore working from home wasn’t always possible. I’ve had no help from anyone like the Jobcentre and I am exhausted from 15 years of trying to find work to fit my illness.

    It costs money to get started and without money or family help it’s been impossible for me.

    1. I’m so sorry to hear about your experiences, Sarah- it just goes to show that support can be so variable depending on where you are and what you’re doing. The fact that you had to go to such lengths to study simply because you have a chronic illness just isn’t right. I completely agree with your point about broadening skills: something that’s been said a lot but still not had a lot of notice taken of it is the fact that it takes more than adding a wheelchair ramp to make an opportunity accessible. Thanks again for sharing this, and I hope today is being as kind as possible to you.

  2. I was employed at the time of diagnosis and my job has made reasonable adjustments to accommodate me fortunately my condition is currently stable and I can manage to work easily most days. The prospect of changing jobs does terrify and I totally agree there isn’t enough support for people with long term condition. Thank for raising awareness.

  3. Until 2012 I was working, maintaining a home (the now ex partner worked away 90% of the time) and coping. I was diagnosed with my physical condition in around 1992, and had managed to continue working in a varietly of jobs, mostly by doing my best to ignore my sondition, pushing myself well beyond what I should have been able to do, and using the weekends to basically collapse and recover. I have suffered with severe mental health issues since I was a child, and, again, hid my problems well enough that there was never any difficulty with work.. I was in several customer-facing roles before moving on to call centre work, and while I definitely did struggle, I kept my difficulties to myself. However… the relationship I was in was not good, and that, along with changes to my role at work, and in my personal life lead to several small breakdowns, most of which I again managed to hide. I was increasingly aware that I was finding it harder and harder to cope, and finally saw my doctor and was referred to several agencies for help.
    As things became more and more difficult, I was aware that my health was beginning to affect my attendance at work, Not the quality of my work – I was told that I was extremely good at what I did, and there was never any suggestion that I was not doing my job: but I needed more time because my physical health was also deteriorating, and I was referred to occupational health. Thats when the attitude seemed to change. Occupational health advised that the ‘reasonable adjustments’ rule should be applied: and that my job was to come under the act that protects disabled employees. I was able to take the time that I needed away from my job without worrying about disciplinary action. Through the mental health services, I was offered the help of a support worker and CPN: I attended regular appointments with a psychiatrist. I finally got an official diagnosis for the mental health condition which was becoming more unstable. Through all of this, I also dealt with an increased workload and changes to my working hours: an increasingly abusive and disintigrating relationship, and finally accepting that the conditions that I have, while they can be managed, are never going to go away.
    I was called into a meeting with my immediate supervisors and their manager, and basically told that, despite the fact that I was conscientious, thorough, and absolutely loved the role I was in, that since they now knew my diagnosis, they felt that I was not emotionally able to continue in it, and were moving me to a different department with immediate effect. I had no choice in the matter, and no say in what happened. If I wanted to continue to work, I would have to accept it. I was angry: I wanted to ask what gave them the right to tell me how I felt, what I was emotionally able to deal with.. but I wanted to keep my job, so I did what they insisted I do.
    A couple of years later, it was announced that due to funding cuts, they were going to be laying off staff: that they were looking for people to take early retirement or voluntary redundancy in order to reduce the number of people having to deal with enforced redundancy. Everyone was going to have to be interviewed for their jobs. I was aware that because of the amount of sick time I had taken that it might be a factor in any decision made: but believed that the fact that I was so experienced, that I was so good at my job, and that might make a difference. But before i was able to even arrange an interview time, a senior manager took me aside, and explained to me that I COULD be interviewed: but that it really would probably be a waste of my time… that no matter whether I had berter stats, better feedback, and better assessment results than another candidate, if they had taken less sick days than me, they would be given the job. They would not be taking into account any adjustments for my disabilities, ot the fact that I was doing everything I could to improve my situation.. I would basically not even be considered for a job I had excelled in for more than 6 years. My choices were to take voluntary redundancy, or be made redundant with the same result.
    I lost my job the same day I moved out of the house I lived in with the ex, having ended the relationship 4 months previously. despite the support worker and the help of the mental health services, I had a series of ‘small’ breakdowns. I’m now unable to work, living on benefits, and have no confidence in myself. I took a great deal of pride in being able to support myself despite my conditions.. and in making sure that no–one knew about them, or how badly they affected me. Physically I have deteriorated greatly in the past 5 years: mentally I am struggling to find the stability and balance that I had previously. Do my issues make me less of a person than someone else? do they make me less capable of making a contribution? I always thought that in some ways it was more of an achievement, because I had to fight myself every day, while maintaining an appearance of normality to everyone else. Now, even the idea of trying leaves me a wreck. I have a lot of work to do in order to try to recover the ground I’ve lost

  4. Thank you for this post. I find disabled people would rather work a steady job, but many in society assume we would rather be on disability benefits which I find insulting. I have a physical disability and have indeed been able to find jobs. I enjoyed one job in particular working with kids who were autistic. Since they already accommodated the disabled children it was no problem for them to do the same for a disabled adult. My college also easily and successfully employed many disabled professors. I wrote a film about one of these disabled professors returning to his job teaching after a stroke and how he adapted and received accommodations for work which you can watch in full for free here at this link! http://cripvideoproductions.com/astrokeofendurance.php

    1. Thanks for sharing this MC, I completely agree with you and I’m so glad to hear that you’ve managed to find things that work for you. Thanks for letting me know about your film, I must remember to check it out!

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