Disability at Work – A Different Approach

For nearly thirty years I, and many others have provided disability equality training designed for, and targeted at line managers, HR professionals and other interested individuals. Given that most people acquire their impairments during their adult lives an important emphasis has been placed on helping employers and managers become more confident when managing disability in the workplace.

Looking back I can see that this approach has provided some positive benefits and the workplace is no longer quite so problematic for disabled employees. Sadly I also think that this strategy has failed to deliver on two really important levels.

Firstly, the disabled employee has to rely on being part of an organisation that places real importance on equality policies and practices. Even when this is the case the disabled employee is often separated from the equality process and has to sit and wait while their manager gets trained or the organisation decides to treat disability as a higher priority.

Secondly, there is plenty of evidence from official government and employer statistics, to suggest that despite all these initiatives disabled people’s career progression opportunities, levels of engagement and employment rates remain stubbornly low when compared to those for non-disabled people.

Of crucial importance to all of this is the disabled person’s relationship with their colleagues, and the role and location of their line manager.

Managers are often very busy people who work under extreme pressure in order to meet deadlines and deliver the objectives set by the organisation. They rely on their team being self-motivating, effective and playing their part in the delivery of the targets set. Even more pressure is brought to bear when overall team performance is linked to remuneration, for example by way of bonuses. Disabled team members may be seen as a liability or as less effective than others but because of the sensitivities involved the issue is not tackled by either party. The disabled employee grumbles about a lack of understanding and career progression and the line manager resents being left to manage a situation they feel unsure about resolving and in any event don’t have the time to tackle. I believe it is now time for a radical rethink.

The time has come for a different approach so here’s my proposition.

Back in the seventies and eighties people with impairments came together and developed organisations whose purpose was tackle a world they felt was disabling them. The slogan “Nothing about us without us” epitomised the emerging disabled people’s movement. People with impairments demanded that where plans were being developed that affected their lives then they should be fully involved in the process.

Employers now need to develop an approach that places their disabled employees at the centre of their disability equality initiatives. After all, who has the bigger interest in disability, the individual who has the lived experience of it or their line manager or HR professional who may see it as problematic or as a low priority?

This changed methodology should provide opportunities for employees with impairments to identify strategies that will help them become more effective. By becoming experts on what helps and hinders them they are empowered to advocate on their own behalf. Thus equipped the employee takes control and is better able to help their manager understand what needs to be done in order for them to become an effective contributor to the team objectives.

My colleague Dave Rees and I have been running Personal Development Programmes (PDP) for disabled people for over twelve years. Many of those who attend have acquired their impairment during their adult lives; others have been living with an impairment for many years. Many have impairments that are not visible, and it is therefore sometimes assumed by others that they are non-disabled or in some extreme cases they are thought to be ‘faking it’. All the participants have a number of other things in common. They often feel isolated at work, they feel they are not being listened to; they are sometimes disillusioned or angry, they are coping with, rather than managing the disabling effects of their impairments.

The programme encourages participants to see their impairment as an asset rather than a problem. We urge them to become experts on managing their impairments, we make it clear that they need to take responsibility for knowing everything there is to know about their condition and the impact it has on them and those around them. They have to become better informed about the support services that are available or the kit they need and they have learn how to ask their managers for the adjustments they require in order for them to become as effective as possible. The programme examines the disabling barriers they face and encourages participants to explore ways of managing the interface between themselves and their social context.

Disability can be a really difficult subject to discuss, both for disabled and non-disabled people. Non-disabled people may worry about using the wrong language or being seen as patronising. The disabled individual may have real concerns about what will happen after they’ve talked about their impairment. The programme equips delegates with the necessary assertiveness skills, so they can take control and reassure their colleagues and managers that it is okay to talk about it. A couple of examples follow to illustrate the point.

A man with a serious and fluctuating mental health condition attended the programme; his manager although sympathetic had no idea what to do to help him or how to manage the impact on the rest of the team. During the programme the participant wrote a two page summary explaining his condition, how it affected him, what support he needed from his manager and colleagues in order to be as effective as possible. He distributed the document and offered opportunities for people to talk to him about it. One outcome was that he and his line manager were able to develop a reasonable adjustment package that took account of his situation. He was less stressed, took fewer days off sick and felt his self-esteem increased. He also made contact with others in the organisation who had similar issues and helped to start a support group for employees with mental health conditions.

A woman who was losing her sight coped by keeping quiet about it and as result her effectiveness at work decreased. Her appraisals reflected this and her promotion opportunities declined. At home she was aware that her daughter was having a tough time at school partly because she (the mother) didn’t socialise with the other parents in the playground when she collected her daughter from school. This was primarily due to the fact that she couldn’t see them and they were unaware of her sight impairment. As a result of the PDP she developed an action plan designed to tackle the issue. She spent time finding out what support was available via her employer and externally in order to resolve her issues at work. She wrote a description of her sight impairment and the adjustments she needed. She took the lead and shared the issue with her manager and between them they arranged for a work based assessment. She also discussed the situation with her immediate colleagues so that they could understand the things they could do to help her manage more effectively around the office. Although she didn’t need a white stick to get around she decided to use one when she went to school to meet her daughter. The other parents quickly realised that she had a sight impairment and began to include her in their conversations.

Experience has taught us that training has a limited effect over time so it is extremely important that disabled people who have been through personal development programmes have regular ‘top-ups’ by staying in touch with each other both formally and informally. Participants on our programmes are encouraged to circulate their contact details in order to facilitate these peer support networks.

A more formal but equally important approach is the formation of a network of disabled people, which is funded and supported by the employer. Not only does this provide opportunities for peer support and mentoring programmes etc. it also gives the employer access to in-house disabled experts. Having specialists available reduces the need for expensive external consultants, particularly when the organisation wants to review or revise its disability policies or needs to develop products and services specifically targeted at disabled consumers.

I believe the time has come for employers to place a much greater emphasis on empowering and equipping their disabled colleagues to take control of their lives at work. Employers should concentrate their efforts on removing the barriers that get in the way of staff with impairments being as effective as possible. Lack of appropriate access, discriminatory behaviours, ineffectual, inflexible reasonable adjustment processes are all examples of obstacles for the employer to tackle.

For their part employees with impairments need to take full responsibility for managing their impairments as effectively as possible. This will involve making sure that those around them understand the impact their impairment has and what needs to be done to help them deliver what is expected of them.

Evidence from employers shows that there are tangible benefits for both employees and employers in this different approach. For employees, barrier removal provides personal development opportunities, can stimulate the development of support networks and enhance promotion chances. For employers, the benefits include better staff retention rates, improved levels of engagement, higher productivity and a reduction in the cost of long-term absence. Being proactive also helps reduce the likelihood of litigation by getting in place early, with input from the employee, the most effective form of reasonable adjustments possible.

Forty years ago disabled people created organisations and campaigned on their own behalf for greater social inclusion, independent living and legal protection from discrimination. They were extremely effective campaigners and many of the entitlements that disabled people now enjoy came about because of their efforts.

So let’s focus our efforts on developing programmes that empower and equip disabled people to take control of their lives in work so that they can become really effective. Let’s now provide opportunities for disabled employees to share their stories and experiences with each other and where appropriate, with those around them who are most affected. Let’s continue to support line managers and non-disabled colleagues by helping them to understand their role in empowering colleagues with impairments. Most importantly let’s remember that people with impairments must be at the heart of any initiative that is likely to affect them.

Author: PhilFriend

Dr Phil Friend (OBE FRSA) himself a wheelchair user, is acknowledged as the UK's foremost consultant on disability matters. A powerful and highly popular communicator, his company – Phil & Friends – has provided consultancy to many of the country's best-known companies. In addition to his professional activities, he is also a respected champion for equal opportunities and diversity in general, where his special blend of humour and direct speaking has won admirers from around the world.

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