Attitudes Towards Physical and Mental Impairment in the Modern Office Environment
In 2006, at the age of 29, I became disabled. This wasn’t just an overnight thing but was gradual over several months and I believe, looking back, had been
going on for a number of years beforehand.
My disability consists of a mental illness, known as Conversion Disorder, which causes me several physical and mental disabilities. I have difficulty for example with walking, often using my wheelchair or crutches to get around. Among the more “invisible” problems are my poor memory and lack of ability to concentrate for long periods of time.
I have been working in 1st line IT Support now for around 11 years and in 2006 was employed in the private sector by a large multinational food company. I went from walking normally one week in the office, albeit with some stumbling and falling, to walking with a stick and then, after trying to avoid it for some weeks, using my wheelchair to get around full time.
The first time I entered the office in my ‘chair I was extremely nervous and wondered what my colleague’s reactions might be. I needn’t have
worried – the ‘chair was simply accepted and didn’t seem to phase anyone or provoke any unwanted attention.
For their part my employer contacted my GP for info on how best they could accommodate me and any changes they may need
to implement in my work or working environment. They also arranged an independent Occupational Therapy Assessment, again so that they could find out
how best to help me continue in my work.
My GP advised that I should avoid stressful situations which meant that my workload was reduced and at one point it was suggested that I could work in the company mail room which I found quite upsetting and which never came to pass. Other items that came out of these assessments were that a different keyboard/mouse might be useful as I often have problems gripping a mouse, so I use a touchpad instead.
Every suggestion that came back was run past me and if I agreed it was implemented – the company even decided to give me every Tuesday off to visit a support group but kept me on full pay and paid for taxis to and from work when I couldn’t drive. Nothing, it seemed, was too much trouble. Being new to disability I was completely unaware of the DDA and would never have dreamed of asking for any of the adjustments they made, even though they did help enormously. My view was that my problems were my problems and I had to deal with them.
That employment ended with redundancy when the company decided to outsource IT to a third party. We were transferred under TUPE rules to become employees of that third party who announced that they wanted us to relocate to Milton Keynes and admitted that the two office buildings they had there were both inaccessible to wheelchair users. So the only option for me was redundancy.
So now, faced with unemployment and still coming to terms with my newly acquired disability, I was forced to start searching for work. Cue much sending of CVs to various agencies and jobsearch websites. Most of the jobs I were applying for I was more than qualified for but it seemed that no-one was even interested in inviting me for interview. The only interviews I was getting were from the “two ticks” organisations – public bodies who had the “Positive About Disabled People” symbol on their forms and the guaranteed interview organisations.
A lot of these very blatantly were simply going through the motions and doing what they were required to do. Then there was an interview
in Leeds. Again I turned up, dressed as smart as I could (shirt and tie – jackets don’t go well with wheelchairs) and ready for yet another
disappointment. The interview itself I felt went badly and I left thinking I would never hear from them again.
Two days later I got a call from that organisations HR department asking why I hadn’t mentioned the fact that I was
disabled on the application form. I had completely missed the entire Equality section of the long form and had therefore gotten through to the interview on my
own merits! It transpired that they were offering me the job but needed me to complete the form first. I hastily completed the form and emailed it back to
them. I was offered the job and accepted straight away.
Being a public sector organisation there are a lot of things that need to be done it seems when a disabled person is employed. I was invited to visit the office for a day to assess whether I could get around and what adaptations might need to be put in place. It was decided that a powered door opener on the main entrance and my own parking space in the garage under the building were needed. Again I couldn’t have asked for this and the parking space, in Leeds centre, is worth its weight in gold!
So, adaptations in place and I was working again. Then my line manager took maternity leave and problems started. Another manager was appointed
to my team and his attitude and knowledge seemed to be based around 50 years in the past. I was made to feel unreliable, useless and a burden to the rest of the team everytime I had a hospital or doctor appointment, or one of the kids or my partner were ill. He would pick apart the work I had done each day looking for mistakes and making it known when he felt he had found the slightest thing wrong. It seemed nothing I could do was good enough, even when I was working longer hours and doing more work than the rest of the team.
The final straw came when I was excluded from a briefing session being held in London. I asked why I had been excluded and was told by this manager that it was felt that my mobility problems and family commitments would make it difficult for me to attend. I pointed out that I could deal with my mobility problems myself and was used to life being difficult. I wasn’t excluded again.
I think that becoming disabled has given me a unique viewpoint on life and on working life in particular. It has been a real eye opener to a whole world of which I knew nothing previously and has shown that in some people old fashioned attitudes towards disabled people are still rife, but also that there are good employers and people out there who will bend over backwards to accommodate disabled people.
The trick is to find them…..