As an employment and discrimination lawyer specialising in disability, and as a disabled person myself, I have often reflected on the fact that unlike most of the other personal characteristics protected in law (such as gender, religious belief and race), disability is one of the human conditions that can happen to anyone at any time. People with spinal cord injuries, many of whom are catapulted from able-bodied life to facing a future with severe disabilities in literally the blink of an eye, know this all too well.
As someone born with disabilities, I have not had to cope with the loss of a fully functioning body. I do, however, have some experience of how complex and difficult the relationship between one’s body and one’s identity can be (and of course this is something we all grapple with to some extent, whether disabled or not). I imagine that for many people with spinal cord injuries, the impact of their disability on their sense of self may be particularly profound given the huge physical and psychological adjustments that sudden disability requires.
Which is why work can be such an important building block in re-constructing a fulfilling life and positive self-image. While the financial independence that (decently) paid work brings is of course important, other benefits such as the self-esteem that comes from making a valued contribution, and the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the world beyond your front door, can be crucial. For disabled people, disability will always to some extent shape our experiences, but having strong other identities – as parents, lawyers, teachers, writers, IT technicians, secretaries, librarians or whatever – reminds us that we are much more than the sum of our physical parts.
Helping people with disabilities to assert their rights effectively in the workplace is some of the most important work we do in our employment practice at Leigh Day. We see at first hand how all too often, people with disabilities face real but unnecessary obstacles in the world of work. This might take the form of being excluded from career development opportunities (for example because the selection process for a promotion disadvantages someone with dyslexia, or because of travel requirements), or not getting a job in the first place because of prejudice, or anything in between.
Inspired by our work helping individual clients to challenge discrimination, we decided to commission some original research into the experiences of disabled people in the world of work, to see if the issues faced by our clients reflected more general patterns. Our findings, described in our recently published report The Purple Workforce, showed a mixed picture. Some responses were really encouraging. For example a significant majority said they felt supported by colleagues and managers. And 65% of respondents who asked for disability-related adjustments to their working arrangements got all or some of what they asked for.
However other findings were less positive. Nearly half of our disabled respondents said they would not feel comfortable disclosing their disability when applying for a job. 20% of disabled respondents felt they had suffered discrimination at work, and 15% felt they had experienced discrimination when applying for jobs. Of those experiencing discrimination, 20% said that their health had suffered as a result.
While these findings reflect the fact that disabled people still face significant barriers to and in employment and that there is much still to be done to achieve full equality, overall I am optimistic. From my work with disabled clients I can say with some confidence that when people know their rights and are able to articulate them effectively (assertively but constructively), many employers are ready to do the right thing. This isn’t to say that rampant prejudice isn’t alive and well in some workplaces, but it is by no means the norm.
Having a visible disability limits certain choices, such as whether and when to disclose the condition. But it also means that employers can less easily avoid their responsibilities by pleading ignorance of the disability; no-one can sensibly suggest they weren’t aware that someone using a wheelchair might have particular access and other needs. The key is dialogue; being clear about what you need, and ready to make suggestions (with as much flexibility as possible) as to how that might be provided. Knowing what resources are available to support disabled people in employment, such as Access to Work, occupational therapists, experts in the particular condition etc, and being able to point the employer in the right direction, can also be helpful tools.
But it can be hard to know where to start, particularly when dealing with a life-changing event and the feelings of loss and hopelessness that this might entail. Perhaps most useful of all in rebuilding a sense of personal empowerment and the confidence to go (back) into the world of work, is the opportunity to talk to other people who have faced similar challenges and overcome them. SIA’s dedicated Vocational Support Service provides an invaluable resource for just that.
For without wishing to minimise the very real downsides of having an imperfectly functioning body – pain, fatigue, frustration to name just a few – there is a sense in which we are only as disabled as the world makes us. And while we cannot ultimately control that world as much as we might wish, we are part of it, and that in itself makes a difference. And if we are able to dismantle barriers, or even complain about them loudly enough, we can really contribute to the progress disabled people are already making towards a society where our similarities as human beings are more important than our differences.
Employment and discrimination solicitor, Leigh Day