Earning a living is a right most of us take for granted. But one million disabled people are currently being denied the opportunity to work, say campaigners. Those who could make an important contribution to the economy have been shut out by outdated attitudes, employers’ unwillingness to invest and outdated transport infrastructure. Today three bright young people reveal their workplace struggles to highlight the Work With Me campaign, run by Virgin Media and disabled equality charity Scope, backed by the Daily Express.
Wheelchair-user Abbi Brown, 26, is bubbly and smart, a Cambridge University English literature graduate who refuses to let her childhood deafness and brittle bone disease define her.
She was thrilled to become an account manager with a large advertising firm in her first big role.
“I wanted to have a corporate job to prove that I could do whatever anyone else could do,” she explains. “I really enjoyed the work and was part of the Maltesers’ disability campaign.”
The series of jokey TV adverts featured deaf and disabled actors in daring sketch-like skits, including a woman talking about her sex life, another revealing that she’d pulled the best man at a wedding after running over the bride’s foot in her wheelchair, and a third complaining about a dog eating a hearing aid.
With Abbi’s input, the ads won a competition and were hugely successful.
“It made me recognise that my experience has almost financial value in the sense that the adverts I worked on really made money for the brand,” she says.
“I gave insight into life as a young disabled person that they might not have included without my experience.”
Although Abbi was supported by her employer, like many disabled people she faced obstacles in getting to and from the office.
“I did not have to travel to meetings if it was difficult but I often felt I wasn’t able to do the job as well or efficiently as other people could purely because the transport infrastructure doesn’t allow it,” she says.
Her Tube journeys took her twice as long as those of her colleagues.
It’s a nationwide issue: nine train operators have missed the January 1, 2020, deadline to make all their journeys accessible, despite having had a decade to prepare.
James Taylor, head of policy and campaigns at Scope, says: “Disabled people should not be held back from the world of work by a transport system that isn’t genuinely accessible.
“A Passenger Charter clarifying disabled people’s rights across all public transport would be a simple and logical step, making our transport network more accountable for disabled people.” After four years in advertising, Abbi now works at the National Deaf Children’s Society as a knowledge sharing officer using her natural flair for writing newsletters and resources.
“The pace is easier and I can work from home when I need to,” she says.
What is her advice to employers about hiring a disabled employee?
“It’s that disability isn’t necessarily a negative thing,” she says. “It gives you problem-solving skills and lived experience that able-bodied people might not be able to bring.”
Charles Bloch, 25, is almost totally blind, but won a place at De Montfort University in Leicester to study digital marketing and social media on a four-year course that included a one-year placement.
But he couldn’t find an employer willing to give him a year’s work experience, despite his excellent computer skills, using adapted software and magnifiers, so he set up on his own as a consultant.
The year gave him vital skills in discipline and determination, and he achieved a first-class honours degree on his return.
Even then, he struggled to get job interviews. It was only when he started omitting any mention of his disabilities that interest perked up.
“I used to get so nervous wondering what people would think when I turned up,” he said. “Quite a few of them were quite taken aback, which I found upsetting.
“It sort of knocked me off balance because I could see their negative reaction. All I wanted to do was tell them about my degree, skills and abilities, but they were seeing problems.
“The worst was when I turned up for an interview with my guide dog and the receptionist said they had a no dogs policy.”
Charles was forced to explain that they were legally obliged to admit his guide dog, but the experience was very upsetting.
“Halfway through the interview, I thought I didn’t want to work for a firm with such a negative attitude,” he says. “So it was a waste of time.”
His applications were rejected more than 20 times. Finally, he applied to a management consultant company called i-Nexus in his hometown Coventry and was interviewed by a woman who asked him simple, straightforward questions.
“She was wonderful,” said Charles. “She didn’t see any negativity or problems, only solutions. Right from the start we said we should be honest with each other and I should speak up if there was anything I needed.
“They were prepared to adapt to my situation. It was exactly the right approach.” The commute is easy and his role enables him to use his marketing skills to aid clients.
“It has been a long, hard road with many disappointments along the way,” he says. “This was the first proper opportunity I got and I seized it. I was desperate for a job, the same as everyone else. I couldn’t be happier now.”
It’s a struggle that George Fielding would recognise. He is 24, has cerebral palsy and tried to get financial support from the Government-run Access to Work scheme specifically set up to help disabled people in employment.
“I’ve tried three times to get funding but have given up each time,” he says, citing the two-week deadline for paperwork as being too tight.
George is charity liaison manager for the recently launched Valorum Foundation that will build and position care homes as skilled community hubs for its residents.
His role involves meeting partners, writing bids and ensuring activities are right for beneficiaries.
“My issue has been that work has taken over and prioritising the support for myself has fallen down my to-do list,” he says.
“I also find it a challenge identifying what funding is available, how to get it and how to efficiently explain what I need support with.”
George, 24, from Manchester, says the money could mean he gets secretarial support for administration tasks.
“That funding would also help me with the cost of getting to work and the expenses involved,” he says. “And it would help me to identify what it is I struggle with and what can be done better.”
George may be only 24 but he’s already met former prime minister David Cameron, given speeches to audiences of thousands, advised the Government on improving transport for wheelchair users and been awarded a British Empire Media.
He received a wheelchair from children’s disability charity Whizz-Kidz when he was young and developed life skills at its social clubs helping him to prepare for the world of employment.
“Work has been a rewarding process for me in the sense that I always wanted to get up and do it,” George says. “The rest fitted into place.”
After graduating with a degree in politics, philosophy and international relations from University College London in 2017, he moved into health and social care.
His first role was as a director of Adjuvo Care, helping to deliver care and home packages for disabled people being an “expert by experience who wears my disability with pride”.
George believes disabled people are “wonderfully resilient” in general, and natural problem solvers.
“When you employ somebody who is disabled, you are hiring someone who can make decisions because on a day-to-day basis we aspire to have control and independence over our own lives,” he says.
He now wants more resources for disabled people to better present themselves to employers.
“We need to grow their confidence in presenting their skills,” he says. “Employers need to invest in accessible recruitment.”
Source – Written by Kat Hopps & James Murray, featured in the Daily Express – https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/1223554/disabled-people-employment-prejudice-disability-rights