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Improving equality in workplaces for disabled people

18 Nov 2020

GMB Activist Izzy Pochin writes for Disability History Month on how we can improve equality in workplaces and in our union for disabled people

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The Social Model of Disability espouses that we are not disabled by our conditions, but by the barriers embedded within our contexts.

I agree, while acknowledging the challenges that our conditions themselves bring.

My autism diagnosis (one of several disabilities I live with) came following difficulties in two previous employments, but also made sense of a lifetime of experiences.

Processing spatial information and instructions, alongside difficulties in socialising and communicating, had always been tricky.

In one job, I was sacked solely for not being able to stick labels on straight! For some reason, that was the key for me: that experience bought all the other idiosyncrasies together and I pursued diagnosed.

In my experience, hidden disabilities can be overlooked completely, they can be underplayed, prevent you accessing support you're entitled to, people make assumptions and judgements about your experiences or you as a person.

There is a lack of awareness and education in our society I think, for employers, public service workers and policymakers about what disability is, what it can look like and what it means for the individual.

The analogy of being as open and solutions-focused about disability, as people might be towards a broken arm, is great, in that we need conversations, receptiveness and adjustments.

However the problem with the analogy is that it can lead to support being time-limited and ad-hoc, with compassion fatigue and belittling of the enduring and/or fluctuating experience of many disabilities setting in.

Some disabled people who have certain needs may access a supported employment scheme, but local authority schemes only reach adults who may have more significant needs, including learning disabilities.

This leaves a huge number of disabled people, myself included, who many employers have admitted they would have concerns about employing, due to their worries about our ability to do the job or costs of adjustments with significant barriers finding, applying for and staying in employment.

 

Many workplace cultures often overlook simple support mechanisms that could effectively overcome barriers for lots of disabled workers like me.

In my view, it is not necessarily always a supported employment scheme that disabled workers need, but support in employment.

In my experience, it is the invisible, cumulative needs and issues too readily are ascribed to disabled workers ‘personality and performance’, which we see a lot of in traditional employment settings, that prevent disabled workers having positive employment experiences.

And if that person's experience intersects across different aspects of their identity, such as their gender, sexuality or race, the disadvantages hugely increase.

I am lucky, a close friend now works for the same employer and they, along with other trusted contacts at work, provide so much support beyond standard mechanisms to help me understand and function more effectively within the often alien cultures and expectations of the workplace.

Being able to be honest with these people about the things I find difficult and knowing they understand and can help me with things I would otherwise struggle with, has made a huge difference to my confidence and ability to navigate confusing or difficult situations at work.

This is where awareness of disability and genuine willingness to provide appropriate, person-centred support remains hugely lacking amongst employers.

I feel very lucky that my current employer and line manager have made my experiences easier and shown how an environment which is open to diversity, focused on strengths and talks about disability can overcome, with simple steps, barriers faced by disabled workers.

This has been even more visible in my Branch though, where the flat structures, supportive communities, value placed on my strengths and opportunities to develop have helped me work at and further expand my potential.

I live a valued-led life and when I look at the value I place on having opportunities to use and demonstrate my potential, to develop my knowledge, skills and experiences and improving life for people with shared experiences, being in GMB has given me this.

For me...

  1. support in employment
  2. raising awareness of the internal, moment-by-moment experience of disability with employers
  3. accessing tailored learning programmes for individuals' needs to enable them to fulfil their potential as activists within GMB and opportunities to work closely with Branches and access opportunities

are the keys to improving equality in our workplaces and union for disabled people.

When people are alongside you, you have the ingredients to thrive.

Izzy Pochin
LGBTI+ and Disabled Members Officer
GMB Dorset Council (D30) Branch

 
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