Awkward about disability in work as well

By Susan Scott-Parker

On the left is the text

Scope’s Awkward campaign shows how far we still have to go. In particular, it reveals how much depends on bringing human beings together, to start a very different person to person conversation, if we are to see these damaging deep rooted assumptions and stereotypes regarding people with disabilities finally fall by the wayside.

The Scope study, read alongside two other recent publications, should give us all food for thought – all three require us to face up to the fact that for most of society, (including many themselves legally protected as ‘disabled’) the word “disability”, is still heard as almost an insult. It’s a code word for someone who if genuine is inevitably dependent, sad, ‘unfit’, and if not genuine, for example when a government needs to justify throwing one off benefit, is a fraudster, scrounger, and irritant.

We know that at least one in three Europeans will be disabled or close to someone who is – yet 43% of those answering the Scope survey state that they do not know anyone who is ‘disabled’. Not only do they believe the label does not apply to them personally, (logically 10-15% of these respondents will themselves have a disability), but they have apparently never met anyone with diabetes, cancer, alzheimer’s, depression, stammer, dyslexia, hearing loss, RSI, arthritis… It doesn’t add up – unless you spot the fact that people tend to apply the label ‘disabled’ only to those they do not know personally, and then usually only to those who fit the visible stereotypes of wheelchair users, guide dog drivers, BSL interpreter users, etc…

It is clear that for many a stranger can be ‘disabled’ (it will always be stranger ‘faking’ disability to gain unfair advantage) but people we know, people a lot like us, well, they have a health condition, a balance problem, a wonky knee, a rugby injury…are feeling a bit down….

I often ask audiences to stand, if they can, and then read out a list of commonly encountered ‘disabilities’ – saying: “please sit down when I mention a disability which you have yourself or which applies to someone you know”.

In almost every case the entire audience will be sitting down before I finish. At one event, one man was left standing from the one hundred delegates when my list ran out. We decided afterwards he probably had a hearing impairment. My message: “obviously disability is about us …not about them.”, but the message is taking a long time to permeate to the world around us.

We must confront the fact that most people (and I would include many in the House of Commons) still hear the word as to do with an individual’s failure, a personal deficiency and inadequacy, even a lack of moral fibre; disability is rarely defined as society’s failure to treat us all fairly and with respect. The DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) in 1995 was miles ahead of UK popular opinion – we still desperately need the public education campaign which enables everyone to explain why it is that: “to turn me down for a job because I am disabled is fundamentally no different than turning me down because of my race or gender”.

The Scope survey focuses on attitudes and attitudes tend to justify a worldview, which then triggers behaviour. In this instance, we have a worldview that by positioning disabled people as ‘the other’, as ‘not like me’ – takes away their right to dignity and respect. And so these attitudes reinforce and disguise a largely unrecognised, yet often shocking level of ill treatment and abuse, as revealed by the second report to hit my screen recently.

The 2013 research report ‘the ill treatment of employees with disabilities in British workplaces’ published in Work, Employment and Society makes for sobering reading.

The British Workplace Behaviour Survey found significant differences in the experience of poor treatment of employees with a disability or long term health condition, when compared with other employees. For example:

  • More than one in three disabled people have been shouted at or experienced someone losing their temper with them compared with less than one in four non-disabled people.
  • More than one in ten disabled employees have experienced actual physical violence at work compared with less than one in 20 non-disabled people.
  • Close to one in four disabled people have been insulted or had offensive remarks made about them at work compared with less than one in six in non-disabled counterparts.
  • Close to one in six disabled people have experienced hints or signals from others that they should quit their job as compared with just over one in 20 non-disabled people.

People with different disabilities also have different experiences, so as hard as it is for these disabled employees generally, it gets even harder for those with non-visible or hidden impairments. Employees with a learning difficulty or a mental health condition had an increased likelihood of experiencing poor treatment at work by an extraordinary 177%.

Deeply troubling is that nearly half of the more serious examples of poor treatment were from line managers, supervisors or employers. The research found that line managers failed to comply with legislation often because of rigid procedures on sickness absence and discipline. Senior managers implicitly convey the message that compliance with equality legislation doesn’t really matter, by leaving the detail of operationalising how relevant policies actually work to the line manager.

Yet when we move the conversation from: ‘About Them’ to ‘About Us and how our organisations adapt for human beings’ … a different story begins to emerge in report number three.…

Kate Nash recently launched her ground breaking work Secrets & Big News …55 public and private sector organisations, employing hundreds of thousands people, have said that they have much to learn if they are to treat their disabled employees properly and if they are to enable their people to be themselves at work. These employers are breaking new ground and genuinely want to develop a better and more meaningful conversation with their employees. By participating in an anonymous survey conducted by Kate Nash Associates they are creating new conversations and opportunities with their disabled employees. I will come back to this extremely important work in a later blog.

I want to conclude today by saying that these reports provide ample evidence that the status quo is neither acceptable nor unavoidable – however, we will not get different results in five years time unless we start doing things differently – very differently.

At the very least, we need to use this information to challenge the all too many organisations who flatly refuse to admit that they have any need to improve their disability performance. Ironically, it is precisely because so many organisations are out of touch with the people they employ, out of touch with their customers, out of touch with the demographic realities around them – that they continue to behave as though disability has no impact on their business – and can and should be left to doctors, charities and social workers.

A huge well known company employing hundreds of thousands of people, most at minimum wage, recently refused to join BDF because: “we aren’t broken”. Another company explained; “we are too young” to address disability though they only employed 70,000. And another argues ‘we need to focus and our focus is on women this year’.

We are looking for radical ideas for how to close the performance gap between those companies, often our Members, who are determined to deliver best practice and the thousands of ‘not yet- members’ and ‘never will be member’ organisations who remain trapped in the old medical damage time warp. Above all we need to invest in the leadership potential of disabled people – real change will only happen when we enable everyone to understand that disability and disabled people, and potentially disabled people are part of everyone’s world. We are determined to re-launch our leadership programme for disabled social entrepreneurs in the next 12 months – again all proposals for how to maximise the impact of this initiative are greatly welcomed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s