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Employing Disabled People in the U.K. Isn't an Act of Charity

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After being diagnosed with a chronic illness halfway through my time at university, one of my biggest achievements to date has been continuing my studies and graduating with a 2:1 BSc degree from a Russell Group institution in 2016. What I didn’t know at the time was this was only the beginning of the battle — that the subsequent search for accessible employment opportunities would be even more difficult to navigate.

We’re now into 2018, and I feel what the world needs more than ever is a much more refined approach to accessible employment: a better understanding of how to go about it, and why it’s necessary. Unfortunately, we have Phillip Hammond instead. Not only were his comments of late, stating that the U.K. should be “extremely proud” of the high participation rates of disabled people in work but wondering whether they could be responsible for decreased productivity, derogatory and factually incorrect, they also gave an unsettling insight into the attitudes of those in power regarding those with long-term conditions. To me, what Hammond appeared to be saying was “You know, we should all give ourselves a hearty pat on the back that we’re going to the bother of making these helpless disabled people feel included and as if they were equal to us non-disabled folk or something, and it’s good those poor souls are having a go, but it does mean we have to pick up the slack to deal with their obvious lack of capabilities.” As you can imagine, that made me as a chronically ill graduate feel just brilliant about myself.

Employing disabled people isn’t an act of charity. We aren’t here for you to complete a tick-box on your company’s inclusivity form. We aren’t here for some sort of inspirational television series about improving our life chances, and we certainly aren’t here for you to treat us as if we’re incapable work experience candidates and then congratulate yourselves for your selflessness. We need to change this inherent notion that employing disabled people is just an act of kindness, something so unthinkable that employers should be applauded for doing so.

This may come as a surprise, but did you know us disabled folk are valuable members of the workforce too? That with reasonable adjustments in place, we are just as capable as your non-disabled employees, and want to work towards careers of our own? Instead of patronizingly congratulating the country on being noble enough to treat us as human beings and employ us, while simultaneously placing the blame of the country’s decreased productivity on our shoulders, why not take a step back, look past the disability to our skills, and focus on facilitating those instead? Yes, chronic illness is a huge part of our lives and cannot be ignored, but it isn’t everything. The fact that my autonomic nervous system doesn’t function properly does mean walking can be a challenge, but it doesn’t mean I’m any less competent in my field of work.

Whilst it’s important to remember that not all chronically ill people are capable of employment and should by no means be forced into work detrimental to their health, there are so many of us who want to pursue a career and contribute towards the economy. With the recent push in getting disabled people into work, you’d expect social attitudes to be evolving. You’d think as the benefits of having a diverse workforce were being realized, and people would be ready to listen to our experiences and take these into consideration when hiring employees. However, not only do we still have huge hurdles ahead of us in terms of demonstrating what accessibility really means and how this applies to the workplace, we also have comments such as Hammond’s reminding us that all too often we’re still seen as burdens, rather than as equals.

Of course, an individual’s needs will vary according to their disability and the field they are interested in. As the debilitating symptoms I face on a daily basis mean I have to carefully balance my activities with rest, and prevent me from being well enough to leave the house more than once a week, my own battle was finding opportunities where I could work from home. I have been incredibly lucky to recently find employment that couldn’t be better suited to my interests, strengths and health. The fact I feel so fortunate in having a fulfilling and safe job, where I’m not thought less of because of my condition, just goes to show how low the bar is currently set for disabled people wanting to enter the world of work.

There are thousands of people in the U.K. who want to work, who are continually being excluded from traditional occupations due to their disability or health condition. If the U.K. wants to bring more disabled people into the workforce, the answer isn’t reducing the benefit payments of severely unwell people so they can no longer afford a quality of life. Instead, we need to listen to the experiences of those who are well enough to work, look at their capabilities, and consider how accessible employment can be implemented safely and correctly. I hope with everything in me that 2018 is the year when this is finally realized.

Have you struggled to find work suitable for your chronic illness/disability? I’d love to hear about your own experiences, whether good or bad: it’s crucial that we point out where we’re going wrong with accessible employment, but it’s just as important to highlight examples of good workplace practice too!

Originally published: March 19, 2018
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