Employment and disability appears to be in the news a lot recently. Scope have launched their campaign with Virgin Media, Work with Me, the new series of Employable Me has started (if you haven’t watched it, I would recommend that you do) and I am sure you will all be aware that the news this week has included the story that Theresa May has revealed plans to get 1 million disabled people back into work over the next 10 years.
It can only be a positive thing that the barriers that disabled people face to employment are being aired and talked about, but I think that there’s a crucial factor here that hasn’t been spoken enough about and that’s employers’ attitude and possibly fear.
I remember the days when I was trying to get my first job. I have a twin sister who isn’t deaf and who literally walked into her first job pretty much straight away. The same wasn’t true for me. I literally applied for loads of Saturday jobs and didn’t hear back from any of them. Did I disclose my disability, too right I did. Was I doing the right thing, hmmm well that’s debatable. You see I was bought up to be honest and forthcoming and therefore it didn’t even occur to me not to put down that I am profoundly deaf. Every weekend my sister would go off to work and I became more and more upset. Eventually I decided that I needed to try a different approach. I printed numerous copies of my CV and summoned my courage to go and physically knock on doors. I hoped that by asking to speak to the manager and physically handing in my CV whilst explaining that although I am deaf I am still perfectly capable of working would get me an interview and guess what, it worked! Within a day I had an interview, and got the job. I fully appreciate times have changed now and that approach might not work for everyone.
Now, I know it could sound like I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder, but believe me when I say I didn’t. I know that my CV was as good as my sisters and we used to help each other with Job applications so I knew that it couldn’t be because the application wasn’t good enough. The only difference between mine and hers was the disclosure of my disability and in reflection it’s really sad that by declaring I had a disability I dramatically reduced my odds of landing a job.
I am not a mind reader and can’t say exactly why disclosing a disability reduced my chances, but I can make educated guesses on my experience of working with various organisations over the years. It has been my experience in several jobs that there was concern about what I couldn’t do (which to be honest wasn’t a lot at all) and not enough about what I could do and the skillset that I had. There was concern that I wouldn’t be a good communicator because of my deafness when in fact I would argue that it’s because of my deafness that I am a good communicator. I am generalising somewhat here, but disabled people are used to having to overcome barriers and problem solving. We are determined and will persevere under challenging circumstances. Surely these are traits that any employer would want in their team.
I totally believe that it was the attitude towards my disability that hindered my job search, rather than the disability itself. Once I started my first job I proved that I was fully able to carry out the job role. This is why I strongly believe that any type of reform that aims to help disabled people get into work can only be successful if there is a campaign which aims to change perceptions of disability. Furthermore, there needs to be wide spread disability awareness training that removes that fear factor which surrounds disability and encourages respect and clear communication. Having worked in this field for some time as a trainer with Enhance the UK I can honestly say that this type of training makes a dramatic difference.