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Disability Narratives

Some of the people we spoke to told us about situations when it was difficult to identify solutions that would enable them to carry overcome the difficulties they were experiencing. These involved informal and ultimately formal processes. We also asked people about the extent to which they felt that disability legislation and rights had shaped their experiences more generally.

Awareness and experiences of disability legislation and rights

We asked people about their knowledge of and experiences of the Equality Act (2010), using the following summary for guidance:

"The Equality Act legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace and wider society. This means that you can seek legal action against indirect discrimination to disability, or against discrimination arising from disability. This Act also makes it more difficult for disabled people to be unfairly screened out when applying for jobs, by restricting circumstances in which employers can ask job applicants questions about disability or health."*

Click for Richard's interviewRichard explains the importance of disability rights in helping him feel confident to claim their entitlements.

 

We found that there was a range of experiences of knowledge of the Equality Act:

  • Roberta did not feel she had "the same opportunities as everyone else" when it came to flexible working.
  • Liz said she knew "nothing at all, I think I'm completely ignorant around all of these things, and I still am" about the disability legislation and guidance. However, she had started to do "a little bit of reading through more disabled activist websites, rather than government websites or anything".
  • Maeve said, "I haven't really had to draw on it here no. But I know it's there."
  • Jo reflected that, "unless you think there's a reason to know about [disability rights], you won't necessarily know about them".
  • Verity explained "I know a little bit about it. Not necessarily useful, but it's made me feel a bit more militant."
  • Paul said, "I'm quite aware of [disability rights]. I haven't really had much need to draw upon them. But I think it has made a significant difference. I think it probably has made a significant difference for me. But I haven't really had to draw on it too heavily."
  • Jan explained "I would feel confident to pursue [my rights] if I needed to".

The existence and awareness of legislation was not in itself always enough for people to feel empowered. As Verity said, "It feels like there's some legal legislation which should make things a bit easier for me to live and work with my disability, but it doesn't always work like that." As we have explored in other sections (Homepage), it was how legislation, guidance and policy, and the interpersonal dynamic of the working environment were felt to all come together that made the greatest difference to living and working well with a condition or disability. As Charlotte reflected on her situation, "I think there are some very genuine people, individuals, who care and are wanting to help. But the reality of the institutional set-up I think makes it very difficult for that to happen."

Click for Verity's interviewVerity reflects on how aspiring to have good management and staff welfare policies might naturally encompass disability rights.

 

Click for Jo's interviewJo explains that, although she considered herself to be aware of her rights, this was not enough in itself to feel empowered to express them.

 

Click for Maria's interviewMaria reflects that she hopes managers will support her because they want to help her work, rather than because of a legal obligation.

 

Click for Kevin's interviewKevin explains that legislation is only one part of normalising disabled people in the workplace.

 

Click for John's interviewWhile disability rights are important for John, he hoped potential employers will focus on what he can do.

 

Reasonable adjustments

We also explored people's experience of seeking 'reasonable adjustments', summarised as:
"Reasonable adjustments include changes during the recruitment process, doing things another way, making physical changes, letting disabled people work somewhere else, changing equipment, allowing employees who became disabled to make a phased return to work, offering employees training opportunities, recreation and refreshment facilities." **

Reasonable adjustments should have the effect of overcoming a disability-related barrier and enabling a person to carry out their role.

Click for Ruth's interviewRuth explains that what counts on a reasonable adjustment depends on a number of factors.

 

Click for Mary's interviewMary familiarised herself with her disability rights, which helped give her confidence that she was using the right language.

 

Click for Lyn's interviewLyn explains that she has come to learn what making a reasonable adjustment means, but has not had to rely on legislation.

 

As with disability rights in general, some people found that the language of reasonable adjustments was just part of more general good management practices. Jo Z reflected, "I don't think anyone's ever used [the term 'reasonable adjustments'] formally. It's all been very sort of informal, still following probably what the policies and guidance suggest. But it's just been framed in a very open and friendly and informal way."

Reflections on capability processes

Where the initial support arrangements prove insufficient to enable someone to carry out their role successfully, input may be needed from a range of people. Sometimes case meetings and conferences are held to bring together relevant people including the staff member, their managers, department and central HR staff, the Occupational Physician, the Staff Disability Advisor and union representatives. This is an opportunity to work together to explore possible solutions. It may, however, be a stressful experience for the person concerned.

In some cases the standard of a person's work is high, but their department may take the view that it cannot accommodate a requested reasonable adjustment, such as working part-time, on operational grounds. If no alternative reasonable adjustment can be proposed, discussions may be started on options including supporting the person in finding an alternative role within the department or the whole University.

In other cases there may be concerns about the standard of work or absence levels of the person. In these cases the department, with advice from HR, may initiate performance management measures, which might include giving the person clear objectives, monitoring their progress, and issuing a warning if they fail to improve their performance.

The medical capability process is a formal process to deal with situations where someone is unable to carry out their work to a satisfactory standard for health or disability reasons, and no further reasonable adjustments can be made. Advice is sought from the Occupational Health as to whether the person might be able to perform an alternative role. If this is a possibility, the individual may be assisted in applying for alternative roles. For some people early retirement on health grounds may be a possibility. Ultimately the University or College cannot continue to employ someone who is unable to carry out their role to the expected standard (see Resources).

We will not detail here the specifics of people's experiences with the medical capability process. Rather, we explore how going through the process helped or supported them (or not), and how it made them feel about being having a long term condition or disability at work.

Click for Charlotte's interviewCharlotte explains how the capability process added to her anxiety.

 

Frances found the process to be an added "distraction" which negatively affected her day-to-day working. She recalled "the occupational health doctor said performance management is bad for people like me you feel stressed, and you make mistakes when you're stressed."

Click for Charlotte's interviewCharlotte reflects that the capability process came to feel adversarial.

 

A noticeable theme to some people's experiences was that they were unclear what the medical capability process was meant to achieve. This uncertainty allowed several possible outcomes to arise, including disciplinary and dismissal outcomes, which helped to bring into question the supportive aim of the process, as Charlotte said, "I felt I was still playing a guessing game". Frances recalled that at the start of the process, "I felt like I was going to get sacked" and even when provided support, she still felt, "they were just following the procedures so that they could kind of go onto the disciplinary procedures, really." In turn this uncertainty and threat to her role made Frances "feel quite aggressive" to her department.

Click for Charlotte's interviewCharlotte recognised that being open and clear about the meeting’s aims needs to be handled sensitively.

 

Uncertainty can affect the period after the meetings, when the new support mechanisms and adjustments are put in place. One person was allowed to go part-time on a trial basis, but this caused some anxiety as she explained, "And you're just vulnerable, basically, at that time. Yeah. Very vulnerable". During this time she experienced some difficulties but she felt in a dilemma. She explained she sought to "avoid conflict as much as you could. You know just want to be resolved amicably. It was just a matter of minimising the crisis. [But] being very frustrated because you don't know whether to cry [on] the person that you think will help [you] [but they are also] the very one who you're fighting with. That was for me [was] difficult, because you don't want to make a big deal of the problem." Further meetings did help and she was able to look back on the process to say "That the crisis helped more with understanding. It's one where the turned out to be a good opportunity, in terms of the relationship".

Several of the people we interviewed who struggled in their roles subsequently moved to new roles where it was easier to accommodate their needs, and where they are flourishing.

* www.gov.uk/guidance/equality-act-2010-guidance
** www.gov.uk/reasonable-adjustments-for-disabled-workers

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