Monday, 2 May 2011

Blogging against disablism: the good, the bad and the ugly

Yesterday was Blogging Against Disablism Day. A full list of the blogs produced in this vein can be found here. I reproduce with permission the following from Hannah Ensor as it is one of the best accounts I have read of the hidden discrimination people face every day. With disabled people on the front line of the government's attacks, it deserves as wide an audience as possible.

I don't often blog entirely on a disabled theme, but today, for "Blogging against disablism day" I will.

As I read through other peoples blog entries I realised something.

I do not to expect equality.

Yes, in law, under the DDA there is a foundation for equality for disabled people. But in society there is so much attitude that is, simply put, extremely prejudice.

I used to work for local government. When I got my job I appeared to be an average 22yr old, but 2 years later I was wheelchair reliant with multiple complex medical issues.

For example, at work I experienced the Good, the Bad, and the downright Ugly.

The Good

From my direct colleagues I experienced a phenomenal level of real equality. I was just 'one of the team'. When someone offered to get me a drink it was on the same casual level that they offered to make one for my neighbors. When I needed specific help (like assistance relocating a dislocated wrist) I could ask and help would be given without fuss, without any debt being placed on my shoulders.

Over half of my direct colleagues had close personal experience of disability. And the rest of the office followed their lead. I was first and foremost a team member. Secondly, slightly mouthy. Thirdly, a great shot with rubber bands....and somewhere at the end of the list of my contributions to office life would be "wheelchair user" and "disabled". Unless it came to a flight of stairs - then I would be "A colleague who is jolly well going to get to this meeting, so facilities team, pull your finger out." - And the facilities staff in general were marvelous at helping without leaving me 'in their debt'.

So I had a circle of safety. Of respect. Of equality.

But this circle was small. Very small.

The Bad

For almost a year our office was 2nd floor in an old building. One destined for demolition. My direct colleagues remained the same, but suddenly I was reliant on the corporate body to allow me equality. I don't think the 'corporate body' ever saw me as a colleague, valued team member, or someone who got achieved a lot. Only as an annoyance.

The lift kept breaking. Somedays it would not go at all and I would be unable to reach my desk - and have to return home. Other times I'd be stranded upstairs, praying it would be fixed before night-time. Usually it would stop an inch or 2 above or below the ground floor so that I could not exit on my wheels without dislocating my shoulder or wrists, so I had to have someone help me out of the office every day.

The DDA talks about 'reasonable adjustments' - the building was going to be knocked down so it was unreasonable to demand they spend £100K on a new one. So I accepted the corporate refusal to do anything, and was grateful for the fact that I was still employed.

I had trouble opening many of the internal fire doors. I even had to telephone a colleague to open the bathroom door for me as I got stuck inside. There were raised door thresholds for me to contend with, and the kitchen layout meant I think I tried using it twice during the entire year. Access to the staff canteen was up a ridiculously steep ramp which deftly took my independence. But as I said, the building was going to be knocked down so it was unreasonable to ask for any changes at all.

It was only when I broke down in tears when talking to my union rep about how tough I was finding it having no independence that minor changes started to be made - and my colleagues fought the system and got some of these cheaper issues sorted. One colleague even fitted an air-con unit for me himself because repeated requests to the powers that be had got nothing but promises.

I no longer expected equality. I expected ignorance. I expected complaints that my requests would inconvenience others, or cost money that would be better used elsewhere. I felt guilty that by asking for easy and safe access to a toilet, my line manager had lost several thousand pounds of an already tight budget. She never told me this, but I was frequently reminded by HR and certain members of the facilities team (i.e. the ones not mentioned earlier).

And above all I had learnt that if I wanted to keep my job, then it was me who would need to compromise. That if I asked for changes, I would make my team - who's work I was proud of and who I hold in great regard - suffer.

When I tell this to people, I am still surprised at them being shocked.

The Ugly

A year was spent planning the move to my final office. It had been specially refurbished, costing hundreds of thousands of pounds. I put in my disability related requirements as soon as I could - approx 7 months in advance. I asked for wheelchair access, and for a cool working environment with air conditioning (a cool environment was medically necessary)

There were meetings, discussions, floor plan drafts and re-drafts. Access issues were raised in disability forums, the health and safety working group and senior management team meetings. Including a meeting in public - THE MAIN RECEPTION AREA - to discuss my personal disability issues. I repeatedly gave the same information only to receive plans that made no allowance for it, or to be told that I couldn't expect the move to be planned around me. There were promises that the temperature 'would be fine' ' would be sorted' and a point blank refusal to allow me to see a member of the occupational health team - the very people qualified to come up with practical solutions to the barriers I faced, and part of the same organisation.

I was repeatedly told I was being unreasonable and that I shouldn't use the office move issues as a political thing. Political? I just wanted to continue in the job I love, and not loose what health I have over an office move. One week I spent most of my working hours in tears as I received email after email denying me equality, independence, and creating a scenario which I knew could take away my job and my health.

And what did I get out of it?

I had got them to change the thick, wheelchair-halting entrance lobby carpet so I could get into and out of the office on my own.


I had no access to the kitchen - they couldn't change the door "just for me", and "She couldn't use it anyway because it is narrow."

I couldn't access the canteen because "It would cost too much to replace the carpet on the upstairs landing". Even though there was an accessible service lift that would have been perfect - they only needed to tell me it existed and let me use it!

According to Human Resourses management, I was "being unreasonable to ask for access to a kitchen". And Health and Safety informed me that I was "Not allowed to eat hot food at my desk, or have a kettle I could reach nearby because there couldn't be one rule for me and one for everyone else."

They hadn't even serviced the air conditioning, let alone fixed it. The only chance I had was to move my desk to a small, isolated office at the far end of the building, which had a semi-functioning cooling system. I couldn't open the door to it and worked in there alone. Most days, every time I left my box I put my health at risk due to the warmth in the general office - to use the bathroom or see another human face. Sometimes even my box got to warm and I would end sat in the cold outside for an hour before recovering enough to drive home safely.

Eventually I got to see Occupational Health. They had cheap, workable solutions for practically everything. But it was too late. The constant strain that my faulty autonomic system had gone through with the temperature issues (and the stress) had taken its toll. I collapsed. Thoroughly. Unable to lift my head or speak coherently I went 'off sick'.

To add insult to injury, Facilities Management proceeded to install the air con unit that I had been asking for since day 1 of planning the move, at a cost of a few hundred pounds.

But it was too late.

I am now medically retired. And my direct manger and line manager almost lost their jobs because they championed my cause and fought for my right to work in a safe environment.

And yet the other day someone effectively told me "but you don't get discriminated against like gays do". Really? Is the above equality?

On paper I may be equal, but in reality when faced with large organisations and ignorant individuals, society says I am not. I did not even have the right to be safe. Let alone employed.

I have my small circle of respect. Of equality.

Please use your attitude to expand this circle, and do not take it from me.