In the lead up to International Day of Disabled People, we are helping disabled employees to share their stories about success and inclusion at work through our #PurpleTalk campaign. We’re working with PurpleSpace members Fujitsu and KPMG with support from our charity partner Shaw Trust. Now it's our turn as our CEO Kate Nash shares her story of experiencing her disability confidence.
"I remember very clearly the moment I felt able to ask a colleague to carry something for me.
I had had arthritis since I was 15 - it was probably a decade and two hips and knee replacements later. I was managing the delivery of a huge international conference for my then employer. My team was exhausted. I was exhausted. My pain levels were through the roof. A box needed shifting out of the way in order to access the photocopier. I asked my PA if she could move it for me. I then went into the ladies loo and cried. I had never asked any colleague to do anything that you would expect most folk to do.
But what I remember most was feeling able to ask and the reaction it caused. We were a close team and had worked around the clock for months and months. They used to work with me until 10 or 11 pm at night. I would sometimes order in a pizza. And I spent our limited budget on taxis home for those working late. We were all pretty young. None of us were married, or had kids or significant other-halves. It was an exciting project. We all pulled together. My PA, lets call her Lucy, had said a few weeks earlier “you know, its ok to ask us to do things you can’t. You do things we can’t.” She hadn’t mentioned the arthritis. She hadn’t made a song and dance about the offer. She said it in a kind of mock lecturing way, which wasn’t her usual style so it made me listen the harder. She had said it just out of the blue when she had watched me struggle with something.
And so I had finally asked her to lift a box. And then I had gone into the loo and cried. It was the sheer effort of asking for something that most folk take for granted. I thought it would make me look needy, weak, fake, demanding… I am not sure which was the main culprit. But more than that it was the fact I had asked someone to do something while I was at work. Where you have to deliver your pound of flesh before you take a wage. It was long before the equalities legislation and the concept of workplace adjustments.
But what I remember more than anything was Lucy’s reaction when i came out of the loo. It was clear i had been crying as my face was blotched red. I will never know whether she assumed it was the pain or frustration of having to make a request. But she didn’t make a meal of it. It was just my life. And we had lots to do. And very little time. So she said “quick cuppa, ghetto blast, and back in we go.” I put the kettle on and she cranked up the radio to some pop hit of the day. We had our tea and then went back to work furiously.
What stayed with me was her reaction. The world hadn’t changed just because I had asked her to do something for me that I couldn’t. And she had scooped me up, albeit fleetingly with her statement. She hadn’t asked if I had wanted to stop for a cuppa. She had told us both we would. She took charge for a short while until normal service could be resumed. She had adjusted our relationship for just long enough for me to get back in the saddle.
Some readers may find my memory of this moment extra-ordinary but listening to the stories of disabled employees over and over I am clear that it takes folk a long time to gear up to ask for workplace adjustments, if at all. For some of us, we have no choice. Others create their own “workarounds”.
I have been intrigued by the government’s Disability Confidence campaign. I actually am a fan of the concept. The concept by which employers take a good long look at themselves and make changes to their policies, practices and procedures to make it easier for people to bring their authentic selves to work and ask for the adjustments they need. It doesn’t make me a fan of some of the other things this government has done to change the lives of disabled employees. And I am very clear the campaign needs sharper teeth - and some clear criterion for employers to know and benchmark their progress in developing culture change. Such as the criterion created by Business Disability Forum. But what I like is the opportunity it creates at an individual level. What is it that each of us, as disabled employees need to do to build #ourdisabilityconfidence? How do we know when we have reached a level of confident maturity in our ability to ask for adjustments? How can we practice building our resilience, while delivering the day job?
As we enter this third phase of change for disabled employees, where we are able to share and shape our own stories the more able we will be to encourage others to ask confidently for the adjustments they need. And in good time. Before they end up medically retiring or without the visit to the loo."Find out more about joining our #PurpleTalk here.
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