“It gives you a sense of normality”: The changing landscape of disabilities in work and the role and responsibilities of employers

A man who spent 17 years of his life recuperating from a serious brain injury, and who now works as a part-time peer support worker, has discussed the impact of employment on disabled people, including the challenges business owners must tackle in order to improve working opportunities for those with a physical or mental disability.

Dean Harding’s life was changed forever when he was assaulted and suffered a brain injury in 1997. The injuries left him unable to work for a large period of his adult life.

And in the company of an occupational therapist and employment lawyer, Dean has recounted his long journey back into employment, while also discussing his first-hand experiences and work with others facing similar challenges as part of Irwin Mitchell’s latest ‘Let’s Talk About It’ podcast episode.

The Podcast series explores the challenges faced by disabled people in their day-to-day lives, and previous episodes have discussed themes including travel and sport.

In this latest episode, Dean is joined by occupational therapist Mandy Richmond and employment lawyer Emilie Cole from Irwin Mitchell, who each offered their own insight into the positive psychological impact employment can have on disabled people, including the many legal obligations and obstacles faced by employers.

The benefits of working

Dean explained how it took him 17 years to recover from the serious injuries he suffered and feel confident enough to seek and earn employment, while at the same time becoming a father for the first time.

He says that landmark moment of getting back into the working world gave him a huge boost, and the feeling of ‘normality’ and self-worth he had been seeking since the incident.

He explained: “I just didn’t think I was capable. [My job] gives me a sense of feeling like a normal person, although I’ve still got my disabilities.

“If you’ve got a disability, it’s portrayed that you’re useless, you can’t do nothing. I was told by my consultant neurologist that I would never have a meaningful job. To me, I’ve now got a meaningful life, so I sort of blew him out of the water, you know?”

Dean’s experience provides a vivid snapshot of the wider narrative and perceptions of disabled people and employment.

He adds that “the feeling of limitation and of not being able to do a good job can have a hugely negative effect on confidence and state of mind”.

Occupational therapist Mandy Richmond is also a keen advocate of aiding disabled people’s return to the working world and challenges the stigmas typically associated with disabilities.

Mandy said: “I would say the psychological element is probably more important than anything else. That sense of being purposeful, productive, contributing toward society, and having something to say about what you do and how you do it.

“There is another very important reason why people need work too, and that’s the social aspect of going to work, having somebody to talk to and having something to talk about.”

Making the necessary adjustments

Dean also spoke about “getting the balance right” between the employee and employer, and ensuring that the relationship and dynamic works for both parties.

Factors such as working hours, physical and mental capacity must be taken into account when businesses look at taking a disabled candidate on to ensure expectations are at the correct level and that the necessary support is provided.

Companies are required by law to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate disabled staff members, but it is important that the candidates are open and honest about their own capacity before applying for roles.

He explained: “Take it slow, and gradually if you start from minimal hours, and gradually if you feel capable, build it up.”

Mandy added: “That would be a good starting point for anybody who wants to return to work. Have a very clear understanding of your own ability and disability, what you can and what you can’t do so that there’s this perfect fit or match.”

Employment lawyer Emilie Cole from Irwin Mitchell echoed those sentiments, while emphasising the importance of transparency, to make the hiring process more straightforward for both sides.

Emilie said: “I always advise clients to be open and honest, and disclose their disability from the outset. Then you can talk about what reasonable adjustments you need to support you in the interview and application process, because legally under the Equality Act you’re covered as an applicant.”

However, the decision about what is ‘reasonable’ sits with the employer, which can cause challenges to disabled people trying to land a job role, and create a messy grey area.

Emilie explained: “The difficulty sometimes is the mismatch between an employer understanding or taking on their responsibilities under the Equality Act and actually fulfilling them to the benefit of that individual.”

Accessibility is another key factor for applicants with a physical or psychological disability.

These difficulties are illustrated by data showing that 75% of disabled people[1] have resigned themselves to leaving the premises of a business or shop due to accessibility issues.

And further research reveals that nine in ten small or medium businesses don’t provide disability lift access[2] while 81% do not offer disability parking.

Educating employers

Despite legal obligations requiring businesses to support disabled workers, Dean notes the lingering reluctance of some employers to hire disabled people, despite the qualities and wider positive impact people with disabilities can deliver to a business.

And Emilie explained how someone with a disability can in fact add a unique quality to a team that others might not, while also helping to develop a business’s understanding of disabilities.

She said: “If you’ve got people with various different cognitive skills in a team, they’re more likely to be more creative and come up with solutions a lot quicker.

“And if you’re a service provider that employs disabled people, you will be a lot more in tune to what disabled people need and will then benefit from the service that you give.”

Mandy added that she is optimistic about the future and believes that attitudes are changing.

She said: “There has been a very positive shift in the UK towards having a greater understanding of people with disability. And I wonder if that also came through from the Paralympic sports, the growth within that industry and people’s attention drawn to that.

“So, although not perfect, it’s certainly moving in the right direction.”

Reflecting on the discussion, Neil Whiteley, a specialist serious injury lawyer at Irwin Mitchell said: “It’s clear that being able to get a job or return to the working world has immeasurable benefits for disabled people, and we see from working with our seriously injured clients that the support structures in place from independent organisations are helping to facilitate these transitions for people.

“However, there is no doubt that there is still some education needed for employers in the UK about the unique benefits you can gain from employing someone with a disability.

“Although the landscape is definitely changing for the better, more can still be done to overcome the stigma, to help open the doors of opportunity to the disabled community, empower them in work and, in turn, help businesses thrive.”

You can listen to the podcast here: https://www.irwinmitchell.com/letstalkaboutit/episode-03-employment