It's Disability Awareness Day on July 16th. As a person with a disability I want to tell you about my experience and highlight the importance of the day.
A life-changing accident
I remember the date that my life changed forever.
It was Friday 6 April 2010, the date that a friend of mine was celebrating his engagement with a party in a function room in an old-fashioned sports hall.
At the time I worked for HMRC in Newcastle, and in addition had my own business as a photographer, which I loved. I remember saying my good-byes at the party, leaving around 10pm as I needed to be up early the next day as I was going to be promoting my photography business at a local wedding fayre.
I turned to speak to my husband as we walked downstairs and I felt my foot slip over the edge of a steep concrete step. A searing pain shot through my leg, and my face cracked off cold concrete. A split second later I felt my leg disconnect. That was it. A freak accident that resulted in my femur breaking left devastating results.
Needing to use a wheelchair for the majority of my recovery period gave me my first insight into what it was like to live with a disability. Suddenly, using public transport was an issue. I couldn’t jump on and off buses anymore – if I wanted to go out, I needed to make sure there was someone to help me. Visits to friends and arranging much longed-for nights out had to be planned, phoning ahead to make sure that I’d be able to access buildings.
The onset of agoraphobia and panic attacks, brought on by the trauma of my accident, meant that I had to deal with mental health issues as well as physical effects from my accident.
Back to work
Returning to work, and subsequently moving location, really enlightened me to all the things that are in place for those of us with disabilities, and the things that still need to be done better. I was able to attend work on a phased return for the first month, which helped a lot. Once my course of rehabilitation exercises ended I was able to have some invaluable physiotherapy as a result of being a member of a workplace health scheme.
Fast forward a few years and I started to work on a team which uses Business Architecture to help deliver DWP’s future vision. I’d wanted to relocate to Sheffield as well as moving into the Digital area for some time, and I was delighted when I was presented with the opportunity to do both. My disability wasn’t seen as an issue during any part of the process, quite the opposite in that I was encouraged to speak up and ask for any support I needed.
Things are different from a location perspective – working in an older building presents issues. My team are located on the third floor, which means that I’d need to negotiate two flights of stairs if it was ever necessary to evacuate the building, so I’ve been accommodated on the first floor instead and meet with my team regularly to keep in touch. Also, because of all the things that are in place in government to support people with disabilities, I was able to work from home whilst sorting a practical solution for everyone involved. I was offered the help I needed on my return, and my line management and colleagues were absolutely brilliant about everything, which really helped.
As someone who became disabled later in life (I’d managed to get to the age of 48 without sustaining anything serious, then managed to break the biggest, strongest bone in my body – I don’t do things by halves!) I needed to come to terms with my compromised mobility very quickly.
Suddenly, all of the things I’d implemented in the past as a manager, like Occupational Health Assessments, Reasonable Adjustments and Personal Evacuation Plans, were applicable to me - which I found difficult to accept. Disability doesn’t provide an automatic acceptance of the condition that it inflicts, nor does it equip any of us with a thick skin.
A positive attitude
Everyone I’ve known with a health-related ‘something’ to deal with, whether it’s mental or physical, also has pride. This is where I find the attitude of my colleagues, and the department as a whole, to be so important. I can honestly say that I’m not treated differently from anyone else, except in the most positive way when we’re arranging team meetings or when I need a regular supply of coffee! I am, quite simply, me, and the fact that I need crutches to walk doesn’t change anyone’s perception of me as a person.
I really feel that this attitude is borne out of the accepting, inclusive culture that we encourage as a department.
It’s great that DWP has signed up to ‘Disability Confident’, a scheme that is designed to help employers recruit and retain disabled people and people with health conditions, recognising and harnessing their skills and talent. And it’s encouraging that we recognise dates like Disability Awareness Day, focusing on what people can do and the skills that they can bring to a role.
These things really do help to break down barriers by generating conversation and awareness.
As an employee of DWP who happens to have a disability, I feel that it’s all about everyone maintaining a positive attitude and working together to identify the positive effects that all of us, able-bodied or not, can bring to our teams.
Acknowledging that there are some of us who may need a bit of extra support, whether that’s through the supply of specialist equipment or maybe just the offer of bringing a coffee to our desk now and again! It makes all the difference from isolating someone with a disability to recognising them as a valued colleague with a lot to offer.
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