Navigating the workplace with a disability

Guest BloggerFinal Year, First Year, Graduates, Postgraduate, Second Year

A woman in wheelchair using a laptop

Be courageous and speak your needs!

Entering the big bad world of work and feeling a sense of independence can be daunting but also very liberating. Being able to provide for yourself is what we crave for in life and one of the only wishes parents have for their child is for them to be independent in this world – that means financially independent and accepted in society regardless of their disability. But navigating the workplace can be difficult for us all, but it can be even trickier if you have a disability or long-term health condition which can affect how we work, learn or communicate. Feeling heard, understood and valued in a workplace is crucial, and when you do not have a work environment that accommodates your needs or allows you to thrive it can feel very isolating, frustrating and demotivating.

I remember my first experience of going for an interview. I felt nervous and excited, and I had many thoughts going through my head such as: ‘Have I researched the company enough?’, ‘Do I know enough about the role?’, ‘Do I have enough examples for the competency questions to share?’, and then there were the thoughts of ‘Will they discriminate against me because of the way I look?’, ‘What would they think if I ask for reasonable adjustments which I need for my interview?’ or ‘Will they provide me with flexible working arrangements?’ and finally ‘Should I ask about how inclusive they are for people with disabilities – what support do they offer?’

I was even more nervous when asking for reasonable adjustments that I needed such as an ergonomic chair, extra time for doing assessments and a laptop if this would involve a written exercise. Even though I am quite a confident person and good at articulating my needs, my fear was actually how the recruiter or organisation would respond, and I had thoughts like ‘What if they rejected me because of my disability?’ or ‘How will they support me with my needs?’.

What I learnt was that, although my worries and fears were valid at the time, many companies (at least the ones I have worked for!) are diverse and inclusive with supporting their employees with disabilities or long-term health conditions. There are a number of support systems available that help people with disabilities navigate their way around the workplace. And some of these are:

  • Occupational Health
  • Workplace Adjustments
  • Employee Resource Groups
  • Health & Wellbeing Champions
  • Peer Mentoring Schemes
  • Inclusion & Diversity Champions
  • Partnerships with external organisations that focus on helping companies to become a disability confident organisation

Over the last few years, and even more recently this year, there has been much more emphasis on how companies can become more diverse and inclusive with supporting their employees to be able to bring their whole selves to work. It is in companies’ best interests and a priority to ensure that they have a diverse pool of talented employees at all levels within the organisations. The level and range of unique skills and perspectives that people of diverse backgrounds bring to a company is invaluable and beneficial, as not only will it help to bring value to their customers and grow the company, we get to learn from others. We get to learn about the different layers that we are all made up of which will help us with being creative and thoughtful on how we approach problems/challenges and other people.  

Over the past five years within my career, I not always felt included in the workplace and this is because I have had to prove to others that I have a disability, as it’s invisible disability and I need support. There are other times when I have had to make certain aspects of my disability visible, and I have had people question me. For example, I need to take more frequent breaks to ensure I do not get too stiff sitting in one position for more than 30 minutes, and I either have to stand or walk around. I wear trainers and I need to make sure that my orthopaedic insoles fit into them, which provide me with the stability and support I need to walk and keep my balance. And when my back and ankles are very weak, I need to wear my ankle splints and back brace, which give me the support I need. Having to constantly listen to the remarks of ‘Oh how come you have to wear trainers?’ or ‘Why are you so special you can wear trainers?’ or ‘Hasn’t any told you off yet?’ and having to constantly prove myself that I get regular chest infections during the winter due to my dysarthria and weak immune system has been very exhausting and it had at times impacted my mental health. However, through my experiences I have learnt a number of things that have helped me to navigate the workplace and embrace my disability as well as helping to educate others around me. Here are some of my tips I would like to share with you all:

  1. Be courageous and speak your needs – share with others what you require to make you do your job fairly and comfortably e.g. whether you require reasonable adjustments during an interview such as an ergonomic chair, extra time during an assessment, a scribe or an interpreter.
  2. Make sure you get in contact with your Occupational Health department. This can be useful if you are not sure what adjustments you need and, if you do, they will help to support you in the best way possible and inform your line manager of your reasonable adjustments.
  3. Have a conversation with your line manager and share with them how much you feel comfortable to share about your disability and what you need to make you do your job effectively and comfortably.
  4. Join an Employee Resource Group/Network. These are voluntary-led networks for diversity groups such as LGBTQ+, EMBRACE, Disability, Women in Leadership, are just a few. These are great networks to help connect people with the same interests and/or backgrounds and to help to raise awareness and educate others within the organisation. They’re also a safe space for employees to share their voice and needs, and network with like-minded people.
  5. Be curious and ask questions! Learn about others around you, attend external or internal events on diversity topics. It’s good to ask your peers or network questions, but what usually stops us from asking question is the fear of offending someone or asking the wrong questions – but we as humans are made of feelings so we will know when a person is being genuine or not, so don’t be afraid of asking questions. It will help us normalise the conversation on disabilities in the workplace and learn and grow together.
  6. Seek support for yourself – learn more about your condition and how it affects you and don’t be too hard on yourself. You may be experiencing new symptoms and have to learn to come to accept it and how it will affect you and your work – be patient. See if the company has any professional support such as Employees Assistance Programme or Mental Health counselling.
  7. Embrace and celebrate your uniqueness  and own your disability. You are unique and have very different way of doing things and different perspectives that others will not understand, so use it to help educate others around you. The world needs to hear your voice and for changes to be made to ensure people with different abilities feel included and are included. Be the change you want to see in this world!

I hope sharing my tips and insights of navigating the workplace can be useful to you! Remember your disability is your strength and sharing your voice and speaking your needs is what will make you and others feel like they can bring their whole selves to work.  

You can also read my other blog post about how I use my disability to make a difference in the workplace.

Photo by Marcus Aurelius from Pexels

Priyaneet

Written by Priyaneet Kainth, a Computing for Business graduate (2014)