Like many of you, I found the Olympics and Paralympics inspiring, especially the Paralympians who, through illness or injury, experienced a loss and overcame that to become an elite athlete. Several said they would not turn back the clock, the illness/injury opened up new opportunities for them that they would otherwise not have had. As a result of the Paralympics, I hope more people who have experienced that kind of loss can find or create opportunities that they find enriching.
So I sit here and wonder if the Paralympians can do that, what could we do? How we can inspire and leave a legacy of diversity and inclusion in the workplace for people with disabilities and chronic conditions.
I am interested in this due to personal experience and working with this
population through the Transverse Myelitis Society. (www.myelitis.org.uk) Some people had to give up work due to how the disability/condition impacts them – partial or full paralysis or severe weakness, fatigue, neuropathic pain,
incontinence and depression to name a few of the residual symptoms. Others can continue working. It gives them a purpose and an opportunity to transcend the disability/condition. But it can be a challenge. Aside from getting to and from work on public transport, this is a snapshot of what people face.
If a condition means that a person has fatigue or gets tired more easily, keeping up with the ever-quickening pace of work can be difficult. Weekends and days off are used to recuperate.
There may be parts of the job, which the person loved, that s/he may no longer physically be able to do. Some may have on-going pain. You know when you sit on your leg or foot for too long and you get pins and needles? Imagine having that 24/7. Changes in weather can affect pain levels too. There is medication, but it may only partially work, and there can be unpleasant side effects.
Some conditions are invisible. The person may look fine, but inside feel bad. This does not coincide with society’s expectations of illness/disability. It must be visible for you to be considered sick/disabled. A visible illness/condition is
acceptable. An invisible one can quickly bring out people’s biases and assumptions of illness. For example, ‘They look fine! How could they go on
holiday but can’t come into work? They don’t pull their weight.’ These people
can be marginalised and may not always receive support to resolve these issues.
A very tough challenge is when the individual has been doing well in the job but after the condition/disability’s onset the line manager refuses to allow risk
assessments or consider changes to the job and makes it difficult for the person to take time off for doctor appointments. A grievance is lodged and
eventually upheld. The person is then sent for a medical assessment and the
recommendation is made that s/he be medically retired. The person wanted to keep working. Or maybe what is required by law is followed but no one ever asks the person how s/he is doing. The resulting stress can exacerbate the medical condition. Sometimes, it gets too much and people feel the only option left is to leave the workforce. The financial and emotional impact of this can be huge.
This is the reality for some. Next time I’ll focus what is being done where
employees with disabilities/chronic conditions experience something much more positive. In the meantime, I would like to hear about your experiences of supporting people with disabilities or chronic conditions in the workplace and the challenges you face. Leave a comment here or email me on