A common perception of a disabled person is that of a wheelchair user. This is, however, only one example, it does not take account of people who have hidden impairments, or the barriers that disable people. Socio-economic, cultural, physical, educational and attitudinal barriers are what truly disable people, not individual impairments.
I have an undergraduate degree in historical studies and a post-graduate diploma in social housing, but as a disabled person, who has encountered all of these barriers, I have spent the majority of my working life in administrative roles.
My experience is, sadly, not uncommon amongst disabled people, and that is why Disabled Persons Organisations (DPO) such as Glasgow Centre for Inclusive Living (GCIL) have evolved to support disabled people achieve meaningful careers.
I am Project Officer with the Standards and Indicators team within Healthcare Improvement Scotland (HIS). The post is supported by the GCIL Professional Careers Programme, and is funded by the Scottish Government and NHSScotland. The programme has been developed in response to a recognition that disabled people are often underemployed. It supports 22 people across all NHS boards, all of whom are qualified to a high level. I am probably the least qualified amongst those on the programme, many have multiple degrees and PhDs, but we all have the experience of applying for jobs with little to no success. It is not unusual for people on the programme to have applied for hundreds of jobs.
I gained my place on the Scottish Government-backed programme through interview selection and it was quickly obvious to me, after taking up my post, that it would have a positive effect on my career. My aim is not only to build my experience, but also to help my team meet its objectives and show others what is like to work alongside a disabled person. People often have pre-conceived ideas of what disabled people are capable of achieving, without realising that lived experience often leads to insight and the development of valuable skills.
Colleagues have been supportive and welcoming from my first day in post, but I have, at times, had to allay some commonly held fears about interacting with disabled people. One example, from when I first started, was that some people considered me a fire risk, as if I might combust! This, I suspect, is because people may have never worked with a disabled person before. It is understandable that they might have been unsure how to ensure health and safety, without causing me offence. It was my role to educate and not criticise anyone for their lack of awareness. A similar awareness raising opportunity came when, at first, colleagues would speak to my Personal Assistant, rather than to me. I used these instances to introduce myself, as I understood that people may have limited, or no experience of interacting with disabled people.
I think it is important that it is not the sole responsibility of disabled people, like me, to promote equality within the organisation. It is vital employers promote a culture of inclusiveness, supported by policies that attract skilled and qualified disabled people into the workplace. I know that my time with Healthcare Improvement Scotland has contributed to this ambition. The fact that I get on with my job and have a laugh with my colleagues, like anyone else, has the potential to positively change attitudes towards disabled people. I experience this every day, as a feel respected and valued by those in my team and the wider organisation.
I am conscious, however, that I am a wheelchair user and represent what people commonly associate with disabled people. It is important, I think, to also promote a positive environment in which people with hidden impairments feel comfortable choosing whether or not to disclose the fact that are disabled people. Those with mental health problems, for instance, often do not reveal their impairment, because of historically negative cultural and societal attitudes. It is my belief that employers such as HIS should foster an environment where people feel comfortable regardless of whether or not they have an impairment.
I have eight months left until the end of my two-year placement and I have felt comfortable from my first day. This is in no small part due to the support of my manager, Fiona Wardell, and my fantastic colleagues in the Standards and Indicators team.
I have been able to take on ever increasing responsibility, because my confidence has grown to a point where I am willing and able to at least try anything. I have, during my time with HIS, produced reports, equality impact assessments, and now I have responsibility for my first project. These are all things that, when I first started, I would have said to myself: ‘how the hell am I going to do this?’ The positive and supportive culture within my team and the wider evidence directorate has encouraged me to attempt anything – I know I will not get thrown out of the door for trying and possibly failing.
My level of confidence is now sufficiently high that I would be disappointed with myself if did not seize every opportunity. This has not always been the case. I have worked in many public and third sector jobs where I worried about failing and being perceived as an imposter. This feeling, from time to time, persists: my inner monologue telling me that I need to prove myself, but that is just me. I am my own worst critic.
I am approaching the final stage of my placement with HIS and I am now thinking about the future. I will be forever grateful for the opportunities given to me by my colleagues, as I now feel that I have a real chance of securing a meaningful career. The most important lesson I have learned during my time with HIS is never be afraid to try, if you do not push yourself you will never grow.
Allan Barr is a Project Officer within the Standards and Indicators Team of Healthcare Improvement Scotland.