by Jessica May. Chief Executive Officer and founder of Enabled Employment.
I was asked a question the other day that made me think. I get told constantly that I have a different way of thinking, and it is so different that it’s enlightening. But why is that? I always thought I followed the common principles of common sense, but after mulling it over and chatting with my staff, who are also like minded, I thought I should write something about it.
The question I was asked was ’do you have a breakdown in your database on the severities and types of disabilities your candidates have?’ My immediate response was a bit of a laugh and ’no, of course not!’, but in my head I was thinking ‘Why are they asking me this?’
After a moment I realised I was going to have to elaborate on why, because it was assumed it would be a standard information category we would record.
My response was, and is, I don’t care what a person’s disability is, I care about who is the best candidate for the job. I explained that I could give a breakdown on the skills people have, because when we want to fill a role we need this information, and I also need to understand our skills base for when I’m talking with an employer about what we can offer them as a recruitment agency. But why does it matter what the person’s disability is?
Yes, should the candidate get the role or have special requirements for the interview this might be relevant information, but again, we don’t need to know what someone’s disability is, we just need to know what flexibility or reasonable adjustment they may need to perform the best they possibly can in the role.
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Which brings me to another thing we are constantly asked, ‘what is the candidate’s disability?’ We respond with ‘it doesn’t matter’ and we are met with ‘but I need to know to make sure I do everything right for the candidate’.
We explain that this doesn’t matter for two reasons: firstly, because when you disclose someone’s diagnostic label (always with the permission of the individual concerned) the unconscious or conscious bias beast will raise it head. And secondly, everyone is an individual and all an employer needs to know is what that person needs to do the job at the best of their ability. I’ll get to the first one later, but let’s think about the second one.
One thing we do for businesses and candidates before anyone starts in a role (or attends an interview if it’s needed), is broker accessibility requirements. We include information and an open platform to discuss what is needed for the candidate to perform at their best, this can include written information, separate conversations between a candidate and a business, right down to an open conversation if this is what the candidate wants. Ninety five per cent of these requests are for flexibility: for example, I need to start and finish earlier as twilight can affect my vision, or, I need to start late because I have anxiety in the morning, or even, I can work four days in the office but need to work one day from home as I am too exhausted from travel each day.
Yes, occasionally we do have physical access requirements that needs attention, but these are the minority, but that seems to be the thing that businesses worry about the most. They worry about the cost, the inconvenience, whether it will be enough? Again this is not such a big deal. My Media Liaison and Communications Manager worked in a government office which refused to contemplate a request for a change to the heavy manual open fire doors between the office and the kitchen. Sharon uses a walking stick and had no trouble opening the door at most times, but when carrying a coffee it was impossible to open the door holding a walking stick in one hand and a coffee in the other. She had to ask someone for assistance to open the door. You would think was no big deal but when it happens a couple of times a day the person nearest to the door was the only person available to help, and eventually made a complaint about having to open the door. What’s that? Yes, the person with no disability was the one that made the complaint! So from here, matters went into a tailspin, how were they going to afford the change to automatic sliding doors? What about the inconvenience to staff? Would these sliding doors meet the fire safety requirements?
You know what was funny about this? No one asked Sharon what she wanted. When it got down to it, she would have suggested that a shelf be put in near the door where she could place her coffee, open the door, walk out and then grab her coffee, letting the door shut. The solution was a $10 shelf, not thousands of dollars worth of renovations to the kitchen door.
This shines a massive light on why we always tell our businesses to just ask the person with a disability what they need. Not what they need for their disability, what they personally, as a human being, need.
There is a Government fund set up for this exact reason, so even changing to sliding doors would be no cost to the business – but that’s another story for another day.
So let’s get back to thinking about people with disabilities as a person, a human, a human with hopes and dreams, a human that can tell you what they need rather than you making assumptions for them. My first point earlier about assumptions and conscious and unconscious biases.
One thing I really struggle with is the demand for people to know ‘diagnostic labels’. What does it matter if Joe Bloggs has Multiple Sclerosis or Jane Doe has a mental illness? My thoughts are that once you know what a person’s diagnostic label is you start making assumptions about what that means. I’ll use my own example. I have severe anxiety, always have, and have examples of it included in my first memories. It has never affected my ability to be a fantastic employee, in fact it made me a better employee because I would throw myself at a project with everything I had. I would rather be working than anxious. For this reason I moved up the ranks quickly and found myself as an Executive Level 2 in the Government at the age of 31 which is when I had my first child.
And at that point, I was diagnosed with post partum thyroiditis, which meant my medication wasn’t working and I was living a 24 hour nightmare of panic disorder. The way my anxiety presents itself is as de-realisation, a state where you feel like you are waking up from a dream and nothing is real – and it’s terrifying! So of course, I wanted to get back to work ASAP and I did. The problem was I couldn’t work full time and had to disclose my disability.
And then the assumptions started, no one wanted to get me stressed, no one wanted to overburden me, no one wanted to ‘set me off’. So you know what happened? I was given nothing to do, given no staff and then avoided at all costs and cut out of the loop on the business of the branch. This was the worst possible thing for me, and my mental health spiralled out of control until I approached suicide. Fortunately for me, Enabled Employment sprung up in my head and was my saving grace. But, you know what my answer would have been if I had been asked? Give me more work, give me more staff, give me things that are challenging and stress me out! Because, if I’m worrying about those things I have no time to be anxious and I will get better!
Every single disability affects a person in a different way, we are all individuals and disability doesn’t discriminate. In fact it is the only minority group you can join at any stage in your life!
So why are people barraging businesses with information about everything that can go wrong when a person with a disability starts working with them? People with a disability are statistically less likely to have something go wrong than their peers so why do we set them up for low expectations or failure? Why can’t we just ask what they need? Treat them like the human being that they are, and cut out the fear and assumptions.
What we all need to do is just apply the principles of common sense. Flexibility in a role should be a given unless there are operational requirements that make it impossible. Not only is this good for people with disabilities it’s good for everyone. Have you asked your employee’s what they need to perform the best that they can in their role?