Level playing field

Sheila Fahy

How often do we – and by “we” I mean those who are able-bodied and able-minded – really think about what it is like to be disabled in the workplace? It comes up all the time for HR practitioners who have to consider reasonable adjustments for Equality Act obligations as well as temporary accommodations for those employees with less than a technical disability. But do we really put ourselves into the shoes of those experiencing challenges to understand what it takes to level the playing field?

With time on my hands in the recovery period after ankle surgery, I am forced to wear those shoes (or at least one of them) and live and breathe what it is like to go about daily tasks on a field that feels like a hill at best and a Tough Mudder obstacle course most of the time. Just the thought of doing ordinary stuff like going to the bathroom or getting from A to B – when the distance is no more than a couple of metres, but the effort feels more akin to enduring a marathon – is mind-blowing. Behind every single task is a strategy to maximise the return for the investment. And even with careful planning, I often forget something like my glasses as I reach my destination and have to do it all again. I try not to give up in frustration but the temptation is often too great.

Even with my temporary incapacity, I feel lucky. If I were to venture out into the wider world I have no doubt that I would be inundated with offers of kindness because

of the visual clues of impairment. Imagine if my disability was invisible, or mental, or socially unacceptable (as with addiction or obesity) – would I receive the same level of support or empathy? Imagine all those people at work who have not disclosed their mental incapacity for fear of reprisal or lack of understanding about the condition, who struggle with tasks that are second nature for others.

There is little doubt that creating as level a playing field as possible is challenging for employers because no single intervention will work. The complexities come not only from the multiplicity of causes and individuals on the playing field but also from having to deal with individuals who play by different rules, often through necessity.

That said, employers can, and do, make a difference. They realise that keeping these individuals at their most productive makes commercial sense, and by doing so the playing field is not only more level but is also contextually diverse, bringing to the game a range of skills, abilities, perceptions and approaches. After all, how would Barcelona football club fare defensively if all its players were strikers, even if they were all Messi clones?

Where the situation is less than straightforward because of non-disclosure, sensitivity or lack of awareness, I would suggest the acronym TALK may help in its management.

  • Take the stigma out of mental health or sensitive issues using awareness campaigns, including the use of appropriate language. Most employees would know instinctively that the term “cripple” has negative connotations for an individual with a leg injury and yet the terms “crazy” and “nutter” are widely used to describe those with real or perceived mental health issues.
  • Assumptions: don’t make assumptions about incapacity or perceived inability; talk to the individual if something doesn’t seem right, has changed recently, or a decision is being made that involves their health and welfare. Don’t assume that individuals who communicate differently or don’t engage in the traditional way are deficient; there may be underlying mental health issues which make them weaker in this category but stronger in others.
  • Learn: if you don’t understand or lack knowledge in the area, learn about it from the experts, including the individual concerned. There are free resources on virtually every disability to help workplaces understand the issues and how best to manage them. Make sure that line managers are trained and confident to tackle these issues in a timely and appropriate manner.
  • Keep talking: behind almost every problem is a lack of communication and/or a failure to understand the other’s perspective. Talk won’t solve everything, but not talking won’t solve anything.
Comments published on Employment Talk do not necessarily reflect the views of Allen & Overy.

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  1. Rachel says:

    A thought provoking article Sheila, highlighting the importance of empathy and diversity in the workplace on so many levels. The acronym is particularly inspired.

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