See the ability not just the disability
As someone with a visual impairment and a keen interest in politics, you might think I would be buoyed by various government declarations that speak of the leap in the number of disabled people in employment, the Disability Confident employers and the support available to make a return to work. Indeed these may well be true scenarios for some, but for me I see a system of good intentions marred by a reality that does not come close to fulfilling its aims.
After a six year break from employment, taken to raise my children, I made the recent decision to return to work. Nothing so unusual there, lots of parents do the same, but what is unusual is that during that period due to a degenerative eye condition I was registered severely sight impaired. What follows are my first experiences of seeking employment with a declared disability.
Following the advice of others with similar Impairments, I made an appointment to see a Disability Employment Adviser (DEA) at my local job centre. On arrival I felt optimistic. This optimism did not last for long. After the precursory questions as to my educational and employment history and a brief chat about fields I might be interested in, I was advised to volunteer for the local blind society. To say I was taken aback is an understatement. The advisor had noted I currently already held two roles within the voluntary sector, and had held an additional two in previous years. It should have been obvious that I’m more than capable of finding my own opportunities unadvised within the third sector. And to put it simply I was attending a job centre because I was seeking just that – a job.
But honestly what really offended me was the obvious intention to make me fit into a particular box. I did not appreciate the concept of, ‘here is a blind woman, let’s put her in the same place as other blind people’. In my everyday life I face daily misconceptions about sight loss, many from people who wrongly perceive disability as lack of ability. I have always challenged these views but I never expected to come up against these assumptions from a department that is supposed to promote equality and diversity.
Unbelievably that was not the end of trying to turn me into a tick box exercise. Next it was suggested that ‘Remploy’ type organisations may be an option. Although I am not against these organisations, I am seeking employment and I want that employment to be in the ‘mainstream’, on the same terms as everyone else. I have an impairment that makes life more challenging, but with the right adaptions or software there is no reason why I cannot do the same job as someone else who is not visually impaired. I thought Jobcentres should be pushing for better workplace integration and should be looking at what skills and experience a person has. Yet why did it feel like the system was more impaired than my vision?
I left the meeting feeling very demoralised. I am under no illusions that finding work with sight loss will be easy but nor did I expect it to be the DIY affair it has become. Where was the advice for support available should I find work or secure an interview? Where were the lists of ‘Disability Confident’ employers in my area? What factors help create the best outcomes? All these elements I have been left to find out for myself. Surely these should be basic measures. I went to the appointment with a very open mind but do not feel I was greeted with one in return.
My reflections on this are that change is badly needed. It is needed on the micro level to ensure people who visit a DEA get all the advice that would be relevant to them. And change is needed on the macro societal level if we are really want to aim for a more equal society. People need to be seen as individuals not as a statistic.
By Sam Heaton
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