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Thursday, 5 September, 2002, 16:37 GMT 17:37 UK
'My colleagues never look me in the eye'
A new employment campaign by the disability charity Scope is putting workplace attitudes to disabled people under the spotlight.
Dean Thomas, who has cerebral palsy, talks about his frustrating experiences during six jobs in as many years.
Dean Thomas is special, part of a very select group - he is a British world champion.
His name graces no letterheads. He is not asked to sit on advisory committees. He does not run motivational courses.
The sport he plays is boccia, and in June the 31-year-old led the UK team to victory at the world championships in Portugal.
Boccia is like bowls - but it is only played competitively by disabled people.
He is a wheelchair user with a severe speech impairment.
And he says he cannot get a job.
Divorce and re-location
Dean left his last employment, as a sports development officer for Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, in February.
He had just been through a divorce and found himself having to re-locate.
After moving to Nottingham, Dean applied for three jobs - two related to disability access or information provision.
He was not asked to attend a single interview.
Dean has had jobs, about six or seven - but they never last more than a couple of years.
Even though he has usually been employed to work with other disabled people, a major problem is simply access to buildings and offices in a wheelchair.
But that's not all - the real problems have been what he calls "attitudinal".
"People are uncomfortable in my presence. You can see it in their body language.
"They turn away or sit out of my range of vision. They never look me in the eyes.
"And they avoid asking me direct questions.
"It does not make it easy for you to communicate with them."
Dean is the first to admit communicating with him can be a painstaking process at the best of times.
"In a meeting, with the conversation moving quite quickly, I do not stand a cat in Hell's chance of putting my point across.
"By the time I get myself heard the conversation has moved on."
As you might expect from a world-beating champion, Dean has developed a strategy for coping.
"I raise my hand and make all my points in one go - but it is not participating in the normal way."
Campaign welcomed - with caution
A major part of Scope's new campaign is an online survey, to "identify and overcome barriers that prevent disabled people finding work".
But while Dean welcomes the initiative, he cannot help sounding slightly sceptical.
"You can go on raising awareness all you like - but you are not going to change attitudes if people are not prepared to change."
Dean believes energies should be channelled into reforming a system that makes many disabled people unwilling to even look for work.
"Even if I am offered a job, before I can take it I have to apply for funding for equipment and to pay for a support worker to assist me.
"I have to recruit that support worker and I have to train them.
"And only then can I go into work on the first day feeling vaguely prepared."
The welfare system does not help.
"It is a complete nightmare - so rigid it does not allow for any flexibility or acknowledge people's complexities.
"When you leave work like I did in February it can take months and months to get back all the benefits you were on before."
And then there are the salaries.
To cover all the "hidden costs" - prescriptions, transport, equipment - he receives benefit while unemployed, Dean needs to take home about £18,000 a year, which means a salary of £25,000.
That's far above anything he could hope to earn in the kind of jobs he has worked in and applied for so far
But, like any sporting champion, Dean is no quitter.
This month, as well as starting courses in web design and accounting, he is embarking on a sports coach education programme.
"I want to put my sporting experience to use," he explains.
A better job is his aim - but an improvement in attitudes amongst other people is his real hope.
I am sorry to here your difficulties Dean and being disabled myself I can understand your problems. I cannot work or hold down a job in what we call this "society" and getting benefits is also a struggle. A lot of the time people seem not to understand our needs. But I am glad to hear how you're doing with the sports, keep up the great work and I will you all the best as well as all the best to those who are at a disadvantage.
Dean, I have much respect for you, I wish people could see past the wheelchair. Keep up the brilliant work
As an able-bodied white male who has never struggled to find employment, it can be far too easy to forget the trials and tribulations of others in society. I wish Dean and others experiencing similar problems the best of luck in their efforts to improve their lot in the work place - his "winning" attitude is an example to us all.
What nonsense. I am physically disabled, and I have never had a problem in either finding or keeping a job, at least no more than the average person, indeed I have found that most employers go out of their way to accommodate me, sometimes to the extent of being over-helpful. I note that the above article states that Mr. Thomas applied for three jobs and was not asked to attend a single interview. This is not unusual in the slightest, as I have graduate (able-bodied) friends that have applied for over 20 jobs without interview. I would say that disability becomes a problem when people use it to explain misfortune such as being unemployed, rather than simply getting on with it. Many employers are unsuitable for many reasons, and I do not see why discrimination against the disabled should be viewed as any more or less serious than other reasons.
I believe that discrimination is a natural human condition and furthermore that supposed 'rights' are no more than a fallacy. Western civilisation will always place profit before people that is its foundation. Attitudinal changes start with education and may take two or three generations to prove effective.
I like to think of myself as an open-minded sort of person who is not prone to pre-judging. But when faced with a situation that I have not been in before I may well not know how to act. This would apply do working with a person with a disability that I had no experience of .
If I where to treat this person differently it would not be because I am "closed minded" it would be due to a lack of experience. It takes time to get to know how to behave around anyone, disabled or not.
I am conscious that I am now never being given any work with any level of responsibility, as I am considered 'unreliable' because of my MS.
I also have to endure the conversations that in the workplace that stop whenever I enter the room, which I still hear enough of to know what they are about.
In my experience, dealing with people's attitudes if often harder than dealing with the actual disability.
While I sympathise with disabled people, (my mother is in a wheelchair I should add,) while companies should make provisions for disabled people, it will not always be possible to do so economically. With companies trying to cut costs everywhere to remain competitive, managers have to compare employing a "disabled" person with employing a "non-disabled" person. In many cases the so called "disabled" person will be able to do the job just as (or even more) efficiently, but in some cases that is just not possible, and unfair as it seems, companies have to choose the option that makes the most business sense...
I understand where Dean is coming from. I work for Barclays Bank on the IT side of things, and am disabled (CP & Partial Hearing) - but the disability hasn't been a problem in terms of career progression into 'middle management' as I have good communication skills, as well as being in the company of 'disability aware' colleagues. The main problem is getting employers to make 'reasonable adjustments' in their recruitment policies and also making sure staff don't 'behave inappropriately' in interviews. The forthcoming DDA legislation will have a major impact on recruitment and provision of better working conditions for disabled people.
I hope this campaign improves things for Dean and others in the same boat.
I am deaf and I totally relate to what Dean is saying. I have a HND in Environmental Engineering. I have a lot of valuable skills in computers and I found my self hitting a brick wall trying to get my manager to try me out as a supervisor. I have finally made it as a supervisor now I am trying to become a manager and there are people with less qualifications than I who are getting jobs as manager. Like Dean I have started to train in Java Programming and after a few years experience I hope to set up my own business and succeed on my own merits and nobody can discriminate against me as I will be in control of my own destiny.
Like Dean some of the people I work with are afraid to talk to me or embarrassed in case I don't understand them but things are improving as I have a chance to educate them. I wish Dean and others like him all the best as we disabled people have to work 10 times harder to get where we want than the so called "normal" people.
It's not just about finding work, but keeping it. Although I worked for a government agency, which purported to be a "best practise" employer, when my condition deteriorated my managers merely went through the motions when it came to helping me work around any difficulties in order to fast track me out on an ill-health retirement.
I too am disabled, physically more than mentally. It's often a case of finding the right employer. My place of work are great, and will consider me in their office relocations, my need for space for my wheelchair and even in my getting to work.
Are there any more out there like this?
Some of the worst discrimination I have experienced was working for a charity that specialised in solving communication, access and transport problems for the disabled. I could barely walk and took lots of medication had to really struggle to do any work and they treated me like I was an idiot. They also gave me the sack.
Sometimes I am afraid that severely disabled people must accept that they cannot be employed in particular workplaces where their disablement is a hindrance to the flow of normal work.
I'm sure there is employment for the severely disabled in areas that enhance the workplace without everybody having to bend over backwards to accommodate them because of their disabilities. They must be suitably accommodated otherwise we will have what I call the "tyranny of the disabled" in their demand for equivalent employments which are not compatible with their particular disablements.
I believe that Dean is absolutely right - the problem is blinkered minds. My bike mechanic is blind. He builds the best wheels I've ever had, and his work is first class, but I have come across people who won't use him because of his blindness - despite the fact that they can see in front of them a bike which has been exceptionally well looked after by this man.
My partner is partially hard of hearing but able to speak well. She experienced difficulty in finding work after she had moved to my town. She applied for a job vacancy in the local supermarket and was turned down without an interview. So she had ask a disability job officer for help in seeking work. To her horror she was offered six weeks disability job training for 20 hours a week for £38 PW with the same supermarket! She got the job after the training. Perhaps she would had the job first times round if she was Normal?
Are you working with a disability? Have you struggled to find or remain in a job? Tell us your experiences.
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