Viewpoint: Who needs to be disability confident?

  • 21 November 2013
Woman in wheelchair and standing man look at computer screen. Posed photograph

The first "Disability Confident" conference takes place in Birmingham on Thursday, but leading disability consultant Phil Friend thinks the government is targeting the wrong people.

Giving employers disability confidence is an excellent idea, but it is not new.

There is already an industry in disability equality and advocacy providing advice on how to employ and manage disabled people. I have been working as a disability consultant for about 30 years.

Despite this, the unemployment rate among disabled people has remained stubbornly high. The latest figures show 48.9% of disabled people are in employment, compared to 76% of non-disabled people.

So with hundreds or thousands of employers already trained to be disability confident, you might ask why there aren't more disabled people in work now. And that's a very good question.

I believe the time may have come to shift the focus. Rather than concentrating on training employers, perhaps we should spend time giving a bit of disability confidence to disabled people themselves.

At a personal development session recently, one of the delegates told me: "I had a seizure at work and had to stop driving, so I lost my job." He said this had destroyed his confidence and he didn't know who to turn to. He said: "No-one seemed to know what to do and I became very depressed."

Most disabled people acquire their impairments as adults and many of them are in work when the onset occurs. It's a crucial point at which a newly disabled person could easily slip into unemployment if he or she doesn't feel like being proactive, or believes there are no solutions.

Is an employer given appropriate advice on how to keep that experienced person on the team? Or, perhaps more crucially, who is talking to the newly disabled person? And who is telling his or her family about the benefits of staying in work.

Becoming disabled is a tough time in a person's life. Many people might feel like giving up and, at that early stage, may not know what they are able to achieve.

Work brings fulfilment, a sense of belonging, a salary and a measure of independence, yet people often let go of their jobs because they don't know how to stay in them.

I'm no longer surprised when I hear stories like the one a disabled client told me recently. She said: "When I was told I'd got MS it was devastating. My boss was very sympathetic and said he would do all he could to ensure I got a good pension. He never suggested that I could stay at work."

I've been doing personal development programmes for disabled people in recent years and have noticed many participants lack self-confidence, self-belief and expert knowledge about the impact of their impairments.

If those already in employment can lose their confidence when disability comes calling, then how much worse must it be for those who have never had a job and have never known what they might be able to achieve in the workplace at all?

The government's Work Choice programme offers some help to unemployed disabled people but it has received criticism for failing to get those with complex needs into work.

I'd like to see sessions where disabled people come together to learn. Participants should spend time exploring and researching what really helps them manage their impairment well - they need to become experts in what's out there and what could help.

A wheelchair user should know all there is to know about the world of wheelchairs, for instance. Someone with a mental health condition needs to become the supreme expert on the effects of medication, therapeutic interventions or triggers.

In confidence sessions, disabled people should be helped to identify what is disabling them or stopping them from working. It might be the attitudes of those around them, a lack of skills or experience, or they might find it is their own attitude or a range of bureaucratic or physical barriers which holds them back.

Once identified, strategies could be worked out with an employer to remove barriers.

Disabled people need to be better equipped to support themselves, to know what helps and what hinders, and to understand how to sell their abilities and to manage and mitigate the impact of their impairments.

With knowledge and new confidence under their belt, disabled people will become motivated and less frightened about how they will cope in the workplace.

Dr Phil Friend OBE is co-author of Why are you Pretending to be Normal?, a self-help book for disabled people, written in collaboration with Dave Rees.

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