The Paralympics provided a perfect display of how disabilities can be adapted for greatness . I'm not a fan of piggybacking on such achievements in favour of making political points, but there are clear lessons to be learned from it. Disability is not a prescription for normality. It can be celebrated for its diversity.
It doesn't take a lot to change perceptions of disability. Those who face physical and mental challenges to their health really are capable of achieving the same levels of productivity on the same footing as able-bodied folks. But in the 21st Century, we're still not able to reinvent the workplace to remotely cater for the many nuances in disability employment.
One of the most frustrating aspects of disability is how you often end up professionally respected, but not actually able to be a professional. Due to my roles, I manage to perform a magic trick of smoke and mirrors to create the illusion of being a fully working and productive member of society. The reality is that I'm one of the many disabled people that cannot get on the ladder.
We're able to move desks to the lower floor if mobility proves to be a problem. We can add bigger screens to the office and loop systems for the hearing impaired, but we are still anchored to an archaic mindset. We are not reinventing the workplace. It's not even as if we fail disabled people. We don't even bother trying.
With welfare cuts ever biting and Personal Independent Payments (PIP) now the stuff of legend due to their elusive nature, those who are disabled are essentially plonked into being considered a 'job seeker' like any other, with no real help available – only sanctions. Lots and lots of sanctions.
In a recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 'Counting the cost of poverty', it was found that more people are in financial crisis in the UK than we realise. Thirteen and a half million people in the UK officially live in poverty. Having read the report, I was quite shocked to learn that I too am within that bracket. I am officially living in poverty. Like many who live off employment support allowance, I find myself missing meals to cut costs. I can't afford basic toiletries and I have to scrimp on the basics just to make ends meet. This has become such a matter of fact that I didn't even notice my own signs of poverty until the report highlighted it. But why, when I have a half decent CV, am I, like many other disabled people, unable to find my footing in the modern workplace? In a word: conformity.
Being disabled means that, by definition, you aren't exactly normal or have normal ways of doing things. We don't fit in the box. We're still a long way away from addressing flexible working hours, task-based working practices instead of 9 to 5 models, or indeed intelligent and reactive welfare systems.
As I mentioned in my last piece, the welfare system only allows for earnings of up to £20 a week – meaning it's all or nothing. You're either going to have to work in an inflexible able-bodied world, or you're pretty much resigned to being a welfare claimant.
Why are we not able to have a safety net system which enables proper help as opposed to conditional welfare? A flexible welfare system would allow thousands access to work and would provide a buffer too. On certain weeks, when their health is bad, the welfare system could come back in to plug the gaps. On the occasions where work is possible, the disabled person would be able to have a productive working life.
We also need to allow for more home working practices. Of course, this would all require overarching themes to implement, such as a trusting society, adaptable employers and employment opportunities, and a welfare system overhaul the likes of which we’ve not yet contemplated.
Shortly after the Paralympics finished, Channel 4 News hosted a live debate on disability, welfare and social mobility. It proved an impassioned affair. The resounding outcome was that we're about as far away from addressing disability employment and intelligent welfare as it gets.
There is a hidden workforce in the UK, capable of the high-level achievements in the same vein as the Paralympians displayed, capable of producing work to the same standard as the able-bodied. But the forbidding nature of the workplace itself is a real problem. It's time we collectively reinvent the way we deal with disabilities and the workplace.
The writer of this article wished to remain anonymous.
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