Attribution - Maria Rossini, Head of Education, British Science Association

I’m a senior leader in a charity (the British Science Association), leading a high-performing team that impacts hundreds of thousands of young people every year, making STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) more accessible and relevant to everyone, regardless of their background.

I’m also disabled: I have a cluster of auto-immune conditions that severely affect the quality of my day-to-day life and functioning, and have done for many years.

July is Disability Pride Month and I’ve been reflecting on how the British Science Association (BSA) has supported me in such a way that I have been able to thrive in my work – bringing value to an organisation and cause that I am incredibly proud of.

The challenges

Before I get to the positives, I think it’s worth being realistic about the challenges that many disabled people face in the workplace. The whole cultural narrative around disability involves misunderstandings, prejudice and often deep shame.

In a work culture that has oftentimes been focused on typically male ‘power’ attributes, disability can be seen as ‘weak’ or ‘sub-par’ to the point that people don’t feel they can be open about the challenges they face. This can especially be the case when it comes to hidden disabilities, that all too often remain unseen and unaddressed in the workplace, to the detriment of the employee and the organisation.

Doctor holding a patients handAdd to this the fact that many people with hidden or complex disabilities may take a long time to be diagnosed: according to the American Autoimmune Association for example, the average time for diagnosis with autoimmune-related disease is 4.5 years and during that period the patient typically has seen four doctors.

Because of the relapsing/remitting nature of many conditions, some patients (myself included) may only receive a definitive diagnosis decades after symptoms first appear. This clearly can present huge difficulties for individuals and potentially result in patchy or inconsistent work performance or history.

As a younger disabled person earlier in my career, I definitely experienced environments and behaviours that were much less supportive. At one point many years ago, this even involved a senior manager bullying me and telling me that “maybe working just isn’t for you”.*

Positive practices

However, rather than dwell on the negative today, I want to shine a light on the practices and attitudes that you can embed in your organisation that can have a real impact on everyone, not just those with disabilities.

I work for the British Science Association. As part of our mission to transform the diversity and inclusivity of science, we received funding from the Wellcome Trust in 2018 to reflect internally on our organisation and processes. This led to enhanced internal equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiatives and training, including us becoming a Disability Confident organisation.

As such, in my current workplace I’ve been supported personally and professionally in a variety of ways – from developing a ‘reasonable adjustment’ passport, which facilitates regular and ongoing conversations, to ‘access to work’ support and putting in place systems with my team that work for us all.

Here are some of the things that have made a real difference to me.

7 steps employers can take to make a difference

1. Have an attitude of curiosity rather than judgement

If an employee arrives with a disability or develops one in post, assume nothing and ask them about what support works for them. Not all deaf people will like the same types of support equipment, for example. One person with mobility needs may prefer to work from home, whilst another may focus on transport and physical access needs in the office.

If you have an employee whose performance or attendance is inconsistent, stay curious. Seek to understand and work out how best to support that person to do their job. Don’t necessarily wait for a formal diagnosis to put reasonable support or adjustments in place.

2. Stay curious

Treatment options and needs can change over time with most disabilities. What works for your employee one year may not be optimal support another. New working practices within the organisation may have knock-on effects for how staff are supported, so make sure conversations around support are regular and ongoing.

3. Encourage a culture of value and openness

This links to so many more areas of EDI. Everyone should feel they can be themselves in the workplace and that they are valued.

I have found that leaders who are open about their own needs and challenges can set a brilliant tone of transparency in the workplace. Because of her previous openness when she was my line manager, I actually approached an old colleague to be a mentor when I first started in a leadership role.

4. Understand the value of getting the right support in place

Recognise that there may be significant work and commitment involved in supporting someone with a disability, but that it’s worth putting in the effort. From supporting access to work applications, through to developing and maintaining a ‘reasonable adjustment passport’ system or even new ways of working as a team to support the inclusion of someone with a disability - don’t skimp on resourcing that works. You have a legal and moral duty to get it right, but more than that, you’ll reap genuine benefit when you do.

5. Offer genuinely flexible working arrangements

Focus on the outputs rather than when/where/how the work is completed. Flexible working has allowed me to adjust my diary during ‘flare-ups’ and to put procedures in place that support myself and my team at those times. It’s afforded me a working pattern that allows me to give my best, protects against burn-out and serve the team well whilst caring for my health and my family.

6. Embrace the possibilities of remote working for those who request it (for whatever reason, not just disability)

The move to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic was transformative for many disabled people: as whole organisations pivoted their systems and processes, many disabled people were suddenly able to access the virtual workspace on a par with non-disabled colleagues, in a way that had been impossible before. Many of us ‘managed’ with the old ways of working but have thrived in the ‘new normal’.

As many organisations try and shift back to in-person working it’s worth conducting impact analyses and specifically looking at how disabled colleagues (as well as others, such as those with caring responsibilities) might be affected.

7. Recognise the immense value that disabled people can offer your organisation

As well as bringing the skills and experience stated in our job descriptions, we will add a diversity of experience and thought – insights that you would miss out on without us on your team. Speaking personally, being treated well has also instilled a great sense of loyalty to the BSA, which positively impacts my work and the attitude of my team too.

Why am I writing this?

As I said, over the course of my career, I’ve experienced a variety of behaviours and I believe strongly that the way forward for better understanding and treatment of disabled colleagues is to shine a light on good practice.  

I hope this piece will provoke discussion and thought about how we all can work together to go beyond just ‘Disability Confident’ to being inclusive, supportive organisations where amazing people thrive.

* Even as I write this, despite the successes of my subsequent career, I feel a sense of deep regret that I didn’t have the confidence to call out that behaviour at the time, and also shame that maybe people reading this article might also think that I am somehow ‘lesser’ because that conversation happened.

About working at the BSA

The BSA has an agile working policy, allowing staff to adjust their working hours in order to better fit their personal circumstances and preferences.

Any staff members with a chronic illness or disability are entitled to have a reasonable adjustment passport in place, which is reviewed regularly with their line manager, to ensure that the conversation around support is open and ongoing.

We also have a home working policy and guidance on how to apply for flexible working hours, especially where this is being made as part of a reasonable adjustment to support staff with disabilities.

Find out more about our commitment to being a Disability Confident employer

We put equality, diversity and inclusion at the heart of all that we do. Here’s how

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