The question as to how I am increasingly being seen as the ‘go to expert on disability and work’ is something I was discussing on Saturday, 29th October 2016.
If you were sat with me in the front row of the large conference room seating over 200 people on the ground floor of the Royal International Hotel in London, you would have been waiting for Andy Harrington, one of the world’s great professional public speakers to take to the stage. The music was building up and from a side door emerged Andy. He’s stood on stage and as he often jokes in his own back story, he’s not the tallest person; in fact we are similar heights say about 5′ 7″. We are all here to learn how to be better at doing presentations. This is not Toastmasters or anything else I have ever attended. The room is silent as Andy starts “have you ever felt …”. Later that day I’m sat in Carriage K on the 18:05 from London Paddington to Newton Abbot. Just under 3 hours to reflect on how I got here and why this should matter to you.
But before I answer the question. As a person with a disability have you ever had someone visit you at work to help you and although they we’re extremely professional, someth was missing. Did you hear a little voice in your head say “they don’t get me. So how can they really know what it is like for me and how can they help me?” As a registered Blind person I am often asked “what got you doing what you do and its such a relief to work with someone who I can just be me and say it bluntly as it really i”. The relief that employees with disabilities feel is clearly visible even to me with my extremely limited vision. Because it matters to me too, I want to hear your story worts and all.
I am now in my early 50s and have over 34 years of ‘lived experience of disability in work’ to look back on. From being an Engineer to a Receptionist and Welfare Rights Advisor, I moved on to my longest type of work, working in the supported employment industry for people with disabilities. I found I was pretty dam good at engaging with employers because I listened to all sides before forming an opinion. In 2001 I completed a PgCert on Disability Management in the Workplace and so now had a piece of paper saying I knew something more than most. I also learned to become a manager and eventually had a placement team which numbered at least 20 and this heralded the start of a long change process for me. In 2008 I was Depressed to such an extent with the tedious bureaucracy required to meet the quality standards demanded by DWP, because it made no difference to the people with disabilities who we were there to help. I had a little voice in my head saying “tell them where to stuff it. You are worth more they don’t appreciate you, he always sees your poor eyesight as an issue why you are not promoted”. I felt anger, frustration and most of all fear that what I wanted, I could not have. I did not have a clue how to escape. Even worse who could I talk to when I already knew what the advice would be.
Let’s jump forward to today and tell you what I did about it.
In September 2012 I set-up my own business called The Life Coach Station to get back the “buzz” I used to have when I made a real difference and helped a person with a disability to retain their job. But this was altogether different. I have always loved change, I hate tedious and boring existence as I had had in 2008. I did get promoted before 2012, but this just added to the feeling of being shackled to an organisation that had evolved into an uncaring organisation more interested in fulfilling its management teams ambitions to have a company car. I did not fit in and I knew it. Its been four years of learning from my mistakes, becoming a better person, but most of all, being me and doing things as I think they should be done; not how others tell me to do them who don’t know what they are talking about. I had only one person to convince, my wife Fiona.
The one thing you need to take away from what you have read is this.
You can internalise your work woos and even talk to friends and family who you know will try to convince you that as a person with a disability, you should settle for what you have and be grateful. I was like this, but what I did was what many do not have the courage to do. I took action and changed my life and started getting more of what I wanted. When you are doing something that you know is right, you don’t need a script, you get up and have endless energy to do what you do because it matters most to those that you help.
Freddie Mercury wanted to ‘break free’.