“I’m sorry to call. It’s just, well, I wonder if you can help me? More specifically, help my son.”
As she saw it — she had nothing left to lose. The worst that could happen is somebody says no. So far, everyone had said no. Followed by sorry. Followed by wishing her and her son the best of luck. Lewis was 16 years old. A guy living with ME who had left school with minimal qualifications. He had just been informed by his social worker to prepare for a lifetime on benefits.
“It’s that he wants to work, you know. His friends are out — getting jobs. At most he can work for 20 minutes. A day. It’s not the 9 to 5, I appreciate that. I’m his mother so of course I’m biased but, I can’t believe there isn’t a company out there that wouldn’t benefit from having my son work for them. Am I being unreasonable?”
Jane, the lady that took this call, is one of twenty people from across a wide range of companies gathered around a table by Toby Mildon — a Diversity and Inclusion Architect. We are here to discuss ‘What Could Happen If Everybody Got Workplace or Reasonable Adjustments?’. Toby’s plan is simple yet extremely effective. It’s an inclusive discussion format he has developed. He calls it the Nonagon. Essentially everybody is given the space to talk. And, importantly, the space to listen. Working clockwise round the table — taking it in turns to share our insights, thoughts and stories in a casual and relaxed environment.
No names are shared. No job titles given unless it’s useful to give them. Instead we introduce ourselves with something that gave us joy this week. Someone says they felt joy having made it to a petrol station just in time before their tank ran out of gas. Another says they have over twenty members of their family coming over this weekend, including an elderly relative they haven’t seen in a while and they’re really looking forward to the chaos and happiness that will bring. I tell them my Battersea rescue dog has mastered ‘roll-over’. Suddenly, we are no longer Alex from Accounting. We are all individuals with lives outside of the work space — we share similarities — we revel in each other’s happiness. Everyone gets airtime. Everyone gets thinking space. This whole meeting already feels completely different.
The vast majority of organisations already have policies in place when it comes to reasonable or workplace adjustments. From requesting a more supportive office chair for example, to needing a sign language interpreter, both of which enable someone to carry out their job to the best of their ability. These sound like pretty reasonable workplace adjustments, right? It’s pointed out that ‘reasonable’ is in itself a legal word and that actually the policies surrounding it can be rather vague…
Is it reasonable to ask for disabled access to a place of work?
Is it reasonable to ask for support around childcare?
Is it reasonable to ask for shorter, flexible working hours to allow for staff health benefits such as going to the gym or taking time to care for elderly relatives?
Is it reasonable to request gender neutral toilets?
Is it reasonable to ask for stronger female and BAME representation inside your boardroom?
Yes, it is.
And here’s why if you are an employee you should ask for workplace adjustments and if you are an employer why you should create an inclusive culture without having to be asked in the first place. Who wants to speak first?
Most of us get asked if we have a disability on our initial job application form. It may be something that comes up in the interview — but not always. Once offered the job — it rarely ever comes up again. ‘Well, they should speak up! That’s on them!’ Partly, yes. But consider why employees find it hard to speak up and ask for help in the first place. Fear of being shamed — to have to justify their disability. Fear of being seen as ‘a problem’. Fear of not being taken seriously. Stories are shared — the lady who started a job and no one knew who she needed to speak to with her chair request. Her manager — not a clue. What’s wrong with the chair you’ve got? Everybody has the same chair. They’ll all be asking for a special chair next! Ask HR. HR — our department doesn’t deal with stuff like this. Have you asked your manager? Oh. Okay. So what’s wrong with the chair you’ve got? The manager asked you that same question did they? We’ll get back to you.
The request finally gets taken. Signed off. A chair appears. Months later. And during that time this lady has suffered actual physical pain. She has suffered embarrassment. And even if you aren’t human and don’t care about either of those things — she has not been working to the best of her ability for the job she was both qualified and employed to do. Not thinking about adjustments negatively affects your business. And here’s the real kicker — no one is disabled by their impairment. They are disabled by the world around them.
The punch is to then think about the knock-on effect this lady’s ‘unreasonable’ experience has on the people around them. Those staff members with invisible disabilities. Mental health. Anxiety. Continuing to keep themselves invisible so as not to go through a similar difficult experience. The staff member who was in an accident and broke their arm, who drags them self into work exhausted and stressed rather than ask if they can work from home a couple of days a week. Someone at the table mentions how his clients consistently talk about wanting to employ staff with ‘grit’. Grit is then heralded as the ultimate performance requisite. And yet he has been caring for his sick wife and their young child for a while now — he admits by the time he gets to work he has run out of this thing called grit. Someone who suffers with anxiety gets their airtime — they describe being given some flexibility to their working day which allows them to leave work one hour early. Once a week. To go to the gym. They live in a remote area and commute to work so this one hour allows them that extra bit of travel time required. The exercise really helps them. ‘Thanks for popping in!’ a work colleague quips as they go to leave the office.
It is often the case that people simply don’t know about workplace adjustments so they don’t think to ask. Creating an environment where there is a shared D&I (Diversity and Inclusion) language allows for greater understanding and education throughout your company. It takes away the ‘us and them’ mentality and replaces it with ‘everyone’. Instead of wanting people with ‘grit’, what about bringing in greater diversity? People who are disabled already have to think differently to go about their daily lives. I invite you to join a wheelchair user and take a tube journey across London sometime to fully experience and appreciate this fact! This is someone who is already having to navigate and think around corners to find the best solutions to problems. Literally. And if you don’t address reasonable or workplace adjustments in your business then that’s cool. Maybe you think it will save you money. Losing talent or retraining people costs money too. Perhaps instead think about having a conversation. Allowing that person to come into work an hour later if it means you get to keep the talent within your business. The average cost per person of a reasonable adjustment is £95. A tribunal pay out on the other hand can run into hundreds of thousands of pounds. Reputation is priceless.
Still not convinced? Okay. Think about it another way. We are down to the last person around the table yet to speak — reasonable adjustment varies throughout your life time regardless of age, nationality, race, ability, gender identity… That’s the same for everyone. The twenty-year old who has just started work and can’t get over not having a six-week summer holiday! Becoming pregnant. Becoming a mum. Becoming a dad. Accidents. Illness. Menopause. Depression. Mental health. Becoming a carer for a family member. Becoming a pensioner. The average age someone acquires a disability is 53. It comes to us all.
Put policies in place. Consult with people who those policies directly affect to get it right — nothing about us without us. Create the culture. Commit to it financially. Make the changes and in doing so you normalise the conversation. Your talent pool increases. Your staff loyalty increases. Your output increases. Your staff sick days decrease. Your business automatically becomes a more fresh and forward-thinking company. Your customer outreach expands to include every human being of every background and backstory imaginable. Each and every one of them hoping to make it to that petrol station before their fuel runs out.
“Is your son good with computers?”
“He’s 16. He lives for computers.”
Lewis has worked for Jane for 6 years as a Data Entry Clerk. 20 minutes a day. 6 days a week. He has never taken a sick day. He is loyal. He is confident. He is the best data entry clerk Jane has ever had.
Katie Boyles — Writer & Disability Advocate and Toby Mildon — Diversity & Inclusion Architect
Special thanks to everyone who attended — you know who you are! To Toby Mildon for organising this event and to HarperCollins Publishing for hosting.