If you want support in the workplace for any reason, but reluctant to ask, then you’ve come to the right place. In a recent My Plus webinar, I listened to successful professionals talk about how their disabilities have intersected with their career. It was enlightening to discover the ways in which they’ve adapted their work to suit their needs.
Yet, it’s not always easy. It’s not like you’re presented with a list of adjustments to check off when you accept the job. It’s more nuanced than that.
It starts with self-knowledge
One of the themes that came up was this idea of knowing yourself. Being in tune with your strengths and limitations makes it easier to talk about them and be clear in what you need.
Holly Lane broke away from imposed expectations and sought her enriching career at Baker McKenzie. She is deaf with a cochlear implant, and although she had supportive teachers growing up, she didn't get relevant careers advice. In fact, she got a degree in graphic design to stick with something more “visual”, but her heart was never in it. This turned around when she moved into the voluntary sector and worked her way up to the Diversity and Inclusion Unit. Here, she removes barriers and creates opportunities for diverse groups such as LGBT, Women, Ethnicity, Social Mobility, and Disability. Amongst many other things, she works with staffing statistics to help clients ensure their workplace is diverse.
Qassim Saeed talked about managing expectations within himself. He has epidermolysis bullosa, a genetic skin condition that manifests on hands. It means extensive scarring and issues throughout his body. He talked about capitalising on his strengths so, even though he’s "not a fighter pilot like Tom Cruise on Top Gun", he became the next best thing: An investment strategist in BlackRock’s ETFs and Index Investment team. His key worry when he started was not living up to expectations. However, he got promoted and this is where he realised his worries were only worries and not evidence.
Katherine Holdstock, manager at PWC, Talent and Impact Team, reflected on both her struggles and how her anxiety makes her very high performing. She keeps track of everything, has strong attention to detail, is empathetic, and able to talk openly to others. Anxiety is unique to everyone and this means it can be a process of learning. At PWC, Katherine found the option of secondments has helped her figure out what works best for her. Nevertheless, she has a tendency to take on extra work and burn out. Naturally, she is still trying to find that balance and will eventually.
Acquiring this knowledge is a process that develops throughout the lifespan and really comes into play in the workplace. It seems that part of this is managing expectations within and outside of yourself and this can bring many surprises, like being promoted or doing a job you were told you couldn’t do.
Then shaping outside perceptions
The other theme was about being empowered to dispel myths and educate others. Essentially, helping others to help you.
James Ellery Gower, graduate of University of Bath, is the senior manager in cyber security at EY, has cerebral palsy and is a part-time wheelchair user. He is keen that his disability is seen as an ability. Part of that involves bringing misconceptions to light. For example, he’s had people assume he’s not eloquent in how he talks or that he’s unreliable. When he first started his job, his initial underperformance was chalked up to disability but, in fact, it was due to the culture shock of switching from a uni lifestyle to the corporate environment. James found that having a voice helped him through his career and uses it as a platform to show disability as that extra of seeing the world a bit differently.
On a similar note, Katherine wants to burst that myth that having mental health challenges means you can’t work in challenging roles. She says it’s about finding a role that works for you.
Qassim works in role that requires him to be reactive to markets so work became speedier for his team in 2020. He noticed his team didn’t tell him to take a step back and he attributes this to them understanding the nature of his disability. As a result, they support him right.
Again, it’s not easy. Holly found it very hard work in the first few months at her job as she constantly had to explain who she was, how she wants to communicate, and how people could communicate with her. She ended up providing the biggest breakthrough by delivering deaf awareness training to colleagues. This changed a lot of perceptions and most likely made it easier for any deaf people joining the company in the future.
So, what next?
These stories told me two things: Colleagues can make assumptions, but it seems that many people are eager to learn and change when offered the opportunity. James, Katherine, Holly, and Qassim all provided those opportunities by being open and figured out the best way of getting through to their colleagues.
In Part 2, I’ll divulge the practical possibilities and what their daily work lives look like. Meanwhile, if you would like to explore your own strengths, you can attend our Strengths workshop advertised on My Future.