DO PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES GET ENOUGH SUPPORT FROM SENIOR MANAGERS?
While researching my recent article about what office life is like for deaf people, one comment made by a finance manager, who is deaf, really stood out. He said: “senior people in organisations just don’t have the time to allow a deaf person to communicate with them. My view is, the more senior in status a person, the less tolerance they have.”
According to the Office for Disability Issues, in 2011 the employment rate of people with disabilities was 48.8%, compared to 77.5% for people with no disabilities. People who are deaf or disabled often have to work harder to climb the careers ladder, but what is disability awareness like when they get to senior levels? When interviewing a range of deaf and disabled professionals, it was interesting that many wished to remain anonymous.
The finance manager mentioned above said: “I was head of finance for a business where the senior management team had weekly meetings with the general manager. She always sat in the same place with her back to window which meant I had to sit somewhere opposite so that I could lip-read – this was difficult because the light created a silhouette effect. The conversation flowed fast and furious at these meetings.” In one meeting, he didn’t understand what was being said. “She then looked directly at me and very rudely said twice: ‘Do you understand what I am saying?'”
Despite being upset, the manager decided to let it pass. The situation did result in one positive: “After the meeting one of my senior colleagues came to see me in my office to ask if I was ok. He said that what had happened was outrageous and we talked at length. That took away the hurt, which was replaced by appreciation that someone had taken the trouble to come and see me afterwards and support me.”
One local authority worker has experienced a similar lack of support. She said: “I haven’t found there to be much, if any, understanding of my needs as a deaf person from anyone where I work. I feel that the general attitude is that it’s my problem and it’s up to me to seek a solution. There seems to be little or no comprehension about speaking clearly, speaking up, not covering your mouth when speaking etc. Once people learn I have got some hearing aids, they just carry on trying to communicate with me in the same way as before I became deaf.”
Laraine Callow, who is deaf and runs a training and consultancy company, Deafworks, suggests that it is only when people with disabilities assume management roles that working environments change. “Seniority doesn’t seem to matter in my experience. I think it might be because the further you are removed from the [ground level] the harder it is to understand what it is all about. What does help is when the deaf or disabled person gets promoted. They can manage their situation better as they are now in charge. That makes a difference. The question is how you get there.”
A deaf manager who has worked for a range of organisations gave an idea of how tough this can be: “The more you go up the ladder, the more you need to be able to fit in with the organisation’s structure and move at its pace. This matters because people need to be able to believe that you can do it, and you also need to be able to believe you can do it.”
Other professionals spoke about the responsibilities deaf or disabled employees have for their own access. A website manager, who is blind, said that awareness “depends on whether the career person we’re talking about is able to communicate effectively and have his or her access sorted out. At some point in the game, your social workplace and networking skills are most important. There’s a point at which you should mostly be in control.”
This was echoed by a digital content manager, who is deaf. They said: “I don’t think it’s a lack of deaf/disability awareness per se, it’s just that the higher-ups don’t have time to take special measures. It’s just the way it is. Offices are a minefield, and if someone doesn’t engage with you it could be because they just don’t like you, not because you’re deaf.”
Some deaf people are turning to self-employment as the best way to progress. Tina O’Malley, who is deaf and runs O’Malley Communications said: “working for myself is the best way to sidestep ignorance and communication issues within a hearing workforce. Working for myself means I don’t have to deal with these attitudes. I’d say attitudes have been the biggest barrier for me in each senior role I’ve had.”
A former council worker reported that she went through a grievance procedure which lasted more than two years. “I was bullied, ostracised from my department, refused proper office facilities (a tiny desk which had no internet access and I was working on a digital project and needed email) and refused a dedicated phoneline which I had previously.” She became self-employed and now runs an award-winning digital company.
Simon Minty, who has dwarfism, runs his own training and consultancy company. He said: “I do think senior people are less likely to be aware within the business but that is a generalisation as there are some awesome senior people – it’s more about the culture of the organisation”. Simon hosts events called Dining with a Difference, aimed to help senior teams break down barriers. He said: “With few a exceptions, within minutes of sitting down for the meal, directors are telling me of their close friends or family with a disability. The question then is, does this knowledge get left at the boardroom door? As with any industry, if there were more people being open at the top level, the awareness might trickle down as well as up.”
It is often assumed that a disabled person is lucky to have a job. Organisations usually want to support them in keeping that job, but often disabled people aren’t necessarily regarded as wanting a career, which can mean they are overlooked when it comes to coaching.
This article is written by Charlie Swinbourne and taken from the Guardian newspaper