We need to talk about disability

We need to talk about disability

Before I write about my experiences of being disabled and working in publishing, I need to add a caveat. I love this industry. I had so much fun whilst working in it. It’s full of incredibly kind and hard-working and empathetic and passionate people. Most of my managers over the years went above and beyond for me. My good experiences of disability adjustments and support far outweigh my bad.

But that’s not what I’m here to write about. I’m here to write about what needs to change.

I have had medical procedures that involved needles going deep into my chest without anaesthetic, and last year surgery without morphine. But the most painful experience involving my disability by far was sitting in a string of unexpected HR meetings where no-one thought to treat me as a human being.

For disabled or chronically ill people, a lack of accessibility and acceptance can have consequences from the everyday to the lifechanging. It’s not just the big moments that can have long-term impacts on your self-esteem, mental health and even how you perceive your entire future. It’s the small things too.

It’s when conversations about adjustments to help you at work turn into conversations about how to help your colleagues better cope with the burden you place on them.

It’s watching senior colleagues face no consequences for disappearing from the office for days at a time with no-one being able to reach them, but having to fight for your own flexible working.

It’s micro-aggressions where people refer to your days working at home as special treatment, or worse, as your days off. It’s having to work harder because you know you’re under greater scrutiny than everybody else.

It’s being told that working from home – and therefore being less visible in the office – will hurt your career prospects. It’s being told to choose pain relief or promotion.

It’s about consistently working more than your contracted hours – sometimes 16 hours a day – skipping meals because there isn’t a moment spare to eat, working weekends, giving everything, and then being told some sick days and time off for medical appointments are too much of a burden on the company.

It’s job hunting but having your current manager tell potential future employers about your disability before you’ve had a chance to disclose it yourself. 

It’s having senior colleagues refuse to have phone calls with you whilst you’re working remotely, loudly complaining about how they prefer face-to-face meetings, and watching their inconvenience being prioritised over your necessary adjustments.

It’s having to do workplace health assessments where apparent experts tell you (without proof) that you’re causing your own disability by being vegan, because there are special particles in meat that can cure pain.

It’s everyone forgetting that there’s only one expert on your disability that they should listen to – you.

It’s feeling more disabled by your manager’s attitudes than by your actual disability itself.

But the purpose of this post isn’t to paint individual villains, or talk about isolated incidences (I could write so much more than this about the incredible support I received from so many colleagues). It’s to discuss practices that place productivity and profit over people, and workplace culture that sees sick days as moral failings rather than an inevitability of being human.

I still can’t talk about the worst things I faced at work due to being disabled, but do you know what’s even worse than my own experiences? Knowing that none of them are unique or unusual. They’re not unique to me, and they’re not unique to publishing. People with disabilities are going through them everyday, everywhere. 

Part of the problem is that we live in a society that values people for their productivity, and glorifies being busy. Publishing is notorious for over-working and burnout. It’s an industry full of incredibly passionate people who will push themselves beyond what’s asked of them to do an often astounding amount of work. But because that culture is so widespread, it becomes the expectation. I have always wondered if the industry would collapse if everyone only worked their contracted hours.  

Not everyone can push themselves that hard. And because the workload is high and the pace is fast, there’s sometimes very little room to cover a colleague’s work when they’re sick, or to adjust working practices for someone who needs to work a little differently. There’s very little time or capacity for empathy when you yourself are overworked, as many managers are.

The pandemic has certainly made us all rethink what kind of workplaces we want to return to. Creating more flexibility helps everyone, whether you’re disabled or not.

But one other thing the pandemic has made clearer is that anyone can become disabled. It can happen overnight. If you’re abled, it’s very short-sighted to think disability adjustments – or the lack of them – won’t potentially impact you one day.

I don’t have the space here to write about all the ways the industry could change and why it’s so important that it does. I wouldn’t want to give advice based only on my own experiences either. I’m currently doing extensive research into this, which I spoke about in more detail here. I’m also sure that lots of workplaces are doing so many good things already.

But what I would say is, change starts with education. During my career, I did Unconscious Bias and Mental Health First Aid training – both incredibly important schemes to help foster an inclusive and supportive work environment. But there was never disability-specific training, including none for HR staff or managers.

So my very basic advice would be: normalise disability training for every single employee. Normalise adding details of disability adjustments to job ads. Normalise flexible and remote working for everyone, even post-pandemic. Normalise sick days always being acceptable.

And most importantly, when disabled people tell you what they’re capable of and what they need, normalise listening to them.

Cat Mitchell is a lecturer and the programme leader for the Creative Writing and Publishing degree at the University of Derby, and she previously worked in publishing. She is currently conducting research into accessibility and inclusivity for disabled people in the UK publishing industry. Job seekers can share their experiences here, while employees should complete this survey by 5 p.m. on Wednesday 31st March.