What’s made me so positive? Probably the environment I grew up in rather than my disability. Growing up in the 1980s there was girl power, breaking the glass ceiling, and women who rule. So, I think that made me confident.
My disability came later in life, so I’ve only been in wheelchair for seven years. I’ve been diagnosed with MS for 15 years.
Having a disability has changed me slightly. I never really knew what it was like to feel different before, but now I always feel different. Every time I wheel into a room, it feels like everyone is looking at me and judging me in a different way than perhaps they would have done if I was fully able bodied.
There are no role models for me in business to look and assess how I should behave. Should I explain why I’m disabled, or do I pretend I’m not? I have Steven Hawking and few disabled comedians to look up to and that’s about it.
I feel constantly excluded and undervalued in society on a daily basis. It’s almost a given – if you’re in a wheelchair, you’re not worth anything. That’s what I experience most days.
However, Grant Thornton has been pretty fabulous. I’ve never felt any exclusion or different treatment from anyone in the firm.
There are moments in business life generally where I feel excluded though. Going to external training courses or conferences, everyone rushes off in the breaks to be first in the queue for coffee or the loos and I’m usually left sitting at the table on my own because I’m at the wrong height for a stand up chitchat and I can’t wheel my chair and hold a hot cup of coffee at the same time. I’m also a trip hazard, so I might get coffee over my head!
I usually sit there pretending I really want to play Sudoku on my phone and not join in with everyone having a laugh. It’s the one time I feel most excluded in business.
I don’t think those people are deliberately avoiding me, people just aren’t aware. So next time you rush off in the break at a conference, just turn around and if someone’s sat on their own, particularly if it’s me, bring me a cup of coffee and come and have a chat so I don’t feel excluded.
Exclusion is a really uncomfortable feeling. I feel disabled when I’m excluded, like I can’t do things. As an independent and positive person who always sees the bright side of everything, that makes me feel horrible. I end up not valuing myself and it knocks my confidence and I get angry with myself. It would just be nice to not ever have to feel like that. I never mention it to others as I don’t want others to pity me.
“I don’t want to feel like the elephant in a room”
I’m one of the few who loved lockdown because it introduced us to using Teams. People can’t see my disability on Teams so I don’t have to explain or over justify myself. And everyone goes for their own tea break so there’s no chance I can feel excluded then. Teams has been the best thing that’s happened to me in relation to my disability for a very long time.
When Boris said lockdown was over, I was gutted and really worried. I hadn’t driven in two years and didn’t know if I still could! Not only that, but I was shielding at home and hadn’t even left the house due to health risk so I became reclusive. I used to struggle to get in and out of the office every day before lockdown, but I’m not even physically able to do that now.
I’m fortunate that all the FAAS team was really understanding. They knew I could work just as effectively from home, and even though they’d love to see me, it was going to be more aggravation than benefit for me to come in.
Because most of my life hasn’t been in a wheelchair, I know what inclusion should feel like. It’s not something amazing, it’s just what should happen every day in normal life. You don’t recognise normal when it’s normal.
Being treated differently in society for my disability
Isle of Wight ferry
A standard memory of exclusion for me was going to the Isle of Wight for an audit committee. Because it was evening time, I felt more comfortable with my husband coming with me. I’d often travelled from Southampton to Cowes before and being in a wheelchair I settled myself in the aisle, not on a seat. A member of staff said I couldn’t sit in the aisle as I was blocking the walkway. I moved and was told again that I was blocking people’s exit down the aisle. This time we moved right to the back, and yet again I was told I was blocking away. I was angry at this point asking, ‘Where on earth do you want me to sit?’. She advised I sit with the luggage area…and in an emergency, no one is supposed to collect their luggage. I’ve never travelled with that particular operator since.
Some people ask me why I didn’t complain, but if I did that for every time I am mistreated for being in a wheelchair, I’d spend all of my time reporting disabled abuse.
Catching trains and taxis
I have to give 24 hours’ notice to travel by train, to notify passenger assistance staff to help me. They will usually be waiting at the platform when I arrive and help to set up the ramp onto the train. But if they can’t get the right assistance to the station, the train guard is notified that someone with a disability is waiting at the platform.
One time, when Tony and Dave (my local train stations assistants) weren’t there, I had to rely on the guard to help me on the train. I was told to wait by the disabled doors and waited for assistance.
The guard saw me waiting, blew his whistle and the train departed while I was left at the platform. In rage, I was chasing this train down the platform in my wheelchair swearing at him. I had a meeting in London that I was going to miss.
Two ladies that saw it happen complained on my behalf as they’d seen what had happened, and I also complained. I was notified that he had been put on disability awareness training, but what I really wanted was for him to experience how that felt in my shoes.
Situations make you feel like you can’t cope going out into the world. Taxi drivers often won’t stop for me in the rain because they know they have to get out to help me, even when I’m with my husband. I used to hide and my husband would wave down the taxi before I’d emerge – it was like a game for us.
Difference is different for everyone
Exclusion is different for everyone and is a very personal thing. Not everyone will feel comfortable with it being discussed openly. I have no problem telling people I have MS, but there will be someone else with the same medical condition who won’t want people to know and they have a right to not have to share that. Equally, they may not want to discuss the medical explanation that sit behind it.
In other ways, it’s important to talk about difference where there’s lack of understanding. An example of difference that I don’t fully understand is around people who don’t identify as male or female, or who are non-gender conforming people. I saw one of our people’s stories on the intranet about it who recently joined and was a non-binary person, so I googled it to learn more because I realised that it was something I needed to know more about.
We need a balance when talking about difference. I think talking about it is good in that it encourages people to learn more, but equally I think we need to be careful that by talking about difference we don’t make people feel different.
I now recognise that earlier in my life, I held unconscious bias in the workplace. I grew up in the 1980s and 90s, and to me that was the time when we had the most misogynistic, racist, homophobic society I’ve ever experienced.
Since I’ve been aware of unconscious bias, some of my recruitment decisions 10 or so years ago were based on an unconscious bias that I had – not because I’m a nasty person, but because I’d grown up in an environment where it was acceptable to make judgements about people, not based on their skills but based on their characteristics. So being aware of unconscious bias is really helpful in helping you to change, because if you don’t know you’re doing it you’re not going to change it. If you do, you can do something about it.
Having unconscious bias is a bit like having Covid… you can have it and not know you’ve got it! There are lots of people wandering around thinking they don’t have biases, so you have to take a test to know.