Guest blog: How flexibility can impact on disability in the workplace

Today’s guest blog is from Elizabeth Wright, Paralympic medallist, professional speaker and author (www.elizabethwright.net):

It was my first paid job – EVER! I was nearly eighteen, had a disability, limb deficiency, and was training hard for the 2000 Paralympic Games. Janine, the boss of the Olympic Shop in Sydney, had been looking for two up-and-coming athletes to work on a casual basis at the shop – to bring a little excitement and an all inclusive sporty feel to the premises. I had managed to snag one of these jobs, and therefore, between my morning training and my evening training at the pool, I would work for 4 hours three days a week. Janine, my boss, understood when I had to sit down for a while due to my disability, or if I had to change a work day due to a swimming competition. I felt appreciated and because of this I gave my all to my job. That’s to say, I didn’t particularly enjoy working in a shop, but the boss and fellow workers were so understanding of my situation that my time there was pleasant, I had fun, I felt included.

A year later I moved an hour away from Sydney, which meant I had to leave the Olympic Shop. I was still training for the Paralympics, but I had to find something else to do, something else to focus on to keep me from burning out in my sport. So, I started a marketing degree at TAFE (Technical and Further Education College), which fit perfectly in with my disability and training. I also looked for work experience in marketing, with the hopes that it may lead to a paid job. Going into this venture I determined that I would have to be completely honest with the marketing firm which took me on – I have a disability which means I have varying needs from other people, and I am also training for the Paralympics and my work cannot interfere with my training; in other words I need flexibility and support from my workplace for both aspects of my life. I found a marketing firm that would take me on for work experience … little did I know how scarily different this work experience would be for me from my Olympic Shop experience. Accommodation was not given for my disability, or swimming training, I was so exhausted by the time I got home from work that I could barely make it up and down the lanes at the pool. I physically could not cope, and because I physically could not cope, I mentally couldn’t cope either. The stress drove me to tears and ill health and the lack of understanding made me feel worthless and lazy. I lasted two weeks at the marketing firm.

Flexibility in the workplace has become the new “IT” word, especially now, with the government here in the UK opening up the flexible working options for many more people on the 30th June. The thing is, as a focus on work/life balance, the whole flexible working thing is seen as a solution for “workers” (be that anyone who works) without further discussion into how this can open up the workplace for those with specialist needs due to their physical and mental health. Firstly, though, what is flexible working and how does it impact on people in general?

Flexible working can include: “Flexitime,” “Compressed Hours,” “Annual Hours,” “Staggered Hours,” and “Job Sharing.” These varying ways of working can reduce the stress on staff, lead to better physical and mental health for workers, and reduce negative spill-over. With the advent of certain technologies, particularly ViOP programs, the ability to work anywhere, anytime, is becoming an appealing way to do business. The question I have though, is why, when we now have flexible work as an option for people, people with disabilities are still being overlooked for positions?

Of course problems can arise from flexible working that can create negative perceptions; some people think that flexible working can mean the work that needs to be done is not getting done, that employee relationships can breakdown, that the employee doesn’t have the companies best interest at heart. However, if the flexible working is managed in such a way that all options are catered for and businesses are still tied together through technology, why shouldn’t it work – especially for those with a disability?

What impact, then, can flexible working hours have on the person with a disability? Disability is a term so wide and varied these days, therefore, when it comes to flexible working there has to be an openness to what that can mean to people. The main points though include – time management for medical and health related factors, accommodation for lack of transport, the ability to adjust work days to fit with the physical implications of disability, and most importantly, the understanding shown towards the person with a disability by their employer. When these points (and others) are considered it opens the door to a wider variety of workers as well as clear communication between the wants and needs of both the employee and employer.

I am now self-employed as a professional speaker and writer, my work time is keenly balanced with my disability, allowing me the space to keep myself healthy and stress free. Because I am healthy, stress free, and managing my disability, when it comes to speaking at companies, conferences, and schools I can give my all, I can be energetic, enthusiastic, and authentic, I can do the job to the absolute best of my ability. I can manage my hours to fit in with the exercise I need to keep my balance good and my full limbs strong, I can dictate the amount of speaking I do a week which controls the amount of standing I can do and rest I need, and I can minimise the stress that comes with working whilst having a disability. Working flexibly means that I can give my all everyday, whether it be at work or in life; and this is something that can enable people with disabilities to reach their potential in all facets of their lives.

 

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