Tag Archives: disability support

Championing rights for disabled people in the workplace 

As the world prepares to observe the United Nation’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities, on Friday 3 December, we speak to Birkbeck PhD student, Stephen ‘Ben’ Morris who shares details of his own journey with a disability and his research on how neurodiverse individuals can be supported into the workforce. 

Stephen 'Ben' Morris

 The global, annual observance of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities was proclaimed in 1992 by the UN to promote the rights and wellbeing of disabled people.  What has been your own personal experience with a disability? 

When people meet me, I hope they see me as ‘Ben,’ with all of the positive characteristics and contributions I can provide as a fellow human being. In most cases, I feel this is accurate; yet, when it has been determined that I am a person with a disability, the way I am treated varies on a regular basis. Some of the treatment is due to other people’s ignorance – for example, I can be bypassed in conversations even if they are about me; or, on occasion, malice, because others don’t understand or are afraid of my difference. Even when the intentions are positive, how I am treated can still have an effect on me.  

For example, people can become overprotective because of my disability, which can limit the opportunities accessible to me. I have been passed over for promotions because my employer is concerned about the expectations this advancement will place on me. Personally, I consider my disability as a positive because it gives me many strengths; nevertheless, I believe society needs to change its perspective and see me as a whole, not just see my limitations. 

Coinciding with the UN day of observance on 3 December is UK Disability History Month, which runs until 18 December. One of the key themes is around hidden disabilities- can you share a bit about your research and its links to those disabilities which are not necessarily ‘seen’? 

My research will centre on assisting neurodiverse individuals (who have a divergence in mental or neurological function from what is considered typical or normal) in entering the workforce. This will be a two-pronged strategy. The first approach is to listen to the neurodiverse community and understand their needs, desires, and barriers to work. The second approach focuses on the employer and teaching them how to support neurodiverse individuals in order to make work more accessible and achievable.  

From the research, I hope that finding the correct ‘fit’ will benefit both the neurodiverse individual and an organisation. The individual will be included in the working society and possibly feel self-worth, while an organisation can utilise untapped skills and talent. 

What do you see as the greatest challenges as you proceed through your research? 

Right now, I’m concerned about the future. I’m concerned about those who refuse to take part in my research. I recognise that people are frequently afraid of change, and I hope that the findings can be used and benefited from. Fortunately, I am being sponsored by Hays Recruitment and have connections with employers and neurodiverse communities, so I’m hopeful that will help me to locate participants for my studies. 

I’m also concerned by the data: only 31% of disabled people in the UK are in employment. Many desire to work but for a variety of reasons, they are unable to do so. Getting a job, if you are neurodiverse, can be very difficult.  

What are you most inspired by when it comes to the disabled community and the progress in terms of championing for disabled rights, better services and more exposure of the issues? 

People should be willing to speak up for their beliefs, especially if it would benefit others. When people speak up for what they believe in, it can spark a movement in which other like-minded people work together to achieve a common objective. This collaboration decreases loneliness and isolation, and as this movement gains traction, more people will listen, and more action and understanding will begin. I believe that during the last few decades, there has been a growing sense of solidarity in the disabled community, and that some others are taking notice. More, though, is still required. It is vital to remember that it is just as difficult for a neurotypical (non-diverse) person to enter the realm of disability as it is for a neurodiverse/disabled person to enter neurotypical society. 

I wish to live in a world where everyone is recognised for their uniqueness and individuality. I believe that everyone has something to offer society, from innovative new ideas to spreading happiness and love. I believe there is an overemphasis on labels…people frequently notice the label before the person. I constantly campaign to highlight the advantages of what minority groups can do if they are given the opportunity. I believe it is equally vital for me to share my thoughts with other persons with disabilities, their family members, co-workers, and experts, because the more one teaches, the more one learns. It would be an accomplishment if my stories/experiences helped improve the lives of even one person. 

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Birkbeck academic makes the ‘Disability Power 100’ list

Professor Martin Paul Eve (School of Arts) has been named on the Shaw Trust’s ‘Disability Power 100’ list, which celebrates the UK’s most influential disabled people. Here, he shares his own experience with a disability and speaks on both the ongoing challenging environment for the disabled community plus their heightened visibility.

Professor Martin Paul Eve

Q1) What does it mean to be one of the 100 finalists, selected from over 550 nominations?

This is an important award for me. My health and disability have played majorly detrimental roles in my life and it’s something I have to fight against almost every day. To be recognised as successful in spite of this is, I feel, extremely important, although celebrating the achievements of disabled people who do well should never be used as a comparator to people who aren’t able to ‘overcome’ their own challenges to the same extent. I am fortunate, in many ways, to have got where I am and luck plays a huge role.

Q2) Shaw Trust uses the annual event to highlight how businesses, and others, can champion more opportunities for the disabled. What progress have you witnessed at Birkbeck with respect to this?

Birkbeck is committed to the Disability Confident Scheme and I applaud that, but I would like the College to go further. I have co-chaired the Staff Disability Network for the past year and it’s clear that we have the opportunity to make a step change around disability in the same way that we have seen for gender and race. But it needs people to prioritise it.

Q3) In your view, what are the most critical issues facing the disabled community in the UK?

Disabled people, or people with disabilities (this terminology is contested), face continued persecution in their day-to-day activities. This should be unacceptable in the twenty-first century. That is why I am pleased to stand up and declare my status from a position of relative privilege. The ongoing impact of the pandemic also affects this group disproportionately. It is still not safe for me to leave the house and I remain in lockdown/shielding, despite the withdrawal of government support for people in this group.

Q4) What more can we all do to address those issues?

The visibility of disabled people does a lot to help. The Paralympics, actress Rose Ayling-Ellis on Strictly Come Dancing and the Shaw Trust’s list are all ways of showcasing the rich lives of disabled people, as people. But we also need a more empathetic society; one that values disabled people’s lives. In the past year, 60% of deaths from the pandemic have been disabled and vulnerable individuals. Writing this off as collateral is simply barbaric.

Q5) Disability History Month is being observed later this month (18 November). What value do you see from such events and how would you like to see people getting involved?

Disability History month is an important way in which the complex historical narratives about disability can be brought to greater attention and used to alter how disability is perceived in our present. For example, not many people outside of disability studies know of the ‘social model’ of disability, in which disability is seen as a socially constructed phenomenon. That is, rather than a person ‘having’ a disability, they are disabled by society. A good example is the use of stairs instead of ramps. It’s not that the person has a dis-ability to get to the top of the stairs, it’s that the societal choice to use stairs rather than an accessible ramp caused the disability. Disability history month is a time when we can celebrate the achievements of the disability rights movement and use this space to educate people about issues like this.

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The Disability Discrimination Act – what’s changed?

This November we celebrate 25 years since the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act. In this blog, Mark Pimm, Birkbeck’s Disability Service Manager who is blind, shares his experiences as a university student and how the world has changed since the passing of the Act.

Mark Pimm with his guide dog, Sonny

Twenty-five years ago, on 8 November 1995, the Disability Discrimination Act was passed and it got me thinking about how student life has changed in a quarter of a century.  There were no tuition fee loans and a pint of beer in the Student Union bar cost a pound, but life was a lot more challenging for disabled students.  There were no disability officers, universities weren’t required to make provision for disabled students – in fact, before the Act, we had no legal rights.

There was a Disabled Students’ Allowance, but at that time it was so small I couldn’t afford a computer; all I had was a writing machine with 32 megabytes of ram.

Because I did not have a computer and could not read Braille, I did everything on tape.  I recruited a team of volunteers to read my textbooks onto tape. I drafted my notes for essays onto cassette tapes and listened back to the notes when I came to write the essay.  All my exam notes were put onto tape, and I listened to these to revise. To give an idea of the scale, I had over 500 tapes containing over 2,000 hours of recording. Even though I was organised, it often took me an hour to find the right point on the right tape.

In those days, being blind I knew I would never get a non-graduate job. If I wanted to work, I had to get a degree. I had no choice but to carry on despite extraordinary odds because if I didn’t, I would never work.

What would be the difference today? If I was coming to Birkbeck now, the Disabled Students’ Allowance would pay for a computer with specialist software and training to ensure I could use it to access our online learning. It would fund an electronic notetaker, who would provide me with notes from all my lectures by email.

The university’s virtual learning environment would be accessible to me and I’d have access to the teaching materials in advance of our lectures, enabling me to read, as well as understand the structure of the lectures, prior to attending them. I could use the platform SensusAccess to make the electronic documents accessible to me and access the Royal National Institute of Blind People’s audible book service.

The number of additional things I’d need to do for myself would be reduced. I’d have the time to think about my future career and with support like the Ability Programme would be able to develop the transferrable skills that might mean that I could progress straight from graduation to employment, as my non-disabled peers can do.

It’s truly remarkable and inspiring to see how far we’ve come, thanks to those campaigners in the 90s.

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