I was invited to a conference on supporting adults with impairments in the workplace. Yes, it was really good. I enjoyed meeting people and comparing notes. And I’m very grateful to the organiser for inviting me along to an event on a subject which is close to my heart, even though my contributions tended to reflect my personal experiences rather than comment directly on the nuts and bolts of policy, strategy, and the many schemes which exist to help adults with impairments make a smooth transition into mainstream employment.
As anyone who has read my book will know, I was unable to maintain the transition to full-scale mainstreaming after support which I had previously had from Remploy was withdrawn because, to put it baldly, I was going to be earning too much. After almost eighteen months, I quit from my last professional post, suffering from profound depression and anxious about my future.
My presentation at this event did not go as I had hoped it might: though it is always hard to gauge the value of our own contributions, I did not do well, which I regret. Because of appalling conditions on the road and lack of parking, I was very late to arrive at the venue, and because I did not stick to script, my presentation lacked cogency. But the organiser had very kind things to offer about what I did say, and I am grateful.
The dust is beginning to settle, and through all the papers and power-point presentations, one remark offered early on really sticks in my mind. Asked about reasonable adjustments and the challenges of hiring adults with impairments, our speaker spoke and then added something like, ‘And we might have to consider whether employing anyone with impairments might in fact, put other colleagues at risk.’
Is it just me, or is that statement appalling? I wish – oh, how I wish – I had stood up and challenged it openly at the time. But I was newly arrived and didn’t want to shoot my bolt too soon. I wish I had challenged the speaker to explain themselves. For it seems to me to be an appallingly prejudiced assumption to make, that employees with impairments are likely to put their (able-bodied) colleagues at risk. I beg your pardon?
If any employer even suspected that, I certainly would not want to work for them. It seems like the kind of half-baked reasoning that used to be touted as sufficient excuse in the seventies and eighties: ‘You can’t come on my boat in case your drown’ – ‘you can’t come into the cinema in case there is a fire….’ I thought we were getting past that.
I used to be reasonably optimistic that political and work place progress towards inclusion was inevitable. Perhaps, since in the public sphere things have indeed moved on, one day the SMEs will catch up and we will see full-scale employment and ‘mainstreaming’ as standard. But if this is the type of comment we are still hearing from well-respected professionals in the field, perhaps I have good reason to be pessimistic. I hope I’m wrong.