Lost in translation: A person shouting in to a tin can telephone
The problems with ‘Disability Confident’ are well known, at least amongst disabled people. The PR scheme for employers comes from the same department that has helped more than 17,000 sick and disabled people to their deaths since 2013 by taking away benefits and deciding that work is a “health outcome” even when jobs are unsuitable, unsupported, or non-existent: The same people who boast of record numbers of disabled people in work when working one hour a fortnight counts as employment: The same people who have failed to keep track of disability discrimination claims by its own staff: And the same people who were found to have acted “perversely” in the sacking of a disabled woman on their own work programme.
‘Disability Confident’ promotes the idea of work for the DWP and makes the employer look good – without necessarily providing any help to the disabled employees it’s supposed to benefit.
Experiencing this first hand has highlighted the hypocrisy and shamelessness of organisations happy to display a logo and a certificate for a bit of good PR but unwilling and unsure how to put any of it it into practice. The lack of thought and effort that goes into delivering on these schemes (or avoiding disability discrimination in any way) really reveals how little they want or value disabled employees, or even expect them to speak up. It has given me a tiny taste of the hoops you have to jump through when you have to ask those in charge for help – and naively expect them to adhere to their own policies and values. It also reveals the many contradictory attitudes and rules at play when it comes to disability equality and inclusion in the workplace and in wider society.
I don’t want to compare my situation with the many horrific tales of disabled people in the UK trying to get the “benefits” they are entitled to but it’s hard not to notice the increasingly hostile environment for disabled people and despair at the widespread incompetence and the self-serving and punitive systems designed to make people give up and go away. These dehumanising processes are made infinitely worse when those in charge of your fate insist, like the DWP, that they are Disability Confident. My employer continues to promote this fact whilst refusing to listen to me, or talk to me at all, since raising concerns about disability discrimination. Not only are they not helping but they are causing further harm.
Ever since I became ill and opened up to my employer about my health, work has become a constant Kafkaesque battle (depressingly and ironically making my job much harder than it was before – to the point where it has become impossible). My life has been on hold for over a year and it’s so hard to keep up with the layers of obfuscation that I have had to result to writing this blog to keep me from going insane. Here’s some of the oxymoronic behaviour:
Being an expert
I am suddenly an expert on my own health when they want to prevaricate about the long list of reasonable adjustments that occupational health have recommended after they finally insisted on my referral to occupational health about 3 years after becoming ill at work, 6 months after starting a new role (in which they had repeatedly refused to carry my adjustments forward) and 1 month after lodging a grievance.
They tell me I will probably know more about hearing loop equipment than them. I don’t (I’m an expert on me not technology). And when I do send them info, it is ignored and my line manager is told not to reply to my emails.
I am NOT an expert on my own health at ALL other times:
After having three months off work, almost having brain surgery, being repatriated to the UK by work’s insurance company, and providing much medical evidence of numerous tests, treatment and diagnoses, plus letters from doctors advising how it might affect me at work and to have a conversation with my employer about any adjustments they might provide, I have to request my own return to work interview so this can be discussed. No one wants to do it.
Despite the above, fitting my employer’s definition of disability and that of the Equality Act, another manager questions my diagnosis and also asks if I can prove it is legally a disability (not really unless you want me to go to court because that is for a judge to decide). I only want to know IF they can provide any support, for example by reducing my timetable, for which I am willing to take a pay cut. It’s not a huge ask and there is a flexible working policy that other staff can take advantage of WITHOUT being disabled. When I do provide information from the Equality Act in answer to their questions, I am accused of attacking them:
Managers consistently tell me they have googled Meniere’s disease or their relative has it and therefore they know all about (are they trained to do this like Trump is taught to feign empathy with generic post-its because its an eerily common occurrence for a rare condition?):
When I request certain changes to communications about ME to facilitate reasonable adjustments being carried forward to my new job (because one manager tries to blame my faultless line manager for their failings whilst making themselves sound wonderful and me like a huge inconvenience – none of which is very relevant), I am literally told that they know best and they send the email to my new managers anyway:
I tell my new managers and HR that I am happy to speak to occupational health but that I am concerned about the timing of the referral because of further delays and complications medical intervention is likely to cause (which seems unnecessary since my disability and adjustments have long been established by work and I have already had to go through a much protracted process to get there) but my concerns are dismissed and they insist that it is necessary every three months. Well that’s the first I heard and I’ve never had another assessment before or since. They don’t seem to trust me. Perhaps they’re hoping that it won’t come back in my favour or that I give up and resign before it does. I don’t. It does. And occupational health advise that the situation would be better resolved by management rather than their intervention.
Occupational health have never met me (the assessment is done over the phone), nor are they specialists so I’m baffled that work are willing to take their word as proof of my condition but not my own, or the specialist doctors I have seen over the years. When OH advise my employers that my return to work will be dependent on resolution of work issues and adjustments, work tell me I need to go back to my doctors to get a sick note to cover me in the interim. There is still no resolution to work issues or adjustments and it’s almost a year later.
I am told that I can not see my own grievance records or reports due to confidentiality (I am also given other excuses such as they don’t exist) but I have no such privilege. I have to repeatedly share intimate details of my health, personal life and experiences at work with various members of staff in an attempt to get support. The support never comes.
My grievance investigation is conducted by a Director in another country so as to be impartial but it is over ruled and withheld by the Director where I work. When I appeal the outcome of my grievance to the Director’s manager, which is essentially impossible because the outcome I received (not favourable) doesn’t match the investigation outcome which I haven’t seen (favourable), he emails my appeal letter straight back to the Director who over ruled the original grievance so he can see my what I’ve said.
There is no confidentiality when my partner is suspended due to a minor/irrelevant/spent conviction on his criminal record and rumours fly about the reasons why. This is only “necessary” because they didn’t complete our criminal record checks before we started working with children. It is confirmed by HR that this should never be the case but yet it is and he is punished for their mistakes.
Duty of Care
Duty of care is used as a way to justify unnecessary calls, emails and demands to come in to work on the weekend. It has never been utilised for our benefit. Instead they knowingly make my job impossible and health worse by variably delaying and refusing to make the reasonable adjustments I had previously, spreading lies about me, and then later refusing to let me see or discuss my own grievance reports.
We are told health checks will be completed on arrival as part of the induction process. In my previous job with the same organisation this was very thorough and included eye tests, blood tests and x-rays. Here it consists of being taken to a GP who in exchange for a fee takes one look at us and writes a note confirming we are fit and well. The second time I need to apply for residence, a colleague gets the note without me even seeing the doctor.
I have to request information about accessing healthcare in a new country (which I need) for about 6 months before HR send me a list of English speaking doctors which I have already obtained by now via the Embassy website. I am told not to bother with the doctors in this country because its not worth the hassle. It is a hassle but I need one you see.
I also have to request confirmation of the disability absence policy about a dozen times before I receive it. It is still contradicted for the next few months and I am blamed for this confusion (I am disabled you see). I am told I don’t need to provide medical evidence if my absence is related to an ongoing condition, then I’m told I do, then I don’t, then I do… I am wasting NHS time (and mine) in the process. My sick notes advising them of exacerbation of Meniere’s and stress and anxiety go unacknowledged anyway and my line manager is told not to reply to my emails asking about adjustments and returning to work while I am signed off sick (contrary to policy – and common sense).
They eventually tell me they will make adjustments but when I ask for details and information about my return to work they won’t discuss it. At one point I even get an email from HR saying “See you on Monday” when I don’t work on Mondays and I still have no information about my return to work, adjustments, timetable, line manager… anything.
Work’s annual health insurance premium creeps up to £150 but cover is reduced. Due to moving jobs within the financial year and needing regular doctor appointments for scans and prescriptions I have to pay the premium twice (after much ado this is later refunded). Occupational health recommend returning to the UK for consolidated care and a new hearing aid which I cannot get in this country but the insurance no longer covers me outside of the region I’m working in.
When my employer tries to terminate my employment via their lawyers after I make a tribunal claim (not before raising concerns informally, going through a grievance, appeal and the internal whistle-blowing process) they are happy to leave me without access to health insurance in this country AND access to the NHS in the UK as these are both dependent on my employment with the British Council. And happy to leave me without a job evidently.
I attend a training session about disability inclusion that I cannot fully participate in due to my own hearing problems, which are being ignored and lack of adjustments, which are being refused. They ask non-disabled teachers to pretend to be blind and deaf so we know what this feels like. I don’t even know where to start with this…
We are bombarded with emails about the importance of EDI while they continue to deny my disability and any help.
The Director, who wouldn’t look at my concerns, let me complain about the bullying of other staff members, or let me participate properly in my own grievance, later overrules the grievance outcome and withholds the reports from me.
When the appeal is later considered by another Director, the original Director pretends he doesn’t have the appeal forms (which were sent to him by his manager when I appealed) but still suggests to him and HR that my appeal is invalid because it doesn’t focus on the correct criteria. He insists that they have followed the correct procedure, which doesn’t need to involve me. He suggests (threatens?) that if I am involved and if corporate (UK) HR get involved then grievances will be raised from the “other side” (against me).
He tells HR I’m attacking senior management and that he is willing to swear in court that what I have said is not true. He also suggests to them that I’m confused because I’m disabled. Wow.
He conducts a training session about unconscious bias in the meantime
We have a meeting about the importance of Child Protection and proper criminal record checks when they haven’t carried out our criminal record checks.
After raising concerns about the lack of criminal record checks for new teachers, there is a Child Protection audit but no one acknowledges we might have had a point.
I am teaching lessons about bullying and bystanders as part of anti-bullying week whilst managers repeatedly refuse adjustments, make jokes about my hearing aid, try to intimidate me with thinly veiled threats, harass us at the weekend, prevent me from attending meetings, storm out of meetings, shout and point fingers in my face aggressively, and undermine and threaten to sack my partner for no reason. No one in management or HR helps us. Two colleagues kindly stick their neck out. I am told they cannot accompany me to a meeting. When I insist, I am told that they are not allowed to speak.
I am told by a senior manager not to accuse them of bullying when I haven’t.
Later, when I do (reluctantly) raise a grievance about the problems we have faced at work, senior managers accuse not at all senior me of bullying and “attacking” them. Asking them to follow their own policies and for a bit of dignity at work is not an attack. Accusing someone of exactly what you have been doing is a poor defence and a horrible cliche.
Victim blaming and gas-lighting
I am told that I am “difficult” for asking questions about policy and procedure that has not been followed, to our detriment. This should not be my job on top of my actual job… In the next meeting I am told that their failure to make reasonable adjustments is my fault because I should have been more “pushy”. I am pulling off quite a feat being both too demanding and too meek. I can’t help wondering if a man would have to put up with this…
I am offered MORE teaching hours for LESS pay. And they also kindly offer a small and noisy telesales room for me to work in which would be the opposite of a reasonable adjustment for someone with a hearing impairment.
In the emails between senior management I shouldn’t have seen they say I am abusing my disability (lying?) but also suggest I am confused because of my disability. So disability is used as a stick to beat me with. Twice.
In my (withheld) grievance report a woman from HR, who I’ve spoken to twice in my life, describes me as being “highly strung” and stressed about being in a new country in an attempt to discredit my complaints. I have lived in a few countries quite easily and I was positively laid back about life until these bewildering processes made it a living hell. I am stressed about being lied to and lied about and having conditions (hearing loss, tinnitus, migraines and vertigo which are all worse when stressed and sleep deprived – and an aneurysm I would like not to burst) which I am doing my best to control with no help from you. And so I’m not even allowed to be concerned about this situation for fear of being dismissed as a hysterical woman… or a confused disabled person.
A manager tells other managers that I never told him about my disability even though it was disclosed on application, immediately after interview and in consecutive emails from me and a previous manager.
I am told that I did not have a reduced teaching timetable in my previous job when I did.
I am told they are under no obligation to make reasonable adjustments when legislation and their own policies says they are.
I am told they don’t want to set a precedent and they have to be fair to other staff. They don’t understand the Equality Act or the basic premise of REASONABLE adjustments.
I am told I am working under hours when I’m not.
I am told I got my own date of birth wrong on my DBS when I very much doubt it.
I am told I was unsuccessful in my application for teacher training when I didn’t/couldn’t apply due to an unworkable deadline and the uncertainty about reduced hours that I have been trying so hard to ascertain. I wanted to spend my year doing that training not being signed off sick with no income, or career to speak of.
I am told that they cannot afford to lend me a laptop (even though other staff have them and I’m working at the British Council which is not exactly deprived of resources) or make adjustments to my hours because as a ‘Network Teacher’ I am too expensive and they need to maximise our use. I am not going to be very useful when I’m ill. (Later they are happy to pay sick pay for months rather than assist my return to work and then spend thousands of pounds on solicitors and QCs defending this behaviour when I make an employment tribunal claim).
They insist that they recognise the social model of disability while they put up more barriers to inclusion. And they keep repeating that my concerns have been addressed and “lessons learned” when they really haven’t because they won’t even talk to me.
In light of the Oxfam sex scandal we are encouraged to speak out about any wrong doing, promising swift action for any breaches of the code of conduct. We have, even specifically about Child Protection, according to policy and internal procedures, but our concerns our brushed under the carpet and we are brushed out of a job.
We speak up about bullying and face more bullying from the organisation in return.
The Equality Act 2010
This is incorporated in to many British Council policies and informs a lot of what we do as teachers. We have online training, workshops, EDI weeks, steering groups etc. I am referred to Occupational Health to prove I am disabled and covered by the Equality Act before they will make adjustments that had already been agreed by the British Council. OH advise that the probability of disability is likely according to the EqA but when it comes to the crunch the British Council argue that it doesn’t apply in my case because I work abroad. The British Council conducts most of its work abroad. So we are held to account to the policies my employer promotes but offered none of the protection. Professionals standards without any semblance of professional conditions.
When I lodge a tribunal claim, my employer’s lawyers argue that the UK has no territorial jurisdiction to hear it because my employment with the British Council has no connection to the UK and they threaten me with costs on that basis, whilst also advising that they cannot settle the claim because it would have to be approved by the UK treasury.
We teachers have no Union or staff association (when we eventually got a teacher’s rep we were told by one manager that her job is not to represent teachers!). Higher managers are of course on much better contracts with actual employment rights and access to the union.
My MP writes to the Chief Executive of the British Council to ask about our (lack of) employment rights and union. The following week HR sends out emails about elections for the local staff association because “it’s very important to have strong staff representation”. The British Council insists that the spirit of the EqA is captured in its own equality policy and that there is a strong relationship with the staff association. Neither apply to me though.
My employer is signed up to the much maligned Government Disability Confident scheme which is supposed to demonstrate their commitment to recruiting and supporting disabled staff in work. ‘Proactively offering and making reasonable adjustments as required’ and ‘Ensuring there are no barriers to the development and progression of disabled staff’ are core actions for the Disability Confident Employer (level 2) badge, which my employer advertises. But all that is required to sign up is agreeing to five commitments and identifying ONE action that will make a difference to disabled people. They don’t have to prove anything and there is no auditing… so… when I disclosed my disability on application (for the first time in my life), I trusted they were what they said they were and they spend the next year trying not to make reasonable adjustments for me, which would have benefited both me and my employer.