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Disability Narratives

We asked people if they had any advice, thoughts or reflections about disability in the workplace to share with colleagues and managers. In particular, what could people do less or more of to support them at work.

It was important to several people we spoke to that their colleagues do not feel sorry for them or pity them. Maria lost her sight over a period of years. She appreciated the "cheerful" way her bosses worked with her and how they talked to her about her disability.

Click for Maria's interviewMaria describes the ways that her colleagues can be supportive – and that she does not want their pity.


One reaction some people encountered was that their managers and colleagues were worried, anxious or afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing around them. As Ruth experienced, this can lead to people taking an unhelpful approach. Instead of "how can I help?" they think, "how do I protect myself?"

Maeve suggests that even when you know a little about a condition – such as epilepsy – it is unlikely that you will know about a person's individual circumstances. Therefore it would be best to start by "ask[ing] them to explain what the condition is, if they want to talk about it."

Fears and worries about doing or saying the wrong thing can also lead people to seek "rules" about what to do. For example, should you hold the door open for Kevin, who uses crutches, or might this be seen as paternalistic or patronising? But, as Kevin explains, it can never be as simple as "always" holding a door open (or not). So the best advice is to "just ask".

Click for Kevin's interviewAlthough he’d rather people did not hold the door open, Kevin understands that other disabled people would.


Some people will have established good ways of working that accommodate their disability. So a new manager or colleague only needs to ask about what has worked well in the past.

Click for Jo's interviewJo has worked with several managers and has advice for people managing a disabled person for the first time.


However, for some people having a disability at work was something new for them too. In those circumstances, it can be difficult to provide clear direction or preferences to managers and colleagues.

Click for Susannah's interviewSusannah explains that it can take time to work out what is needed and it helps if managers show their human side.


Some ways you can be a supportive manager or colleague
Drawing on the advice and comments of the people we interviewed, we have tried to put together some useful suggestions for managers and colleagues.

  • Do some research about the condition or disability.
  • Ask the person what they need.
  • Listen to what the person has to say, take them seriously, and follow-up with actions.
  • It may take time as there is often no quick fix.
  • Be understanding of the wider context of living with a disability and have a flexible approach.
  • Check with staff regularly to see if things have changed.
  • Be patient, considerate and compassionate, see the strength in a diverse team, and be human.

Of course, the list is not exhaustive and not every suggestion will be appropriate to every situation. But if you listen to the people we spoke to, you might feel more confident and better equipped to support those around you.

Do some research about the condition or disability

Many people we spoke to said they would be happy to tell a colleague or manager about their condition. But it was also noted that it can be exhausting to have to do so on a regular basis. If a manager can educate his or her self about a condition they may be able to combine that with their knowledge of what support is available.

Click for Gabrielle's interview© Disability NarrativesKnowing something about the condition can help you find better ways to support a person.


Click for Verity's interviewSome conditions or disabilities worry or frighten colleagues, but there are good websites that can inform and facilitate conversations.


Click for Ruth's interviewThe University has many resources that can be drawn upon.


Ask the person what they need

Having some background knowledge if a condition or disability is useful. But unless you talk to the person involved, you cannot know how it is affecting them as an individual.

Click for Sue's interviewSue says that by talking to and reassuring staff, managers can find the best ways to get the most from them.


Listen to what the person has to say, take them seriously, and follow-up with actions
Some of the people we spoke to recounted how they had been asked what support they needed, but did not feel that their response were listened to or their needs were taken seriously. Jo Z explained that she found it helpful that her manager was "really open and a good listener. And recognise that whilst it was very easy about talking to my boss, for some people that might not be so easy, depending on the condition."

Click for Charlotte's interview© Disability NarrativesCharlotte describes how she felt her concerns were taken seriously.


It is important to realise that telling someone about your condition or disability can be an emotional and difficult thing to do. This might be especially so in the context of talking to a manager about what support is available.

Click for Charlotte's interview© Disability NarrativesTalking to someone about their condition can be difficult for all involved, Charlotte suggests that’s sometimes it is better to get help so that necessary action can be taken.


Click for Roberta's interviewTalking and listening is just the first step for Roberta, it needs to be followed-up with action.


It may take time as there is often no quick fix

Some people we spoke to said that they had very helpful and supportive meeting with their manager either when they started a new role or at the onset of a condition or disability. However, it was then felt that any issues or problems had been "fixed". Yet one of the hardest parts of a long term condition or disability can be how it fluctuates, seemingly without cause or reason. Many people felt that it would help if colleagues and managers could be more aware of this.

Click for Susannah's interviewEven when everything that could be done, was being done, Susannah found she could still have bad days.


Click for Liz's interviewLiz found she did not always know what she wanted day-to-day, but appreciated people asking.


Be understanding of the wider context of living with a disability and have a flexible approach.

Some of the people we spoke to told us how living with a long term condition or disability can in and of itself be a full-time occupation. For some life needed a lot of organising, from day-to-day support to long awaited healthcare appointments, and took up a lot of a person's physical and emotional energy. Managers who understood this and had a flexible approach to supporting people with a long term condition or disability were greatly valued. As Ruth suggested, managers should be prepared to "experiment" with work practices and support provided to staff with a long term condition or disability.


Click for Devon's interviewBeing flexible helps managers get the most out of staff who might have limited resources to give.


Click for Verity's interviewVerity finds that healthcare appointments can be hard to get, are not always at convenient times, and can be draining or upsetting to attend.


Check with staff regularly to see if things have changed

For participants whose managers were aware that things can change it was helpful to have some form of arrangement whereby the manager "checked-in" to see if anything had changed. For some this was an informal arrangement, for others it was part of their regular meetings. In each case it was found to help open up communication about a condition or disability between the person we interviewed and their manager. It also helped to make sure that any action, requests or referrals were followed-up in a timely way and avoided leaving people feeling as though their time and energy had been wasted.

Click for Gabrielle's interview© Disability NarrativesIf Gabrielle had regular conversations about the support she needed (or not), it may have helped her manager prepare for the time when she did need it.


Click for Ruth's interviewRuth finds managers need to be sensitive to the difficult balance between checking-in and not be too intrusive.


Click for Stella's interviewIt can sometimes be incumbent upon the manager to open up a space to explore new forms of support that can be offered, as some staff may be reluctant to discuss the help they need.


Be patient, considerate and compassionate, see the strength in a diverse team, and be human

We found that if there cannot be "rules" about how to help support a person with long term conditions or disability, there was an attitude that many people we spoke to wanted to see. Being compassionate, considerate, and having patience to understand the situation a member of staff of colleague is in were found to go a long way when negotiating many situations. Not seeing a disabled person as a disadvantage or problem for the team, but as a person who has strengths and a significant contribution to offer also helped. But if one word was used to sum up what was needed, it was to remember to be human.


Click for Paul's interviewReflecting on the teams he has worked in, Paul found diversity was a key strength.


Click for Mary's interview© Disability NarrativesMary found it liberating when her manager took the approach to help her excel at the work she could do, rather than focus on what was difficult for her.


Click for Richard's interviewFor Richard, being patient, considerate and compassionate is your basic role as a human being.

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