Image by Nathan Riley

Acknowledging disability in the workplace: An interview with Martin Townsend

This is an excerpt the original article was published on bua-consultancy.com

"Navigating the workspace can be a challenge, irrespective of ability. Long hours, repetitive tasks and fatigue get to the best of us. The challenge only gets worse. The reality is that working as a disabled person can be a gauntlet, especially when the environment and the tasks of the job aren’t suited to your ability.

Today I sit down with Martin to discuss how he navigates the workplace as a person with Cerebral Palsy. Martin has had many jobs, from working in the service industry, to being a DJ, he loves trying his hand at everything. He’s currently working as a freelance graphic designer.

Martin’s experience with poor communication

Thank you for coming to talk to me today, Martin. I appreciate it. I’m interested to learn about your experiences of working as a disabled person. I think we should start off with an easy question: what’s your disability and how does that affect you?

'I have Hemiplegia [a type of cerebral palsy]. My right limbs are affected, mostly my right arm and hand. That would make anything that’s dextrous difficult for me, for example, I’d find it hard to pick up and hold objects in my right hand.'

What are some of the struggles you encounter in the workspace?

'The biggest struggle I have in a workplace is often my colleagues and bosses lack of communication and general understanding. It’s my main issue. Often communication is stifled by the lack of understanding of my disability; people tend to have this perception of my ability, and they’re almost always wrong.'

Martin and I worked together for a little while and because I was hired first, I found that co-workers would come up to me and ask about Martin’s ability level and what type of jobs he might be able to do. People were under the assumption, that because we both have cerebral palsy, both of us experienced it in the same way. Which isn’t true at all.

'Another thing that makes communication difficult is politeness. People feel the need to tip-toe around the topic of my disability because they think they might offend me. When actually, a proactive chat about my needs and limitations is exactly what we should be doing. People don’t want to have that talk though; they think it’s awkward. So, I often get too much help, because people assume I can’t do something, or less help when I speak up, because people think I don’t need help at all. Because of this, time and witnessing my struggles is often the best way people have learnt about my limitations.'

This has been similar to my experience in the workplace as well. I’ve found people get used to the idea of having a disabled employee eventually, but I’m often the one that has to start those awkward conversations.

Martin’s experience of accommodation and adaption in the workplace

Martin has worked a load of different jobs, from creative ones to labour-intensive ones, and I wanted to know what his experience of accommodation and adaptation was like across the board.

You’ve worked so many jobs: in your opinion, how accommodating have your different employers been?

'I’d say all my employers have been rather accepting of me and my disability, but accommodation has come at different levels. Most of the jobs I’ve done haven’t needed any real accommodation for me. My current job doesn’t allow me to work any of the party shifts – I work in a bar, which are the busiest and need the faster workers, which I’m not, so that is great for me.'

Did anything need to be adapted for you in your previous jobs? If so, how was that handled by your employers?

'Working in the service industry was the only place where I needed something changed or adapted. Working in a kitchen was a problem for me, as most of the tools and official procedures are designed to be used with both hands. Obviously, I struggled with that part, but with some changes I felt I could have been fairly good at kitchen work.'

I think one of the worst things to encounter as a disabled worker is not having your needs met, or even feeling discriminated against. It’s a tricky subject to navigate, because it relies heavily on clear and honest communication from both parties.'"