Ability: overcoming the barriers for people with disabilities

Charitable housing association L&Q is at the forefront of disability recognition

Senior Project Manager Felix Lynn explains why having a disability should not prevent people from working in the construction industry.

While visiting a construction site, Felix Lynn noticed that the kitchen cabinets were close to the worktops, posing a potential hazard to people with visual impairment.

He knew this from his own experience of being visually impaired and got the height changed. Similarly, he flagged the issue of protruding doorways and cabinets in what was supposed to be an accessible property.

These instances demonstrate how L&Q, which provides homes for 250,000 people in London and the Southeast, is drawing on the expertise of disabled staff to make changes in how it builds and designs homes and why disability doesn’t prevent someone from forging a successful career in the construction industry.

Lynn has led a team of project managers in providing new housing on behalf of smaller housing associations, overseeing all contractors and stakeholders, and including accessible homes and schemes designed for vulnerable people. He’s currently looking after the recladding of L&Q’s properties in Greenwich and is set to take the helm for several large building projects worth around £73 million.

“For somebody like myself, who has a disability, to gain these opportunities is fantastic,” he says. But he did have a negative experience early on. While HR actively supported him with assistive technology and a PA to help with admin, one line manager was less sympathetic.

“I referred them to the RNIB website to get a broader understanding of my disability,” Lynn recalls. “They took that to be offensive, and their response was, ‘you’re coming up for your review; we’ll discuss it then’.

“I thought it was a bit microaggressive. But they did get additional training from an external organisation to explain to the team the challenges I faced and how they could assist me. I’ve since moved to another team, where I’ve had great support.”

Ability network

He set up and is chairman of L&Q’s disability network, Ability. Launched in November 2021, it has gone from strength to strength and will host an inaugural conference in September.

Lynn believes that, by recognising disability, L&Q is helping to drive change in the construction industry. “You have to have a sensible approach to it,” he points out. “You couldn’t expect somebody in a wheelchair to climb a ladder. But there are so many other roles, such as project management, accounts and negotiations.

“I hate to say this, but COVID-19 has opened the door to many disabled people being able to access the workplace by working remotely. The aim of Ability is for our colleagues who have hidden disabilities to disclose them or their illnesses. The central dynamic around that is to ensure that they get supported and that we at L&Q make a wholly inclusive environment where it’s OK to be your authentic self.

Lynn is putting together a video involving senior executives that will demonstrate that the leadership understands that there are employees with disabilities and health conditions that need and will receive support from L&Q. He says that many people are afraid of disclosing their disabilities and hopes that the network will encourage more people to come forward and share their experiences. One of the Ability’s successes had been revising the sickness policy that enabled people to return to work on full pay.

Experiencing discrimination

His determination to drive change stems from his own experience of discrimination. Lynn comes from a travelling community background, and when he and his parents moved from Ireland to Manchester, they faced both verbal and physical abuse.

“It was absolutely abhorrent, disgraceful,” he says. “So we went to Scotland, which was very inclusive. There’s so much stigma and stereotyping around ethnic groups, which disgusts me. We’re in an environment where we should be inclusive and diverse because it brings a wealth of talent. Having a diverse workforce can only enhance the workplace.”

Turning to the issue of housing, Lynn agrees that more needs to be done to meet the needs of ethnic communities. While there were many smaller ethnic housing groups, lack of funding was a barrier to progress,

“I had this conversation with Sadiq Khan [the London Mayor], and he was very supportive of what I was saying,” he reveals. “The problem is land prices in London. There needs to be a bigger grant system to allow smaller groups to flourish. London is a melting pot for many diverse communities, and we need the security of affordable, quality housing for our immigrants. The start of success is having somewhere of quality to live; your next aspiration is to secure good employment.

“Many Asian families are multi-generational, but we’re not accommodating them enough. House-building grants are set around one, two and three-bedroom apartments. But you get the same amount for a one-bedroom flat as for a three-bedroom. So, most housing associations will concentrate on one or two beds to capacity build because it’s more expensive to build three beds. There is a lack of intergenerational homes.”

Government proposals to introduce 50-year mortgages would help multi-generational families as they tended to keep larger properties for longer. However, the cost of living in London was driving many away from the capital.

Process interviews

Turning back to the issue of employment for people with disabilities, Lynn believes that employers need to address DEI without being solely performative. A big issue was what he calls process interviews. On the one hand, applications might state that there was no discrimination regarding age, gender, race etc., but then there would be an equalities form asking for that information.

“It boils my blood that you tick that box,” he argues. “I’m discussing this with our diversity and inclusion team. If one ticks a box, then the interview should be done by an external team or some form of committee. Many organisations say that they’re inclusive – and we at L&Q are doing many really positive things – but you can never get it right because the demographics change or Government legislation changes. It’s just ensuring that managers know how to address any issues.”

Asked what he enjoys about working at L&Q, Lynn reveals: “I’ve been in property development for many years and was a housebuilder myself. I joined L&Q because I saw the opportunity of getting involved in bigger things. And I knew that doing so would enable me to get involved in other aspects of the business by supporting our disabled colleagues and the other networks.

“I don’t believe an organisation you work for is just your job. You spend a lot of time there; you engage with many people and build relationships. Therefore, we need to be very supportive and inclusive, and by doing so, we make things better.”

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