With more disabled people predicted to fall into poverty in the next few months because of the cost-of-living crisis, spinal cord injured people have spoken out about their right to work being denied.
According to the Spinal Injuries Association’s latest report, ‘What Matters,’ 75% said access to employment is a barrier to leading an equal life, with some even saying they felt useless and unemployable. The report shows that the right to a job that reflects their skills, aspirations and experiences was seen, by many with spinal cord injuries, as not being recognised.
Released this week, ‘What Matters’ is an annual report to understand the main obstacles of spinal cord injured (SCI) people living in the UK today, with responses from SCI people, their friends and family.
Many SCI people struggle with unavoidable additional costs because of their disability, but those who, before their injury, were experienced and valued members of the workforce feel their right to work is being denied.
Access to work
David Collins of Longridge, Birmingham, had to give up his former career as a professional engineer in the aircraft industry following a spinal stroke despite his desire and ability to work: “I had worked for many years for several companies and gained a lot of experience. After my spinal stroke, I became a wheelchair user, and I tried applying for many jobs I knew I was qualified to do and had several interviews but could not get a position, even for a short-term contract carrying out the same work I was previously doing on the same components.”
A large number in the report expressed the opinion that attitudes need to change, with a massive 92% of respondents saying they believe the public is one of the biggest barriers regarding society’s attitudes about people with disabilities.
One respondent who wishes to remain anonymous, so she does not have to relive her traumatic experience with her employer felt she had no option but to take retirement ten years early.
She blames her employers, who were not prepared to act on access problems: “I’ve made a success of retirement, but it was not what I wanted. I was incredibly determined to go back to work and went back as a teaching assistant six months after my accident. But as time went on, I felt isolated because the adaptations that the occupational therapist had recommended, which were only the bare minimum, were being challenged.
“In the end, I felt as if I was the one being awkward for wanting more accessibility. I used to have to sit on my own at lunchtime because the staff room was upstairs, and I felt lonely and isolated.
“Going through the process had an enormous impact on my mental health, for which I sought treatment and have come through it. I said at the time that if someone as resilient as myself could not manage to stay in work, how was the aim of getting more spinal cord injured people into work going to be achieved?“
Experiences like this reflect that despite some improvement, we still need a change of attitude from employers and the need for more equality in the workplace.
Things can still be challenging for those who can return to their former career post-injury.
Stella Hall from Kent was shocked by her employer’s ignorance: “I am office based, and it took about eight years after my SCI for the company I work for to acknowledge I needed additional support/aids around the office.
“When I complained about the lack of accessible toilet facilities, I was shocked to be told I should go to the toilet before I leave the house! A rail was installed in one of the main toilets but with the associated bowel and bladder problems that come with a spinal cord injury, waiting for others to use it was not always an option.
“In 2020, they finally had an accessible toilet put in… ten years after my injury. My employers now really look after me, but the ignorance and lack of understanding in the early days was astounding.”
Stella, who has worked for the same company for 26 years, but is reluctant to name them, has advice for anyone returning to their original workplace: “Be 110% honest about what needs to be in place for your return. Even the uncomfortable stuff, such as bowel and bladder management, you mustn’t be afraid to be upfront about. Many of these companies can receive help with additional costs, so you should never feel like a burden.”
Paul Williams of Swepstone in Leicestershire says employment is hard, but a career is impossible: “In 2007, I was involved in a serious road traffic accident which left me with a spinal cord injury, but the biggest injury to my life was my career. I became trapped, unable to find work with a new employer. My condition was unfairly seen as a burden when actually, an SCI person brings a unique perspective, enriching a business.”
Disability Campaigner Shani Dhanda believes there has never been a clearer case for businesses to make an effort to recognise the skills that disabled people can bring to the workplace: “For many of us, having a job is something that is fulfilling personally, economically, socially, and professionally.
“It goes without saying that disabled people should have the same job opportunities as everyone else, but research like this from the Spinal Injuries Association proves that this is still not the case.”
The Spinal Injuries Association is helping tackle some of these issues by supporting people at vocational clinics in spinal centres across the UK. By sharing the lived experiences of those that have returned to work, they can help others. They also work on behalf of an employee to manage a phased return to the workplace to manage fatigue after a lengthy period of rehabilitation, whilst at the same time advising an employer on what is required in terms of equipment and access, including accessible toilets.
Gary Dawson worked a manual job as an electrician and said that losing his ability to walk following a motorcycle accident really shook him to the core. Gary now works for the charity supporting others with SCI in the north and has been in employment for ten years but accepts he is one of the lucky ones.
“I have seen a significant change in my life since I have been in employment. I have been able to buy a house, go on holidays and enjoy some of the finer things in life that I could never afford whilst on benefits. Most importantly, I noticed an increase in my confidence and self-esteem. I was a full participant in the world again. Working has its challenges. However, I love my job, and I love working. It has given me a freedom that government assistance could not offer.”
Nik Hartley OBE, CEO of the Spinal Injuries Association, said: “SIA works across the country to ensure that people with spinal cord injuries are valued and not ignored. Our mission – a fulfilled life for everyone affected by a spinal cord injury – is, in our opinion, a fundamental and achievable right of every spinal cord injured person. Yet this annual survey and the stories we hear every day indicate that physical and cultural barriers are pervasive in workplaces.
“For the vast majority of us, our careers fundamentally affect our self-esteem; interaction in a workplace can help remove feelings of isolation and loneliness, which we know from this report is prevalent amongst our members. People with a spinal cord injury are being denied the right to work where small adjustments would make it possible. This must change.”