It shouldn’t be this hard: how to (and not to) support physically disabled employees

Tanya Beaney, director and founder of Disabled Identification (DID) Card, who endured a disabling injury while in employment, talks to us about the lessons employers can learn from her experience.


While working for a leading multinational company, Tanya Beaney, now a director and founder of Disabled Identification Card – a national disabled ID card initiative – suffered an injury that left her disabled. As such, she has experienced firsthand, from a work perspective, the difficulties associated with such a life-changing event.

What started as an ankle injury, requiring some initial time off, resulted in unsuccessful surgery to correct the ankle that has left Beaney unable to walk without the aid of crutches.

A traumatic enough story as it is, her situation was not helped by the actions of her employer, and it’s a case that throws up a number of lessons for companies employing staff with disabilities.

Discriminatory treatment

Due to the nature of the initial injury she was unable to travel to the office and had to keep her foot raised.

 “It was an absolute nightmare,” Beaney, who, ironically, worked as an HR consultant, recalls. “When my ankle first went, I needed about six weeks off. [My employers] asked me to work when I was off sick, which was fine, and I did two to three days a week and evenings.”

While she more than fulfilled her obligated hours, the timing of when she was able to work was – due to her injury – ad hoc; a situation that her employer found difficult to cope with.

“They asked, ‘When are you going to work when you are off?  What days? What times? I replied, ‘I don’t know. It depends on how my ankle is and how I am feeling.’ It got to the point where they insisted on knowing when exactly I was going to work.

“I ended up going back to my doctor in floods of tears and he signed me off. Actually, he partly signed me off with depression as well as the ankle.”

Her injury, however, didn’t heal quickly as she had hoped. Following an appointment with a specialist, Beaney was told she would require surgery and could potentially be off work for six to nine months. At this point, though, she still expected to make a full recovery.

“When I told work I was going to need surgery they made me redundant, which legally they couldn’t do. They said that during my six weeks off work they had realised they could make do without my role.

“They got rid of me just before I went into surgery, so of course I couldn’t get another job. And I couldn’t prove that they got rid of me because I was disabled – I wasn’t officially disabled at the time, I had just had an accident.”

Getting back to work

Although this was obviously hard to take, the more challenging part came when Beaney was able to return to work, especially as now – following an unsuccessful operation – she was officially disabled.

“The hard bit is what do you do when a life-changing thing has happened,” says Beaney. “If you’ve become disabled while employed, legally they have to do everything in their power to retain you. But the harsh reality is [if you are unemployed] how do you get back into work, especially when you have been working for years at a senior level and you can’t travel?

“I couldn’t drive for 16 months and even when I got my car adapted so I could I couldn’t drive for long [periods of time].

Applying for jobs proved a “frustrating” experience. “All application forms ask, ‘Do you have a disability?’ While [employers] are not allowed to screen you on that basis, in practice I was asked, ‘Why haven’t you worked for the last two years?’ ‘Well,’ I replied, ‘I’ve had surgery that has left me walking with crutches… But my brain still works.’

“This used to make me so cross – I’m still a highly educated, articulate, experienced professional. I can work but I may just need to get up and stretch my legs now and again or sit with my leg up – it doesn’t stop my brain working. I used to find this so frustrating.”

While getting an interview was difficult enough, once at that stage Beaney says she found herself subject to discrimination.

“It is very hard to get a job,” she continues, “because when you say ‘I’ve been off work for nearly two years and I’m still walking with sticks’, they take one look at you and, even when they know you are the best candidate and far more experienced, you’ve got to convince them that you will not be [constantly] going off to the doctor and hospital, and having more operations.

“I had one person who actually asked me if I had any more surgeries due. I said ‘No’, [to which] he replied ‘Oh, OK’ – that’s all I got, ‘Oh’.

Access to the workplace

As she continued her quest to find a job, Beaney found, that while some companies had made efforts to provide facilities for their disabled staff, many were highly inadequate.

“[Employers] have to make reasonable adjustments/adaptions in the workplace,” she says. “That could be parking, for example. One place [I went to] only had one disabled parking space and they said that was for visitors. Another said you had to be of a certain level to get a space.”

Buildings are another problem area. “Under the Building Act, if you have a very old building you don’t have to make the changes because of the structure. However, new-builds must, for example, have sufficient disabled toilets, which means ground-floor loos with enough space to swing a wheelchair around in.

“I’ve been to a lot of disabled toilets where they’ve used it to store mops and buckets, for instance. That’s not access.”

Fire escapes are another consideration. Employers should ensure a physically disabled member of staff is not seated on “the other side of the building [to the fire escape]” and that a “safe landing area” is provided.

>See also: New technology unlocks work opportunities for disabled people in 2019

Fire escapes are another consideration. Employers should ensure a physically disabled member of staff is not seated on “the other side of the building [to the fire escape]” and that a “safe landing area” is provided.

Working hours

Hours worked can be another contentious issue, particularly where a person is already in employment and a reduction in hours is required due to disability.

“You can reduce your hours without penalty if you were at work and then became disabled,” Beaney explains. “That would have to based on whatever the occupational therapist (OT) says.

“You shouldn’t be penalised for reducing your hours and they can go down to as low as 15 hours [a week], but that would normally be under discussion with the OT.”

Allowances must also be made for absences for medical appointments.

“Companies should allow you adequate time for physiotherapy or hospital visits. There is no limit on the time allowed – if it is deemed a medical need then they should allow you.”



“It is, however, reasonable for them to ask, ‘Can it be done first thing in the morning or late afternoon or over a lunch hour?’ The exceptions to the rule are for cancer, diabetes, etc. when you need to be hooked up to a machine.”

Everyday needs in the workplace should also be accounted for. “If you have toileting issues, for example, you have a bag or catheter, allowance should be given for time to go to the loo.”

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