As an invisibly disabled woman at the start of my career, I have experienced my share of discrimination while job hunting. I have cystic fibrosis, an illness which means that despite my rigorous daily treatments, agonising pain and shortened life expectancy, I don’t “look like” I’m ill. Consequently, my needs – flexible working hours, the option to work from home and time off for hospital appointments – can be less obvious to potential employers.
The pandemic has left me even more aware of the disadvantages my illness places on me. In 2020, working from home has become normalised. So, it was shocking when I requested to complete a job interview online, rather than face-to-face, and the interviewer went on to ignore all my emails. Prior to my request, they had said that I was a strong candidate for the role.
The Disability Discrimination Act makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against someone because they are disabled. This type of discrimination involves being treated less favourably due to your disability, compared to your non-disabled colleagues
Passed in 1995, the Disability Discrimination Act was such a huge moment towards improving disability rights, but there is still a long way to go to ensure equality for disabled people. Twenty-five years on from the landmark legislation, I spoke to people about the disability discrimination they have faced in the workplace.
“They thought it would be best if they demoted me”
In August 2019, I started losing my eyesight. White spots started appearing in my vision and within weeks I could no longer leave my flat without help. In early September, I was sent for a brain scan that revealed I had a type one meningioma on the front of my brain, pressing on the optic nerve. By the end of September, I was sent for brain surgery. While most of the tumour was removed, unfortunately my eyesight did not come back.
Weeks after my surgery, while at home in Scotland, I received a phone call from the human resources department at work. They said that now that I was blind, they thought it would be best if they demoted me, in my own interest. I didn’t really understand what was happening. I was still in the early stages of recovery and really needed more time.
Four weeks later, I got another call from HR, along with one of the company's senior legal councils, again, asking me whether I thought it was a good idea for them to demote me from my role as manager.
At this stage, there had been no assessment as to my capability and they had not referred me to occupational health, so how could they possibly evaluate what I would and would not be able to do when it came to returning to work? This is often the reality of discrimination in the workplace, it’s papered over with a fake appearance of kindness. But how I was treated was not kind. Dan*.
“They extended my probation period and then when that came to an end, they said I'd failed it”
My experience of disability discrimination at work is something that still haunts me because I blame myself for how I was treated. I have depression, anxiety and BPD.
I'd started a new job that I really loved and worked hard at. I was still in my probation period when I was raped. The trauma of the event triggered a mental health collapse. I became severely depressed and started self-harming frequently, to the point where I was hospitalised.
Work knew I was struggling but instead of offering me support, they extended my probation period and then when that came to an end, they said I'd failed it. Their reasons were that I was “slow” to complete work – something I've never had a problem with and knew wasn't true. It's clear that they got rid of me because I was ill and suffering. Rhea*.
“The place wasn't accessible for me as a wheelchair user”
As someone with hemidystonia – a neurological movement disorder that in my case causes muscles on the right side of my body to contract or spasm involuntarily and impacts my hand function and speech patterns – I've got used to society judging me as incapable due to my disability.
But it was in my first job after graduating when I really saw that judgement come into force in the workplace. I was away for a training week in the middle of January. It was freezing cold and the place where we were doing the training wasn't accessible for me as a wheelchair user. This triggered my dystonia to start playing up.
We did a breaking news exercise and all of a sudden, when the camera aimed itself towards my face, my dystonia decided to do its worst and affect my speech, leaving me stuttering and unable to use my jaw to form proper sentences.
When they showed it to the room full of my peers and future employers. I sat there and cried because in my head, my disability had let me down again. The manager in charge of the training wasn't content to leave it there and pushed me to respond to the question, “What would you do better next time?”
The answer that came out of my mouth was “not have my disability”. Gemma.
“They would gaslight me, telling me that I ‘don't look like I have mental health issues’”
I suffer from BPD, anxiety disorder, depression, PTSD and PME. In a previous job where I worked as a domestic abuse support worker, I was actively denied reasonable adjustments based on my mental health. Months prior, I had requested that I work from home a few days a week, in order to relieve the pressures of doing admin tasks while having panic attacks and intrusive thoughts. They allowed me to work from home for six weeks. After returning, I was told that my working from home “privileges” were to be stopped as part of a policy change.
Being told this immediately triggered a series of panic attacks and forced me to have time off sick. When I returned, I was determined to have my working from home days reinstated. Instead, “solutions” were offered which included taking annual leave instead of working from home and having regular “wellbeing meetings” with my manager. These meetings were grossly unethical. They would gaslight me, telling me I was “overreacting” or that I “don't look like I have mental health issues”.
A few weeks after being made redundant, COVID-19 lockdown measures were put in place, proving that working from home is doable, and that the anguish, anxiety and stress I endured in those two months were unnecessary torture. Evie.
“Instructions need to be short and specific, otherwise I cannot follow them through”
As an autistic person, I have experienced discrimination throughout employment. Last year, I worked for a takeaway as a cashier. At first, I thought everything would be OK. I told them I was on the spectrum and what adjustments I may need and why, and we started off well.
But it went downhill. Instructions need to be short and specific, otherwise I cannot follow them through. There were constant contradictions: be louder or quieter, be less or more enthusiastic. My confidence began to slip. I was expected to be flexible to the point it was unreasonable. And every adaptation I had asked for was never given to me.
In the end, I was fired, for the first time in my life. I don't need pity, I just want to be “seen” and have my needs met. Sofia*.
*Names have been changed.