We are currently in the midst of a social and economic crisis. Pay is low, fulfilling employment is hard to come by and the competition for any job is higher than it has been for years. There is a rhetoric being bandied about by the conservative media, narrative seems to have sprung up from somewhere that the disabled are lazy, work shy, or worse, faking it. Let’s not beat around the bush, this dialogue is coming from the top down. It seems to me when I speak to people that 99% of them are willing, eager and happy to work. That’s 99% of all people, the disabled included.
Obtaining employment when you are disabled, that’s disabled in any way – not just because of a brain injury, is incredibly difficult. Unfortunately, there seems to have been some kind of horrible mix up, some kind distortion of the facts in today’s society regarding the disabled population. Even more, these negative attitudes seem to have filtered down, through the media and into other important sectors of society, specifically to the business sectors. What’s worse is that some of them have been taken in by it! Essentially the disabled population of the UK are more handicapped than ever when it comes to searching for employment. So perhaps, with the prejudice and ignorance that is being said about us, we need to level the playing field. So I hope I can give you some useful information that will stand you in good stead.
The Lack Of Understanding
It is a combination of these things that, as I say, have come from the top down filtering into other sectors of society by osmosis. Part of the issue comes from a lack of understanding form many people. But the first thing to do is ensure that the person you are working for or the people in charge of the place you are volunteering at are made aware of your injury, the effects of the disability, and any potential health and safety issues (using an example from my own life, epilepsy). I would advise people to inform the employer before you are employed as they cannot (legally) discriminate against you or sack you for being disabled. In fact some businesses benefit from government funding and run programs specifically aimed at hiring disabled people. Anyone who has suffered a brain injury will know what it is like to try and describe the effects of such a disability to someone who doesn’t endure the same difficulties. Permanently disabling injuries such as some brain injuries will most likely have similar outcomes in many ways for patients (fatigue, memory loss, effects on memory retention, language skills etc.) but the severity of those various outcomes will be unique to the individual. As such, it is essential that an employer is aware of the permanent disabilities you have and the things you struggle with. If I may put forward a suggestion, perhaps it would be useful to have an advocate with you at the interview to ensure that everyone is on the same wavelength.
Also, to be fair to a fully abled employer, being able to relate to what someone with an ABI has been through is nearly impossible. It is unreasonable to expect anyone who has not suffered a disability to fully understand what we live with every day. That is not the fault of the family member, carer or the fault of an employer. It just means that even more patience, hard work and research is required on their part to at least get an idea of what those outcomes mean for the person with ABI.
This is very basic and comes down to just two things really, as far as I am concerned:
- Never perform paid work without signing a contract that you have gone through with an advocate and fully understand.
- Always join your industries trade union. For a minimal monthly fee that comes automatically out of your account as a direct debit you can receive the benefits of legal advice and representation should there be any legal dispute.
Job 1: Good Employer
It is the final sentence in the last paragraph that leads me to the subject of ignorance. In my opinion, ignorance can come in two forms. Firstly, accidental – where a person is inadvertently or accidentally underestimating or overlooking something they don’t fully understand. As an ABI person myself, I consider this bearable. Very few people fully understand the permanent, severe effects a brain injury has on a patient due to the complex nature of the subject matter. As I said above, it is difficult to explain to an employer that cognitive processes are like wading through treacle in terms of the speed and how tired it makes us. When it comes to this, if you feel that this is what is happening when you are at work, that the effects of your disability are being overlooked, I would advise you to calmly and rationally approach your employer (maybe accompanied by an advocate if that makes you feel more comfortable) and explain your concerns in a simple, calm way. Often, most reasonable people who were aware of your health situation when they employed you will react in a reasonable manner.
From my experience, I have only worked for two employers since my ABI. The first employer fell very much into this category and she was fantastic in terms of the way she dealt with my brain injury. I was entrusted with responsibility, given two regular half-hour breaks, paid above minimum wage, and worked four, six-hour days that normally started at 10 am finishing at 17.15 pm. I had seizures there several times but the only concern from my boss and my co-workers was for my health. That job and employer is the kind you want to be looking for.
However, the success rate has been 50/50 – the second form of ignorance is more deliberate and unfortunately, that is where the second job fell.
Job 2: Bad Employers
This more deliberate form of ignorance on the part of employers, in my opinion, comes from a combination of fear, laziness, and unrealistic & unreasonable expectations. The problem that comes with an ABI is that, for the most part, it is invisible. Maybe a scar or two here and there, but the true damage is unseen. It seems that there are unfortunately people too lazy, unkind and ignorant to do any research or are unwilling to understand what it is disabled people go through.
Three months after I started my next job, I had a seizure at work. I returned two days later to inform them I was ready to return to work the next day for my regularly scheduled shifts. I had heard nothing from my employers in the two days since and I felt uneasy as I walked down to work. Before the meeting, I noticed that that my name had ben crossed out on the Rota for all my scheduled shifts for the month. I sensed the inevitable and proceeded to the meeting knowing what was coming. I was “laid off” as part of a “staffing reshuffle” as they put it (I believe I was the only contracted staff member to leave). Should this happen to you I would advise you to immediately ask for a written letter explaining the reasons for your dismissal, signed and dated by your employer. This could be valuable should there be any future legal proceedings if they have not provided a valid reason for dismissal. Also, take a look at the terms of your contract and compare what the two things say. If there doesn’t seem to be any breach of contract, reasonable or valid reason for dismissal, get in touch with your trade union (I mentioned them earlier).
The only way that you can see what kind of person you will be working for is by judging their character when you first meet them. It is a difficult thing to learn but it is something I have had to do since I suffered my injury. Becoming a sound judge of character will stand you in good stead for the future, as sadly there are people who will look to take advantage of you, use your condition against you or discriminate against you.
When I am talking about discrimination here, I am talking specifically about when we are treated differently in the work environment. Some disabled people have had to suffer the indignity of (illegally!) being paid below minimum wage, being given zero hour contracts, a conservative political & media agenda that has described us as fakers, lazy & work shy. The implication of these actions is that we are worth less. WE ARE NOT! WE DO NOT DESERVE THIS, NOR SHOULD WE ACCEPT IT! We are held back enough by our physical handicaps, we do not need to be obstructed by a social one as well. Alongside all of these societal discriminations that make the independence we so desire difficult to achieve, we are also being attacked in terms of the financial aid and the social services we have access to through the government. People who are fortunate enough to be in a position to not have to deal with these issues say we should calm down, that we are over-reacting and that hopefully this will kick us up the backside and motivate us back into work. The fact is that if we could be in work we would be. I will not calm down though because I am angry and you should be too!
About the author
My life was changed for ever on the 30th of August 2009 when an attack on a night out left me with sever brain injuries. I was left in an induced coma after suffering fractures to the skull, bleeds on the brain, as well as severe bruising to the frontal lobes. Since the injury I have found it hard to find and keep work, to maintain relationships, and generally stay positive. I have decided to share all of my journey with you, in the hope we can bring brain injury awareness to the level it should be at. Please, follow my own WordPress blog Life After Brain Injury to keep up to date with my brain injury journey! Follow me on Twitter: @ABIBlogger
Tom Massey, ABI Blogger