How starting a PCS disability network has helped through difficult times

Toby Brown and Caroline Charlton are PCS advocates based at the Office for Students in Bristol. They write about how setting up a disability network has helped them through the difficult times of the pandemic.

The pandemic has been tough on all of us. But if you are disabled, either prior to the pandemic or because of it, it has been tougher still.

For those of us with pre-existing conditions, the pandemic has really amplified the challenges that disabled people face in everyday life: having to work hard and spend time managing our impairments, and unfortunately facing disadvantage in the workplace and elsewhere. For those who have developed conditions as a result of the pandemic, either directly because of suffering from the virus or because of enforced home working in unsafe conditions, coming to terms with these impairments can leave a mark and has made work more difficult.

Employers are legally required to put in place reasonable adjustments for disabled staff or staff with long term conditions so they are not disadvantaged in work, but we know this didn’t happen consistently before coronavirus hit us. In our own workplace, the Office for Students, we don’t have a reasonable adjustment policy, and line managers are not given any meaningful training on how to support disabled staff. However, we know from getting together with other reps from our region that we aren’t alone in this situation.

We helped to set up a disability network in the past year as our employer wanted to prioritise diversity in the workplace, it’s one of our organisational values. We had one meeting before we were forced to work from home to help stop the virus overrunning the NHS. Since then, we have used the network to develop disability identity in the workplace and make disabled staff feel confident.

Perhaps even more importantly it has become a peer support network during the most difficult time of all of our lives. We have also used the network as a means of identifying issues, organising, and campaigning for disability equality and inclusion in the workplace.

A number of disabled members in the South West met in February. Some of the issues we heard and talked about were:

  • Reasonable adjustments have been a real struggle to get in place.
  • Employers have put in financial caps on the level of support they give for home working.
  • Able-splained by senior leaders when being open about struggles with mental health because of the pandemic.

Other members have, thankfully, found that management has been supportive and that new adjustments have been put in place to enable them to work safely from home.

With a return to the workplace likely in the coming months, we think there are opportunities for disabled members to influence what the ‘new normal’ should look through either a disability network, or through their local branch; ideally both.

This is also the right time for disabled members to engage with each other across the South West. Now more than ever it’s vital that we show solidarity, organise and work together to make workspaces more disability inclusive. The South West network will meet again on 20 April from 7.30-8.30pm. We’ve already worked together to talk about how we organise for the future. This has helped us at the OfS shape our organising strategy on how we want to influence our employer about disability inclusion.

If you are a disabled member based in the south west of England and would like to get involved in the regional network, email southwestregion@pcs.org.uk

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