As a person with disability, it is sad to say I face discrimination in the workplace often. More often than I would like, but the reality is that there are some things in life you just don’t have control over. Discrimination comes in many forms, and there are times when I am sure people are not aware of what they are doing, and others where it is just plain stupidity (I regularly say; ‘People eat stupid for breakfast!’).
In first having an invisible disability, it was a combination of suffering in silence and not having the confidence to speak up. In my workplace, I struggled every day with pain from the effects of Scleroderma. You can’t really see Scleroderma, and if you can’t see it – it is harder to explain.
I was working at a 5 Star Hotel as Operations Manager and looking after 3 properties. This role was very busy, and I needed to get between the properties often to deal with multiple situations. The pain was incredible, but I managed to keep going as I wanted a successful career. Back in 1999, the buzz word of ‘workplace adjustments’ wasn’t something I had heard about, and I wasn’t really aware of my rights. More than anything, I had the fear of not having a job at all.
Things got to a point where I couldn’t do it anymore, and I ended up with my first cancer (SCC). This was a touch and go operation, and I didn’t know when I woke up whether I would have a leg or not, amputation was very close. They managed to save my leg, but the rehab after this operation was hard work. After months in hospital, it was almost a year before I could get back to work.
After meeting with Commonwealth Rehabilitation Services (CRS), I was told that because I had an operation on my feet that I would be best suited to work in a call centre. They updated my CV and put me forward for these roles only. I could still walk, and there was nothing wrong with my work capacity. I had very little say in the process and felt powerless of my own destiny.
Eventually I found employment, and after a few years it happened again. Yet another cancer in my foot. This time, it wasn’t saved. In 2006, I started my journey of having a visible disability. I became an amputee.
Things didn’t really improve in regards to how I was treated as a person with visible disability in the workplace. On my return to work after my amputation, it was ad-hoc and all over the place. I was ‘forced’ to take reduced working hours and TOLD that I had to work 3 days a week. There wasn’t any consultation on what were my needs and wants.
In the short term, getting to work was a challenge as I was still waiting on my prosthetic being made. I could still drive with my right foot, but the process of getting in and out of the car and accessing my wheelchair was reliant on neighbors at one end, and work colleagues at the other. Work had no intention of providing car parking for me, and I had to park on the street with moving my car with the assistance of a work colleague every day due to parking restrictions. The coordination of making this happen relied on other people. I was put in a vulnerable situation, with the horrible feeling of having my independence taken away.
As time went on, I adjusted well with my prosthesis and was back working full-time. I had moved to a new department within the same workplace, however in a different building. The adjustments I had previously in place had come with me, with the added extra of a car space. I had an entirely new manager with the hope that things were looking up.
However, it wasn’t until a restructure that discrimination hit me again. This time, it was reverse discrimination. Out of 16 roles in my team, 15 were made redundant. Guess whose role was kept? Yes, mine. With some added confidence, although not overly confident, I questioned why my role was kept. The General Manager had no qualms in telling me that they had to keep me due to maintaining their numbers in disability employment. This was a degrading feeling, and yet another bump in the confidence road.
My role was eventually made redundant, and I was redeployed to yet another department.
The roller-coaster ride of my health continued with repeated cancers and surgeries. Access to a ‘wellness’ room enabled me to continue full-time employment during this period, and created a sense of flexibility to maintain my health and career.
By 2012 my supports in the workplace were on the improve, however my health was indeed impacting on the quality of my life. This is where I made the decision to get my second leg amputated.
In this new department, it was my manager’s manager that I felt most comfortable with to disclose. He was approachable, and had a sense of understanding without saying a word. He was shocked at such a dramatic decision but was open and asked the right questions on what I needed for support.
My return to work after my second amputation was outstanding, and I was grateful that this time around I knew it would be smooth sailing. It was a collaborative process where we discussed on what was needed in order to enable work-life balance and set this out in a documented plan. Life was so much easier, I had cab fares in the short term until I was walking and driving again, a modified desk, moved to a different floor for access to the accessible bathrooms, and remote access to work from home as needed.
Having a good workplace adjustment policy and process is not only good for your business, it is another way you can ensure your employees feel valued. It has the potential to increase the confidence of your employees with disability. When you think about it, life can sometimes be hard enough – don’t make it any harder than it needs to be!
In having the confidence to make the decision to have a leg amputated and this decision being one that was filled with even better outcomes that I thought it would, I had more confidence to ask for what I wanted. I became more aware of the barriers around me, and I took the initiative to solve them. So much so, it directed me into a career change. I wanted to create further change for people with disability. And I decided then what I wanted to be when I grew up!
John N. Mitchell – Our attitude toward life determines life’s attitude towards us.