For Sarah Stephenson-Hunter, Staff Disability Advisor in the University’s Equality and Diversity Unit, this month represents ‘a time to focus on the massive positive impact disabled people have within work – within society – and the diversity of how disabled people can flourish and succeed in the workplace, in society, in sport.
‘When you say “a disabled person”, [people] often think of either somebody like a superhuman Paralympian, or somebody that's really ill and unable to work, who’s perhaps stuck in their house and doesn’t have much of a social life, doesn’t have relationships – all those negative stereotypes. So disability month is about saying, “Look, disabled people are here, we’re in every part of society and, given the right support and access, we can be just as – if not more –successful at achieving whatever it is we want to in life.” ’
As the staff disability advisor, Sarah’s role involves helping the University’s disabled staff achieve those goals, by providing advice to individuals on support available inside and outside the University, and to managers on providing support for their disabled team members. (The University has a legal obligation, under the Equality Act 2010, to make reasonable adjustments for disabled members of staff who would otherwise be at a significant disadvantage in the workplace.)
However, Sarah’s role is pastoral as well as practical: ‘I can be there confidentially, as someone to talk to if you’ve got questions or concerns and you’re not sure how to raise them. At Oxford, particularly for academics, there’s this real concern that, if you disclose a disability, it’ll go against you and somehow affect your career. You might be seen as less productive; you might miss out on going to conferences.
‘So I’m there to try and reassure staff that, while I can’t say things are perfect, there is legal protection in place – and obviously as a university we’re trying to be an inclusive employer.’
The University prides itself on recruiting the best people, both students and staff, but Sarah suggests that ‘we could do more to promote the support we do have, and the fact that we have a range of staff with disabilities that work here.
‘I find it really interesting that I will be contacted by a staff member who says, “You know, I thought I’d be the only one with this condition,” and I’ll say, “No, no, no – I speak to several people a week about this and the things you’re describing aren’t new.” So we could do more – perhaps profiling disabled staff, and highlighting the fact that disabled staff can operate at all different levels.
‘It’s difficult in the world of equality, because we have things like the Stonewall Index, the Race Equality Charter, Athena SWAN – but there isn’t really anything for disability. I do think we could do more to demonstrate our credentials, to show that it is a good place to work and that there is support available. And, given that support, you can have a positive career and a good experience of working at Oxford.’
‘I also really like the idea of role models. I am an LGBT role model myself, and I think that's a fantastic model for having staff who are willing to use their own experiences to be there and to say to people: “Look, I’m me, I’m not particularly special, but I have this disability and I'm doing this role.” ’
For Sarah, support for disabled staff is a personal as well as professional issue: ‘I am totally blind. I’ve had problems with my vision from childhood but then lost all my vision just over 10 years ago. I also have a rare type of arthritis, Still’s Disease; again, that was diagnosed when I was a child. I try and be fit and active but I do have to be careful with posture, and it’s actually the arthritis that triggered the issues with the eyes. And I have had some mental health issues on and off over the past few years.’
One particular problem Sarah highlights is that assistive technology – which is supposed to allow readers who are blind or partially sighted to use computer systems – does not always work as intended. ‘While technology is fantastic, there are still issues around certain systems which are not yet as accessible as they should be.’
Working from home
Computer problems aside, the change to working from home since lockdowns began has resulted in new challenges for all University staff, with work–life balance improving for some people and worsening for others. For disabled members of staff, these varied experiences are intensified by the additional needs occasioned by their disability. Sarah has found that ‘for lots of disabled people it’s been brilliant in terms of taking away the stress of having to get out the door, use public transport and get to work.
‘As a blind person, I can use public transport – but Oxford’s not the best place to navigate with a long cane. Cobbled streets, building work and so on... So for me, working from home has been quite good.
‘It’s helped lots of disabled staff to maximise what they can do, and just be a bit more relaxed. It’s also helped staff with mental health issues or severe anxiety – a lot of people have issues in big, open-plan offices, so, if you’re lucky enough to have the space at home to work, the peace, quiet and focus is great.’
However, not all staff have found the switch to homeworking as beneficial: ‘We’ve all been living and working in the same space, but for some disabled staff that's been an added pressure that has made things more complicated. Obviously if you’ve got quite a bit of equipment – you might have a proper ergonomic desk, a chair – it’s not necessarily straightforward to have that duplicated in your home.
‘I have also found that some staff, perhaps those with some neurodiverse or mental health conditions, found the loss of routine to be incredibly detrimental. They found it to be quite isolating and really struggled.’
Sarah’s experience of talking to disabled staff around the University since the end of lockdown has been ‘really, really interesting. Pre-pandemic, I would often have quite a battle with departments and individual managers where a staff member wanted to work from home, even occasionally, for reasons related to a health condition or disability.’
However, once the pandemic came along most University employees were forced to work from home. Did that encourage line managers that disabled staff would be able to continue doing so?
‘It’s been variable. I've found some departments have said, “Yep, that’s fine. We’ve all been used to homeworking and so long as we’re all in one to two days a week we can still have that flexibility.”
‘But then other sections have wanted to return five days a week, and have needed more of a prompt to have those individual discussions about disabilities. That’s where I come in. There are reasons why staff have found working from home beneficial: not because they’re lazy, or don’t want to travel, but genuinely because it’s helped their quality of life, it’s helped them manage their disability and it just means they have a much better work–life balance.
‘There’s increased awareness of flexible working and working from home: that it can be done, and that lots of us have probably worked harder over the past 18 months. But there’s still a sense that we can all be back in the office now – and that’s not necessarily the solution for everybody. When it comes to disability, one size does not fit all.’
The one thing Sarah would change
In fact, Sarah says, the one thing she would change if she could is for everyone to realise that one size doesn’t fit all.
‘The thing that would make my job easier is if people – managers, colleagues, everybody – just stopped and thought about the fact that not everyone is like you. This is an incredibly diverse world we live in and disabled people are part of that: not everyone sees the same as you, hears the same as you, thinks the same as you, walks the same as you, talks the same as you. And when you’re planning a service, doing a project or running an event, just think: “OK, there’s going to be a range of people wanting to access this. Let’s not just assume that everyone’s going to be like me and be able to do things that I do.”
‘A lot of the recommendations I make are common sense. But it takes people thinking outside the ableist norm of how things work. For instance, why is the working day 9–5 and in a big office? It doesn’t have to be like that.’
In her spare time, Sarah is hoping that ‘I can get back into my running. I took up running five years ago, and I was due to run various half-marathons this year. But what with being a blind runner and needing guides, my running has suffered – so I really hope that next year I can get back into it.’
Sarah is also working on season 2 of her podcast, The Simply Equality Podcast, which she describes as ‘an open, honest and on occasions humorous exploration of the lived realities of disabled and LGBT+ people’. In each episode, Sarah talks to someone who is both disabled and LGBT+ to ‘discuss the challenges they face and how they seek to live their best life. This isn’t an official Oxford thing, but something which fits in with my areas of personal and professional interest.’
More information about UK Disability History Month 2021 is available on their website. The Equality and Diversity Unit webpages have details about support available for disabled staff at Oxford, and the University’s HR team provides information about how line managers can provide such support for their team members with disabilities.