Understanding disability and mental health

Inclusive Employers' associate Bethany Berry shares her personal experience and explores the link between disability and mental health.

Keep reading to learn more.

In this blog, I will share my experiences of what it is like to be a person with a disability in the workplace and the impact that has on my mental health.

Navigating the world

As a wheelchair user, the workplace can be a very daunting place for many reasons. These reasons can be perceived as something small such as “is there an accessible parking bay?” to “can I get into the building?”

As you can see, the two examples of questions above, are questions relating to outside influences, which essentially, have nothing to do with completing the job role, but as a disabled person, small things like this, not being in place, can have a huge impact on our day and our mental health.

As a wheelchair user, I am always planning, not just for work, but for getting around in general. I plan the route I will take to get somewhere, followed by an alternative route, and then I analyse any mitigating factors eg:

  • “Will I need to book ramp assistance, if using the train?”
  • “Is the train/tube station accessible?”
  • “What happens if I book assistance and it doesn’t arrive when I reach my destination?”
  • “Can I reserve the wheelchair space on the train?”
  • “Will I be able to access the wheelchair space on the train or will it be full of luggage?”

These are just a couple of examples of things I have to think about before attempting a journey. It can get very mentally and physically tiring.

All by myself

The workplace can be a lonely place for people with disabilities. In my experience, as a wheelchair user, I often feel isolated when I’m in the workplace.

Many people reading that statement may feel quite taken back by such a profound statement, as many organisations pride themselves on aspects such as belonging, togetherness, being your true self, a culture of respect and dignity for all employees, and embracing difference.

For me, however, the workplace has always been difficult to navigate. I’m a black female who uses a wheelchair (I know, I’m extremely lucky!) but because of my appearance, I am very aware that there is no-one who looks like me or faces any of the challenges I face in the workplace.

In my experience, this has meant I’ve had to “fight” for access to the basics, this has included small things, such as access to a kettle and microwave (all other employees could access these – asking your colleagues to make you a drink isn’t a reasonable adjustment), to having access to an accessible toilet, to the most important thing, an evac chair, Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan (PEEP) and colleagues who are adequately trained on the operation of the evac chair and how best to support me in the event of an evacuation.

This very often leaves me feeling confused. How it is possible to stand out and be invisible at the same time?

This lack of belonging and constant battle to “fight” for my basic rights is draining and has a negative impact on my mental health.  

Many disabled people are often viewed as resilient and in many cases this is true,  but I’m sure you’ll agree that having to not only think about but ensure that simple, basic and reasonable adjustments have been put in place in order to effectively carry out your job, can be exhausting for the most resilient person.

The burden of gratitude

So, what happens when your employer FINALLY listens and agrees to implement reasonable adjustments? (This is a legal obligation for employers).

Apart from all the complaints about costs (yes, I realise having a disability is expensive, I already know how much equipment costs!).

Also, yes, I’m aware that equipment won’t arrive in the workplace overnight! Again, being born with Cerebral Palsy, I’ve spent most of my life on a waiting list for one thing or another!

The easiest one for most employees to “fix” is access to an accessible toilet as most of the workplaces I’ve worked in have been equipped with an accessible toilet but it was often used as a store cupboard.

In one of my previous workplaces, my manager requested that the accessible toilet was to made accessible by key only (this was because I’d complained about having to wait outside the toilet for up to 20 minutes, as the toilet was engaged). I understand that not all disabilities are visible, but call it my sixth sense, I can tell when people are abusing accessible facilities.  

After the lock was installed, my manager came to me and said “we don’t do things like that for just anyone, you know!” That comment had a significant impact on my relationship with my manager and on the way, I realised he viewed me.

My manager wanted me to grateful and praise him for me now having the provision of being able to use an accessible toilet in the workplace. Again, this made me feel uncomfortable but ensured that ALL of my noticeable differences were highlighted. How many times have you thanked your boss because you’ve been able to use a toilet whilst at work?

After (usually) months of waiting, equipment such as an evac chair arrives (and a trainer), the organisation then trains a number of staff on the operation of the evac chair, it was then affectionately known as “Bethany’s chair” because, you guessed it, it was all for me and only me.

I tried to explain that anyone may need to use an evac chair for a variety of reasons e.g. a heavily pregnant person, but again the organisation highlighted my differences and made me feel lesser and insignificant.

Fatigue, disability and mental health

Did you know that many people with disabilities use three to five times more energy to complete an everyday task in comparison to an able-bodied person?

This means, for example, a disabled person working a full-time week (37 and a half hours) would use up to 112 and a half hours worth of energy within one week.

This is quite startling to many, but it is a useful statistic for employers to be aware of. Using this much energy isn’t just physically taxing, it takes a toll on mental health too.

As a disabled person, I am very proud of who I am and what I’ve achieved in my life, but I’m often frustrated when I cannot complete simple tasks such as using the photocopier, as I can’t reach the top of it.

It reaffirms to me that we are still very much working within the Medical Model of Disability, where the person with the disability is the “problem” and not the Social Model of Disability, where the environment is the “problem.”

With this belief, it can be very difficult to remain positive about a change in attitudes towards disability and the hope for a more inclusive world.

What can employers do?

Here are a few things employers can do:

  • Use inclusive language when communicating with all employees.
  • Check in with employees who may have additional needs to see if they require any support. There’s a big difference between being seen and heard and being the organisation’s publicity stunt!
  • Communication is crucial, people with disabilities tend to have to think about multiple things at any given time, if you can alleviate some anxieties, please do!
  • If you have a disabled employee, and they are requesting reasonable adjustments, even if you have no understanding of their need, ask (appropriate) questions and please aid them in order for them to get the support they need.
  • As an employer, don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something.

Final thoughts

As you can tell from reading this blog, having a disability can impact your mental health in different ways.

It is important that we all recognise that just because a disabled person is used to having to wait for things and is used to having to fight for basic human rights, it is not fair or equal. In fact, it is very degrading and can be detrimental to how disabled people see themselves and how they feel about accessing the workplace.

I’ve been asked the question “why do you fight for your rights in the workplace?” the simple answer to this question is “because I can’t fly.” The other place it’s difficult to outrun is the mind.

To hear more from Bethany, below is her guide on accessibility in the workplace.

How Inclusive Employers can help

If you’re an Inclusive Employers member, speak to your account manager for information on how we can help you be more supportive for disabled people and explore our Disability package.

If you’re not yet a member, take a look at our blog posts on disability and get in touch to see how we can help.