By Mark Smulian

16 Feb 2017

The civil service has set its sights on being the UK’s most inclusive employer. Mark Smulian reports on efforts to make that vision a reality for disabled staff, and hears personal stories about the barriers they face

Ascending the greasy pole of the civil service can be challenging for anyone, but those with disabilities have some extra barriers to developing their careers to the full.

Some may encounter prejudice, and Civil Service People Surveys have shown a consistent 8-10% of disabled respondents cite discrimination over the past five years. 

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Often, though, the problem is more a lack of knowledge on the part of those around them. It usually falls to line managers to respond to requests for reasonable adjustments to working arrangements (introduced under the Equality Act 2010) from disabled staff, and they may not know what is possible or reasonable.

Philip Rutnam, Department for Transport permanent secretary, is designated as civil service disability champion, a role which sees him push for action on disability from the very top level of the civil service. Research conducted for Rutnam has shown that the person who makes the most difference to disabled people’s working lives is their line manager. If they better understand disabilities and adjustments, it can help both disabled civil servants’ day-to-day work and their career prospects. 

“Life in the civil service has been rich, varied, and full of opportunity and I have experienced some brilliant line management and leadership, yet climbing the grades has been slow and fraught" - Walter Scott, MoD 

Rutnam is undertaking an exercise in the early part of this year to raise line managers’ confidence in dealing with disability, with a new training course and social media campaign backed by a number of short films of civil servants with disabilities talking about their work experiences.

In November, permanent secretaries committed all civil service departments to the Government’s Disability Confident Scheme, which seeks to create a culture in which people with disabilities can realise their full potential. Launching the scheme, Rutnam said the move supported the civil service’s aim to be the UK’s most inclusive employer. “For disabled colleagues, this will mean a civil service that is more confident and capable in employing and retaining disabled people; that actively identifies and removes barriers; and provides opportunities for individuals to realise their full potential,” he said. 

Other help includes the Workplace Adjustment Passport, available to those who need some change in their work or working environment. Passports are intended to follow their holders around the service – including overseas postings – so they need not seek the help they require from scratch with each move. The scheme is designed to make conversations with line managers easier, and demonstrate that the adjustments sought have previously been agreed. Additionally, passports can be used for issues related to mental health, caring responsibilities or gender reassignment. 

Since April 2015, the Civil Service Workplace Adjustment Team has been available to offer bespoke support and advice to managers and departments. It offers a review route for more complex adjustment cases. While uptake has been relatively low to date, feedback from staff and departments has been positive. Smaller departments that cannot justify full time adjustment support draw on the team’s expertise.

Under Rutnam’s initiative, there will soon be a best practice guide for line managers on workplace adjustments, available on the CS Learning website, and departments will be able to adapt it for their intranets. For the first time, the guide will create a model policy on best practice in workplace adjustments that departments can use to raise awareness and help managers grasp the issues. All departments and civil service trade unions have been involved in its preparation.

Work is in progress to find ways to improve the talent pipeline of disabled staff, firstly by ensuring they are better represented on mainstream accelerated development programmes. 

The Positive Action Pathway was launched in May 2013, a career development programme that targets underrepresented groups, including those with disabilities. It aims to help participants build their skills and confidence and progress to the next grade, although participation does not guarantee promotion. The first two cohorts saw 24% of participants securing promotion within three months of completing the programme. By March 2016, 1,215 people had joined the programme, 300 of whom were disabled.

Help is also available from the Civil Service Disability Network, which was set up by disabled civil servants and has 65 representatives drawn from 40 departments and agencies. It hopes to be the first port of call for those with enquiries about disability issues. 

People without disabilities may be genuinely unaware of the barriers that disabled colleagues face. But the experiences of civil servants who have fought to secure adjustments and now thrive in their careers should convince anyone that progress is possible. These are some of their stories.

Officials share their stories

Esta Rooney, Chair of the Ministry of Justice Disability Network

“I am profoundly deaf and wear hearing aids, but I speak clearly and lip read. I also have spina bifida. I have worked in the civil service for 16 years and had lots of opportunities to develop my career. The challenge for me is trying to gain promotion.

“I have mostly worked in administrative roles but in 2007 I felt I needed a change. I asked to deputise but management were concerned I wouldn’t cope and were sceptical at first. I convinced them to let me try and proved them wrong, but it was a big learning curve and my colleagues really supported me. The challenge is convincing others; I am just as capable of achieving results as everyone else.” 

Sue Northcott, Software engineer – mainframe database administrator/developer, Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, Swansea

“I’m deaf in one ear due to a rock music related injury and have osteoarthritis. I also suffer with anxiety, diagnosed after my second serious bout of clinical depression about seven years ago. Since then my life has begun to make more sense, and I’m managing my condition better.

“My physical problems have been easier to get help with than the invisible ones. I have special equipment to help with my joint pain, and a hearing aid. I’m lucky that my manager and team are so supportive that I can be open about my anxiety. Talking about the things that worry me helps put them in perspective and makes them easier to cope with. As a union representative I know from my casework that many other civil servants aren’t so lucky.

"Talking about the things that worry me helps put them in perspective and makes them easier to cope with." - Sue Northcott, DVLA

“It would be really helpful if people felt safe to be open about mental health problems, and if managers took the trouble to understand the conditions affecting their staff.” 

Walter Scott, Assistant head, Defence Reform Unit, Ministry of Defence, London

“I have had a stammer since early childhood. I have a good degree, I enjoyed public speaking, and was ambitious, yet was hampered by a lifetime’s accumulated fear of the stigma and unpredictable reactions to my condition.

“I joined the civil service in 2003 after five difficult years in the private sector, struggling with repeated setbacks in career progression.

“Misleadingly, the appearance of my speech suggested nervousness and uncertainty, which deeply affected my self-esteem. Thankfully, I knew myself to be confident, determined, persistent, and capable of influence – providing I was given a fair chance.

“Life in the civil service has been rich, varied, and full of opportunity and I have experienced some brilliant line management and leadership, yet climbing the grades has been slow and fraught.

“I still feel less than 100% confident in competing with fluent speakers for the most desired jobs, because society’s acceptance of childhood onset stammering remains patchy.

“In 2014, I co-founded the Defence Stammering Network to support military and civil service colleagues.” 

Lisa Baldock, Administrator, Department for Work & Pensions, Portsmouth

“I was diagnosed with hearing loss at the age of three: the nerves in my ears simply do not work. As I progressed in the civil service, I realised that changes to roles and line managers can happen frequently and I was constantly facing barriers. It wasn’t easy having to explain myself all the time. 

“In 2006 I suffered a very profound deterioration to my hearing loss, which impacted my wellbeing and my working life. I found I became frustrated, depressed and I felt very isolated. Instead of being negative I became positive. I designed a tip list showing my needs and how others could help me. It started breaking down those barriers, improving my relationships.

“The Workplace Adjustment Passport has proven invaluable to me each time I have experienced a change either of job or line manager. When I recently changed line manager I was able to use my passport to have a conversation about my conditions, and this helped my new line manager understand me better and help me complete my form.” 

John Grant, NRM decision maker, UK Visas and Immigration, Home Office, Leeds

“I have a heart condition. I had my first heart attack in 2012 and subsequently four cardiac arrests at the end of October 2014. It was touch and go.

“I tired very easily on return to work in Sheffield in February 2015, and the commute of up to four hours became extremely difficult. The reasonable adjustment move to Leeds over a year later was a stressful protracted period, too. My experience of being disabled – in my view – was that managers were not able to grasp a seemingly ‘invisible’ condition, and compassion dipped.

“I think to give specific disability inclusion, managers should have the will to see the difference in a person’s experience of day-to-day life, even if there is no scientific verification for that person’s situation.”

"I designed a tip list showing my needs and how others could help me. It started breaking down barriers" - Lisa Baldock, DWP 

“I attended a Positive Action Pathway in 2013, which helped build confidence and resilience. I will be applying to the Positive Action Pathway again in 2017 as I hope to gain greater leadership skills and improve my decision making effectiveness and efficiency.” 

Jonathan Walden, Universal credit full service and digital innovation manager, Department for Work & Pensions, London

“I have been in the DWP for eight years, and have no visible disability: I have dyslexia, which I like to call the hidden learning difficulty and which can cause problems with reading, writing and spelling. My dyslexia is on the more severe side, though I am able to cope with assistance software on my computer, and a supportive line manager.

“While I have challenges in certain areas, I have very good skills in problem-solving and have a high level of creative thinking. We all have areas where we excel, and with support we can get up to a certain level. For me it is my reading and writing that I need to take that extra step in.

“Part of being a role model is both admitting I have a learning difficulty, but showing I can take on the challenge. So I ask people: ‘Why can’t you?’” 

Ian Boddington, Policy adviser, Dangerous Goods Division, Department for Transport, London

“I’ve been a civil servant since 1979 and have had generalised dystonia – a neurological disability – from the age of 13. There is no cure for my condition, in which my central nervous system sends messages to muscles that create involuntary spasms.  

“With a cocktail of tablets, injections and two brain operations, I’ve been able to continue working. Currently, I represent the UK at about six international meetings a year and meet UK stakeholders to discuss issues.   

“Part of being a role model is both admitting I have a learning difficulty, but showing I can take on the challenge. So I ask people: ‘Why can’t you?’” - Jonathan Walden, DWP

“Fatigue is a growing issue as I get older, but I have a Disability Passport and the DfT has enabled me to work from home when not at meetings. 

“I’ve found that line managers vary considerably and at difficult times I’ve been grateful to have my trade union, family, friends and faith to keep me going.” 

Christopher Reeves, Records manager and reviewer, Improvement and Change Division, Department for Education, London 

“I have a long term progressive illness that causes sickness, a feeling of being generally unwell and fatigue, and requires hospital treatment and strong medication.

“I have been treated with respect and sympathy by my managers, who have been very supportive when I have been unwell. I have agreed adjustments, including equipment provided to enable homeworking and rest breaks if needed. I am participating in the Positive Action Pathway.

“I worked for another department when I was diagnosed. Although there was initial sympathy from my managers, this quickly wore thin and I was aware of growing impatience, particularly as my condition required intensive treatment initially.

“When asking for some adjustments to improve my working life I was told by a manager who had a different disability ‘well, I don’t need any help’. I had to outline the Disability Discrimination Act and seek union intervention to help me secure assistance.” 

Sarah Banks, S02, Headquarters Army Recruiting and Training Division and chair of the Civilian Defence Disability Network

“I am one of the 17% of disabled people born with cerebral palsy, which has deteriorated as I have got older and affects my mobility. I am passionate about making a difference and inspiring behavioural change and have become a defence role model. 

“Treat people as you would like to be treated is my motto. In the past I was embarrassed about my disability but am now proud that it is part of me, and I will continue to work to raise awareness and champion the cause.”

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