Peter Ryan, MOD Disability Champion, the SCS Ambassador for Kentigern House, and Director of Judicial Engagement, talks disability support for civil servants.
In my view, there are still too many MOD civil servants with disabilities who feel mistreated.
It is not that we don’t have the right policies – the UK Civil Service is up there with the best. Nor do we lack support from the top – Jon Thompson and Jeremy Heywood regularly promote the diversity agenda (including disability), as does Lt Gen Andrew Gregory, the Chief of Defence People.
I suggest three entwined factors are at play.
First ‘disability’ covers a huge diversity of conditions – visible, non-visible, lifelong and late-onset – which can be difficult to grasp in full.
Secondly, disability is personal: individuals decide whether to discuss or ‘declare’ their condition, added to which the same condition can have greatly varying effects on different people.
And thirdly, colleagues who are – or feel they are – uninformed may hesitate to engage for fear of embarrassment.
So what to do?
I have three suggestions:
1) Work together to create a climate in which anyone can feel comfortable discussing a disability with colleagues and line managers, confident in the belief they will be supported; for this, leaders at all levels have a responsibility.
2) For those managing people, ensure staff get the reasonable adjustments to which they are entitled – if necessary, helping to give the heave-ho to bureaucratic or inappropriate financial constraints.
3) Treat colleagues with disabilities fairly and reasonably, including in performance assessment – recognising that illness-related absence often leads to loss of confidence and that reasonable adjustments can take time to bed down.
The bigger picture
More broadly we should understand that few of us are actually born with disabilities. These tend to develop as we get older, either gradually or suddenly. Some conditions are triggered or exacerbated by stress, itself often caused or worsened by non-work factors such as bereavement, divorce and, increasingly with an ageing population, caring responsibilities. For me, the key here is to treat others as we would wish to be treated ourselves. Most of us will be working for longer, quite possibly coping with mental or physical conditions that may impact on our ability to work. Knowing that we have treated others well should give us the confidence to seek help when we need it. And the evidence suggests that if we receive reasonable adjustments, our productivity gains far outweigh the usually minimal costs.
Signs of change
I see signs of change in the MOD that give me encouragement. We now have the Reasonable Adjustments Service, more senior colleagues are stepping forward to declare their support, the Disability Steering Committee and the London Disability Network are growing in stature as a forum? in which individuals can share experiences and ideas, and help to influence how the Department operates.
I am also encouraged by the Main Building Optimisation programme, which is looking beyond ‘hot desks’ to help facilitate more flexible ways of working and a wellbeing agenda which aims to mitigate physical and mental stress and its downstream impact.
Within all this, I sense growing recognition that disability is not just a ‘civvie’ issue? We know that conditions such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, autism, mental illness and hearing loss are present in the Armed Forces as well as the Civil Service. The SDSR will emphasise the importance to Defence of its people, and it will underline Ministers’ commitment to make Defence more inclusive and representative of our modern society – indeed as Armed Forces Minister, Penny Mordaunt has already wasted no time in publishing a robust ‘diversity and inclusion personal action plan’. Meanwhile, the recent launch of the Defence Stammering Network provided an excellent example of grassroots action by military and civilian personnel and personal engagement by the Veterans Minister Mark Lancaster, himself a stammerer.
Much remains to be done. But I am confident that people in Defence increasingly ‘get it’ and that we are on the right path.