“I wouldn’t tell your employer about your disability, if I were you.”
I was 13 years old when I told my teacher I wanted to find a job. Their response shocked me.
I am autistic and have expressive-receptive language disorder, disabilities that can make everyday life at least a tiny bit challenging, but to everyone else remain ‘hidden’. Invisible.
“You’d be discriminated against,” my teacher had further clarified to me. “If they knew, they’d probably not give you an interview.”
They were saying this out of kindness and concern for me, but their words highlighted something ugly about the workforce that most people ignore.
Whilst there are anti-discrimination laws in place, people with disabilities remain discriminated against in the job search and in the workplace. According to Andrew Powell, in 2019, out of 36.3 million working-age people (16-64 years old), 7.6 million are disabled and only 3.9 million are in employment. Powell states that ‘People with disabilities have an employment rate that is 29.9 percentage points lower than that of people without disabilities.’
Over the years, I kept mostly quiet about being disabled, despite my parents’ encouraging me to disclose it to my employers. By my fourth job, where I worked as a seasonal cashier at a service station, I spoke a little more freely about it. However, I had trouble asking for help whenever I found myself overwhelmed, preferring to wait for my break to stop myself from spiralling into a meltdown.
When I went to university, the amount of help I received regarding my employability surprised and pleased me and my parents. In February 2019, I entered the Achieve through Work Experience programme (GoWales) that specialised in helping disadvantaged students (those who are disabled, BAME or are from lower-income backgrounds) find work placements. I discovered that it was possible to be open about your disability, get the help you need, and work.
After I graduated and began applying for jobs, I discovered that there were more initiatives to lower the employment gap.
Initiatives for people with disabilities
- GoWales: I mentioned the Achieve through Work Experience programme in this article already. GoWales is based solely at Welsh universities and employers are all based in Wales. The programme offers work-shadowing for up to 3 days, unpaid work experience for up to 4 weeks and paid work experience for up to 6 weeks. Participants have an advisor to help them find experience that is catered to their needs and their interests. This scheme is partly funded by the European Social Fund and will run until the 31st of January 2022. More information can be found here: www.gowales.co.uk
- Ambitious About Autism - Autism Exchange: The Autism Exchange is designed to help 16-25 year old autistic people find paid work experience and develop skills for future employment. Current opportunities can be found here: www.ambitiousaboutautism.org.uk/autism-exchange/current-opportunities
- ‘Disability Confident’: Over 13,000 workplaces have signed up to guarantee an interview to people with disabilities if they meet the minimum criteria of the job they are applying for. Here is more information on businesses that are ‘Disability Confident’: www.gov.uk/government/publications/disability-confident-employers-that-have-signed-up
- Mencap: Mencap helps students with learning disabilities find work experience and employment through their Three Ships programme. Here is their page to find out more: www.mencap.org.uk/advice-and-support/services-you-can-count/employment-services
- Civil Service – Diversity Fast Stream: This scheme offers 6-9 weeks of paid work experience across the UK in the Civil Service. You can only apply if you are in your final 2 years of university. More information can be found here: www.faststream.gov.uk/summer-diversity-internship-programme/
- EmployAbility: EmployAbility provides a wide range of support, including application help and showcases work experience opportunities with major employers on their website. Click here for their homepage: www.employ-ability.org.uk/
- Change100: Change100 offers a 3-month paid internship for people with disabilities who are either in university or who have graduated within the last two years. More information can be found here: www.leonardcheshire.org/what-we-can-do-you/working/employment-support-and-internships/internships-students-and-graduates
- Access to Work: A public grant that helps people with disabilities with practical and financial support in the workplace, such as adapting equipment for their needs and providing a mentor. More information about Access to Work can be found here: www.gov.uk/government/publications/access-to-work-factsheet/access-to-work-factsheet-for-customers
It is important to note that universities also offer help for students with disabilities in finding work experience or a job.
The workplace is changing for people with disabilities, enough that I felt comfortable writing this article and posting it. During my interview for my internship at Indigo Careers, I disclosed my disability. Later, after it was confirmed I had been offered the internship, I asked if I could visit the office beforehand so I could get used to the environment on account of my autism, which was quickly agreed to. In the building, there is even a quiet place where I can go to work if I become too overwhelmed.
There is still a long way to go for disability rights in the workplace. Yet, slowly but surely, the workplace is becoming more inclusive and understanding about those who need help to cope in a world that has, for a long time, ignored their needs.
We can only hope that this progress will continue.
 Powell, Andrew, People with disabilities in employment, Number 7540 (May 2019) p.3. <http://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-7540/CBP-7540.pdf> [Accessed 2nd of September 2019]
 Ibid, p.4.