When I had the car crash that resulted in a spinal cord injury, leaving me paralysed and dependent on a wheelchair for the rest of my life, I was eighteen years old. I had just left school, didn’t have a job, and the rest of my life was very much a blank canvas for me to fill as I chose, albeit now within the restrictions of my disability.
Thankfully, painting had always been my favourite pastime so, fresh out of hospital, I wheeled myself straight into art school, relatively indifferent to the outcome or what career path I might have inadvertently chosen to go down. And then out of the blue various opportunities presented themselves to me, and before I knew it, 14 years had passed and today I find myself the proud owner of a very diverse CV - “Television Presenter, Artist, Former reality television contestant and entrepreneur” (thanks Wikipedia!).
But underneath all of these varied titles, one constant remains, my disability. And no matter how limitless the sky might appear to my ambition, the reality is that I am more vulnerable than I like to admit.
Last month for example, I was struck down by a pressure sore. These are common secondary complications of being paralysed, and can occur at any time. I blanched with fear when I discovered it. ‘I don’t have time’, I panicked. ‘I literally do not have time to be... disabled’. The pressure sore had to take priority, so all work was put on hold whilst I lay prone for four weeks to relieve the pressure and heal the sore. The fear and dread of having to explain this to my colleagues, business partners and employers was overwhelming. It was almost like telling them would reveal the extent of my disability. My rationale was lost as I found myself terrified that I would lose my job(s). After all who would want to work with someone that could at any point just not be able to work?
Unfortunately, my fears are shared. Scope’s research has found that a staggering 58% of disabled people have felt at risk of losing their job because of their disability. There are 13million disabled people in the UK, and two in five of us feel the need to disguise our disability as a result of stigma and negativity. That is a lot of people feeling just how I felt. The struggle, as they say, is definitely real, people.
Troublingly, there has been a recent sharp increase in the number of people who have to stop working in order to manage their impairment or condition, with 350,000 people having to move from employment to health-related inactivity. The fact is, disabled people are just far more likely to have to stop working than non-disabled people, and from my experience, I don’t think that is surprising.
What really worries me about these findings though, is that only half of the country’s disabled adults are actually in work. So for those of us lucky enough to be in a position to be earning therefore, it appears most of us feel insecure.
Disabled people need to feel financially secure, probably more than most. We have extra costs to consider; Scope research shows disabled people spend on average £550 a month more on costs related to our impairments or conditions.
Accordingly, it is vital we have support around us to enable us to earn. Workplace policies, culture, practice and attitude must improve so that we can be open about what we need, so we can get in, stay in and progress in the workplace.
Thankfully I am now able to return to work, but while my pressure sore may have gone, the pressure of it recurring never leaves. We may have got our disabilities for free, but they definitely cost us.
Sophie Morgan is patron of the disability charity Scope. Find out more about how the charity drives everyday equality, so that disabled people have the same opportunities as everyone else.
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