Listening to the voices of disabled staff

Chris Rowlands

Chris Rowlands is the equality and diversity lead at Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust. In this blog Chris talks about the importance of listening to the voices of disabled staff. 

I walked back to the car with my daughter Jenny after auditioning a piano teacher to take us on the next step of our musical journeys. In the dry of the car we began to talk about our lessons, we’d both come to the same conclusion, we hadn’t been listened to by the teacher. As we sat and talked, Jenny jabbed the car stereo buttons, Aguado’s Rondo Brilliante played by Julian Bream.. “Boring!” the radio button was hit to Sean Rafferty talking to a guest on Radio 3... “Dad this is rubbish!" the USB stick sparked up Squeeze’s Greatest Hits. “Dad this is good, can we listen to this?” We listened to Squeeze and talked about the music. My left foot dipped the clutch, I selected first and in contrast to the past hour, like the gear, I felt engaged and so did Jenny.

Engagement is key to ensuring equality and diversity, not only in terms of working with communities on service delivery to identify needs and aspirations, to plan and transform services, but it is also important that staff feel engaged, listened to and valued.

‘Nothing about us without us’ is a slogan that came into use in disability activism in the 1990s. It communicates clearly the idea that no policy procedure or function should be decided by anyone without the full participation of members of groups affected by that policy. It is part of the ethos of the UNs International Day of People with Disabilities, marked since 1992, to spread the word on disability issues and mobilise support for the dignity, rights and well-being of disabled people. The day also aims to draw attention to the benefits to society as a whole of including disabled people in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life.  Its arrival and legislation a quarter of a century ago has helped services to move away from the medical model of disability where there is a focus upon the individual and their impairment, to the social model of disability which identifies systemic barriers, negative attitudes and exclusion by society (purposely or inadvertently) that mean society is the main contributory factor in disabling people. 

It is this ethos which has shaped the introduction of the NHS Workforce Disability Equality Standard this year. The WDES is important, because research shows that a motivated, included and valued workforce helps to deliver high quality patient care, increased patient satisfaction and improved patient safety. (I’m waiting for the research that shows piano teachers that make pupils feel included, leads to better music).

The implementation of the WDES will enable NHS trusts and foundation trusts to better understand the experiences of their disabled staff. It will support positive change for existing employees and enable a more inclusive environment for disabled people working in the NHS. It will also allow us to identify good practice and compare performance regionally and by type of trust. Engagement is key and it is no surprise that the WDES recognises this with the inclusion of Metric 9.

Has your trust taken action to facilitate the voices of disabled staff in your organisation to be heard? Our trust took the decision to launch a network for disabled staff three years ago. We started really as a support group for each other, taking time to listen to each other’s stories but also noting the common themes from those for action by the trust. In the past year we have seen real momentum for the group. Executive sponsorship has led to the voices of disabled staff being heard at board level and a presentation to the trust board from a network member. 

As a result of our discussions the network is working with the trust to improve the process for making reasonable adjustments and as I write this, the network has asked all staff to share their disability on their electronic staff record. Our network chair is a member of the trust’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Steering Group, ensuring that the network helps shape the overall approach to the agenda and the network will be key as our work towards WDES grows.

Let’s make 2020 the year for the collective voices of disabled staff networks to be heard. This is the future, ‘the past has been bottled and labelled with love’.

Find out more about disability in the NHS and the NHS Workforce Disability Equality Standard.

This blog was published to support International Day of People with Disabilities. 

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