Disability History Month 2023

Staff members' lived experiences of workplace adjustments

For Disability History Month 2023 we spoke to staff to learn more about real-world examples of workplace adjustments and find out about the different processes available for requesting and implementing adjustments.

UK Disability History Month runs from mid-November until mid-December and provides a platform for disabled individuals and allies to focus on the history of disabled peoples’ campaign for equality and human rights. At Imperial, it provides an opportunity for us to explore the history of disability and neurodiversity in relation to our institution, to examine how inclusive our environment and practices are, and to signpost staff and students to support and advice.

Imperial is a Disability Confident Leader and committed to recruiting and supporting disabled and neurodiverse staff and students, and ensuring they can thrive. 

“Imperial is committed to creating an inclusive, equitable environment for all staff and students. Adjustments are vital to dismantling the barriers that disabled people face at work and at university. Relatively small adjustments can be hugely impactful as the following profiles show powerfully. Taking personal responsibility to achieve a better understanding of the needs of the Imperial community and how to implement change, remains an overarching goal.”
Associate Provosts (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) Professor Lesley Cohen and Dr Wayne Mitchell

Aabida conquering and enjoying the outdoors

Aabida conquering and enjoying the outdoors

Aabida's first piece of quilling art

Aabida's first piece of quilling art

Aabida Patel, Senior Business Analyst, Registry

I enjoy being artsy and creative, and I’m always looking for unique activities to explore across London such as jewelry making, pottery painting, digital art exhibitions, and cooking classes. Recently, I discovered a joy for quilling, which involves creating designs using strips of paper that are rolled, shaped and glued together. My most favorite passion, hobby, and interest is going to watch musical productions! I am also Autistic and have ADHD.

My adjustments were agreed with the help of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity Centre (EDIC). After I contacted them, EDIC arranged a specialist workplace assessment for me with Autism Plus. The assessment took about two hours and was carried out virtually. They asked questions and helped me understand how I have masked my disability and adjusted my own behaviours and routines to suit the workplace, in place of having workplace adjustments implemented. Autism Plus wrote a comprehensive and detailed report and, with my consent, shared this document with my line manager. They also met with my line manager to discuss the recommendations and their implementation. 

My recommended adjustments included a quiet area in the office where I can go if I am overstimulated, and having the autonomy to step away from my workspace when things are overwhelming or overstimulating.

I didn't know what I needed in terms of adjustments. I would recommend letting the specialists ask the right questions to help you figure out what you may need. 

My favourite thing that has been done in my department is the Neurodiversity Awareness Training that has been arranged specifically for managers and staff in my department. The uptake and responsiveness to the training has been extremely reassuring. I have recognised so much willingness to learn.

Support for disabled staff at Imperial

The Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Centre (EDIC) and HR via the Staff Hub can provide support to staff and managers. Disabled staff may also want to seek support from Able, the staff network for people with a disability or long-term condition. 

Workplace Adjustments Process

The Workplace Adjustments Process provides guidance for both disabled staff and line managers on how to manage workplace adjustments.

Staff with adjustments already in place, or who are going through the process of requesting adjustments, may want to use the Workplace Adjustments Passport to create a record of agreed adjustments. Passports can provide a structure for reviewing your adjustments and as a starting point for discussions when your role or manager changes. 

Sarah Essilfie-Quaye, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Research Fellow, Faculty of Medicine

I play hockey at local and regional masters level. I love shopping, an interest which is shared with my mum and sister! I'm not a pet person, but somehow I got talked into letting my children have a kitten!

I was diagnosed with ADHD relatively recently and since then have also been diagnosed with Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and Mental Health issues.

I’m still working on having workplace adjustments put into place. So far, I have received support from EDIC who arranged for me to have a Workplace Needs Assessment. This led to coaching sessions, which are really helpful.

It's important for line managers to understand that the "usual way of working" may not benefit everyone. Instead, the focus should be on working with the person that is needing support to identify and put effective adjustments in place.

Sarah with her mum and sister.

Sarah with her mum and sister.

Sarah Essilfie-Quaye, photographed for the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Portrait Prize

Sarah Essilfie-Quaye, photographed for the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Portrait Prize

Social model of disability

Imperial is proud to be a Disability Confident employer and promotes the social model of disability by aiming to remove all possible barriers to inclusion. Where it is not possible to remove barriers, Imperial offers a broad range of support to disabled staff and students.

The social model distinguishes individual impairments – an absence or limitation of function in the way our minds, bodies or senses work – from disability. It theorises disability as a product of social, environmental and attitudinal barriers, rather than situating the problem with the individual.   

The social model was developed in response to the medical or individual model of disability. This suggested that the ‘problem’ of disability resides with the individual disabled person and their impairment(s) rather than with society. This earlier model has been widely criticised for perpetuating social and economic inequality, and for lowering disabled people’s expectations because it focuses on impairment above any other aspects of a disabled person's identity.  

This is a helpful distinction as, for the most part, barriers can be removed.

Find out more about Imperial's actions for improving disability equality in the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion strategy.

Two of Gavin's guitars

Two of Gavin's guitars

Gavin spends as much time as possible with his sister's dog

Gavin spends as much time as possible with his sister's dog

Gavin Reed, Enterprise Marketing and Communications Manager, Enterprise

Outside of work I play guitar, and enjoy cooking, creative writing, comedy and football.

I have ADHD and some of the agreed adjustments I have in place are: 

  • Large pc monitor to block visual distractions and help with multi-tasking.
  • Agreement that I can wear noise-cancelling headphones when needed, which helps with distractions.
  • Agreement for a delayed start time and general flexibility with my working hours, as long as work is completed. This helps me to manage my time and workload effectively.  
  • Flexibility on departmental hotdesking policy to allow me to keep whiteboards/notes on a fixed desk.

To get these adjustments put in place, I had a Workplace Needs Assessment which was arranged through EDIC. Following the assessment and report, I proposed some suggestions to my line manager and these were agreed.

The adjustments are helpful but they are just one part of the picture and aren’t a magic fix for everything. There are still a lot of barriers that exist in the workplace and society as a whole. I have to do a lot of things to help myself which fall outside of the 'workplace adjustments' category. These include telling colleagues I have ADHD, advocating for my needs, developing clear expectations and responsibilities, asserting myself when I need more detail, and agreeing with colleagues that if work isn't my planner then it functionally does not exist. 

The most beneficial outcomes in the workplace have come not from adjustments like different equipment, but from addressing attitudinal barriers and being able to talk to colleagues about what my condition is, what it means, and how we can all take steps to manage it. I have found it difficult to be open about the difficulties ADHD brings me, but initiatives like the Imperial Values help a lot here - I feel quite safe talking about my condition.

Accessing workplace adjustments involves learning about your needs and how to advocate for them. That can be difficult, especially if like me you were diagnosed late in life. I had no experience of advocating for my needs, and I honestly found it difficult to answer some of the questions intended to identify what my additional needs were. But the folks doing the Workplace Needs Assessments are familiar with these issues. If I were to go through the process again, I'd tell myself to be honest about the difficulties I encounter and hopeful about the willingness of my department and colleagues to support me.

What has been really helpful for me is recognising that adjustments aren't made to bring me up to standard but to empower me perform to my highest standard, and that as I gain a more thorough understanding of my condition, I can provide further feedback and information to my manager and team to continue enabling this.

Line manager's perspective

Natasha Martineau, ‪Associate Director of Enterprise Marketing & Communications

The adjustments suggested by Gavin’s Workplace Needs Assessment were fairly easy to implement. Gavin told me what he needed, we obtained quotes, and then we implemented physical changes to the workplace. I continue to check in regularly to see how things are going and whether anything else might be useful in addition to physical adjustments.

As a line manager, it’s useful to think how you can set your direct report up for success by understanding their needs, whatever their situation - what helps them, and what doesn’t. I use this understanding when thinking about how I can provide flexibility in working pattern, effectively assign work, check in on progress, and how we discuss things in the wider group. This is particularly useful to consider when thinking about how we collectively manage workload at times of bottlenecks or high demand.

My advice for managers working with disabled staff is to create an open and trusted space for discussing problems and possible solutions. Make it easy for your direct reports to talk about their disability or any other personal circumstances. Be relaxed about not knowing everything about it. Ask them to help you understand things in detail and check back in to make sure you've understood the situation correctly.

I believe this approach has helped to demonstrate within Enterprise Marketing and Communications  that we have an inclusive culture, that we can all be flexible in helping to accommodate people's individual situations, life stories, disabilities and conditions. Feedback suggests  that we have established an environment and culture where people feel they can ask for things that would improve their working lives.

Tips for staff, from staff

“Join ABLE and talk to people with lived experience - it is a good place to learn. Ask EDIC for an assessment - they now provide a screening service for neurodiverse conditions. Sometimes implementing adjustments is trial and error - some things work, others don't, which is why ongoing conversations about adjustments are important. It is a continuum - disabilities can fluctuate, be inconsistent or dynamic, and working conditions might change that either support your needs better, or are detrimental to your wellbeing.”

“Speaking to your GP, disability support such as the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Centre, and perhaps others in your community or at work that have the same or a similar condition can be really helpful. A long-term disability or condition can mean you've found your own ways to manage and thinking about which adjustments are applicable can be really overwhelming. It's good to get an outside perspective if you don't know where to start."

“Speak to the EDI centre, they are really supportive. It is there to help you, whatever your situation, so be open and honest and go from there.”

“If you're worried or don't feel comfortable talking to your line manager about any disabilities or health issues, the occupational health staff are really friendly and professional. I felt less anxious having been open with them and was able to go into detail I wouldn't feel comfortable sharing with my line manager.”

Thank you to our contributors for sharing their stories.

Visit the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Centre (EDIC) website for more information on disability at Imperial, and support for staff and managers.

The Disability Advisory Service provides support for students who have an impairment or disability, specific learning difficulties and other short and long-term conditions.

If you have any comments or queries about this article or any in the Disability History Month series, please email the Internal Communications team.