Calibre leadership graduates’ final presentations included recommendations to improve the work environment for College staff living with a disability.
Calibre is a talent development and leadership programme for staff who identify as neurodiverse or disabled, or who have a long term physical or mental health condition. The ten graduates on the 2021 programme, which was run remotely, were Calibre’s ninth cohort.
College Secretary, John Neilson has attended every Calibre graduation since the programme began. He said: “I have always hugely enjoyed Calibre graduations. This year’s presentations showed honesty and were wonderfully diverse and inspiring. It is really important that we share them in the widest possible setting. I’m proud that Imperial’s values come through in a programme like Calibre, but we must listen when we need to learn lessons. Huge congratulations to this year’s graduates and a big thank you to everyone who has supported the programme over the years.”
Dogs and dragons
Staff living with disabilities can face several different types of barriers in the workplace. These can include environmental barriers such as steps, kerbs and lighting; institutional barriers such as rules and policies; and attitudinal barriers such as fear, hostility, ignorance and patronising attitudes.
Dammy Shittu is a Research Technician in the Department of Life Sciences and she has a hereditary physical condition. She presented on the challenges she has faced in getting permission to be allowed to have her assistance dog live with her in College accommodation. Whilst Dammy has now received approval, it was a challenging process that took ten months. Calibre developed Dammy’s ability and confidence to lead, influence and collaborate with relevant sections of College to propose a series of measures that she hopes will prevent others going through the same thing as her.
Dammy said: “It was a very difficult having my request to have my trainee-assistance dog live with me refused. Although I felt sure that I should be allowed to have a dog in campus accommodation, it was a hard and stressful process getting the decision overturned. I would like to prevent anyone else having to go through this and I think there are some easy steps that Imperial can take to make that happen. I would also like the Imperial community to be educated about the amazing things that assistance dogs can do for people.”
Kirsten Irving, a Library Assistant in the Central Library, presented on “Storytelling for self-advocacy". Using examples from fables and tales she explained how storytelling had helped her to articulate her needs as someone who has ADHD. Kirsten said: “We can’t sit around in our towers waiting to be rescued. In terms of your disability you know what is best for you. Shout as loud as you can for a ladder or a lift, or - if it’s right for you – a dragon!”
The importance of good leaders
The Calibre leadership programme builds on 21st-century thinking of disability leadership to ensure that we see more disabled leaders in a variety of positions within Imperial. The programme enables participants to learn more about disability and leadership as well as developing their presentation skills and supporting them as they design a personal project.
Whilst Calibre helps participants to develop their own leadership skills, a theme of several presentations was that the support of individual line managers was essential for disabled staff to feel truly able to be themselves at work. Knowing when and how to talk about their disability was not a trivial thing for the Calibre participants and building the confidence to do this was made much easier with supportive colleagues.
Rebecca Gill is a Producer in the Digital Learning Hub who has ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis). Rebecca has experienced previous employers refuse her requests for reasonable adjustments and found her managers jumping to conclusions about her work ethic due to the social stigma and lack of understanding of her invisible disability. This made her wary about disclosing her disability within the workplace, however when Rebecca started working at the Digital Learning Hub and spoke to her line manager, she was pleasantly surprised by the amount of support and adjustments offered. “He asked what he could do to help. I realised then that my manager wasn’t just a boss, but he was a leader too.”
Normalising and appreciating difference
Robert Woodward is a Senior Learning Designer in the Faculty of Engineering who has dyslexia. His project examined how to raise awareness amongst non-dyslexic staff of how typical working and learning environments present a myriad of challenges for dyslexic staff. Robert said: “We need to find ways to change the system, not just expect dyslexic and staff living with other disabilities to find coping mechanisms to fit into the system.”
Professor Stephen Curry, Assistant Provost for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, agreed. He said: “It is essential that we normalise and appreciate difference, so that we better recognise our shared humanity. Imperial is working hard to support different groups of staff, including through our staff networks Able, Imperial As One and Imperial 600, but we still have much to learn. Sessions like this really help us to do that.”
Find out more
The Calibre programme has been developed and is delivered by Dr Ossie Stuart, an international disability consultant and academic, in partnership with Imperial's Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Centre.
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