“Now You See Me” – living with an invisible disability; the positive impact of the global pandemic on the booming flexible working market

Imagine growing up with two “conflicting” aspects in your life: one, an invisible illness and two, ambition. The two are seemingly contradictory yet that is exactly how I grew up; born with renal disease I was brought up in a matriarchal home believing I could do and be anyone and anything in life. Which is probably why despite my health complications I graduated from Cass Business School, one of the top-ranking universities for business in the UK. Yet, why have I struggled to rise in the career ranks since graduating 15 years ago? We have a look at the barriers people with invisible disabilities face into employment and how the global pandemic has provided “us” with new hope for the future in the workforce. 

Forget about gender gap, is there such thing as a “health gap”? It seems like the healthier you are the more likely you are to be given fair opportunities and to move up the career ladder. Suddenly, having a masters degree from a top university doesn’t matter as long as you have a health condition, your intelligence and capabilities don’t outweigh your disability. Searching for flexible work all of a sudden means ‘there must be something wrong with you’ and I look back at the countless days I have spent clicking on that ‘part time’ button on job sites only to see zero or few jobs, or jobs like ‘cleaner’ which I definitely don’t frown upon – as the global pandemic has proven another positive that has come out if it is that key workers are far more important than celebrities and footballers! – however, I don’t feel I needed to go and do 2 degrees, taking 4 years stressing about studying and not be given the opportunity to work in a challenging office job, and to earn something above national basic salary. It feels like ‘disability = unskilled’, and the first time I heard someone tell me ‘well, if you have a disability, why don’t you prove your worth by taking on voluntary work?’, I remember realising I grew up extremely sheltered from the uncomfortable truth regarding discrimination and ignorance festering in the UK world of employment.

In university I studied to get the grades, I didn’t disclose my disability to anybody – not because I was shy about my disability, I was actually the Disability Student Ambassador during my academic studies – as I wanted to get through my degree treated equally to everyone else, so I didn’t accept extra time, or special treatment, and with hard work and determination I was able to achieve two degrees, a BSc Economics degree and an MSc Management degree. All this on equal terms with my counterparts. Then I graduated and I was exposed to the stark reality that while at university you pay for the privilege to study, as long as you get the grade you are accepted, whereas in the working world nobody is willing to pay you a salary for the privilege of your hard work and capabilities, knowing you have a health condition. 

At this point you will say “no, that’s not true, disabilities rights exist, its illegal”. Is it though? I lived through the “two ticks” scheme where companies registered themselves as certified disability accepting firms. It turned out to be just another ‘symbol’ that made the reputation of companies look good but in reality, it is a far cry between talking the talk and walking the walk. 

According to research – which funnily enough was in collaboration with a professor of Human Resources from the very university I am a proud alumna of, Cass Business School – the Two Ticks scheme turned out to be an ‘empty shell’ of promises to the disabled workforce, where an astonishingly low percentage of 15% out of over 8,000 organisations awarded with Two Ticks actually kept to the 5 important commitments toward disabled candidates/employees. Can I just point out at this point that I am living proof of the shortcomings of government regulations to promote inclusion of people with disabilities, and Two Ticks certification or even the reformed ‘positive about disability’ initiatives hold no substance if the ‘belief’ that people with disabilities are worthy of success is not engrained in the mind of employers to the point that it becomes an innate part of their behaviour

I’m a living example of the struggle where disclosing your disability should mean you are given fair consideration, however, companies can just as easily use the loophole to excuse their decision as ‘fair’ by stating the simple and effective sentence “unfortunately, there was someone more qualified than you” – disability rights regulations do not cover you if the company does not clearly state “you did not get the job because we simply prefer your healthy counterparts who are less bothersome than you are with your requirements”. 

Furthermore, people with disabilities have to struggle not only with the big bad corporates, they also have to fisty-cuff their way through their career – or non-existence of! – with other candidates, one of whom once said “it is not fair that the government forces companies to fulfill the criteria of holding 10% jobs aside for people with disabilities, that means you are guaranteed a job while I might be far more qualified than you” to which I responded, angrily ‘are the other 90% of positions available to you not enough for you? Do you want to have all 100% available for you to be happy?”. Now, don’t get me wrong, I abhor being given ‘special treatment’, it makes me cringe even thinking about applying for a job and not being treated on equal terms as others, being tip-toed around on eggshells, however, without laws against racial, sexual, gender and disability discrimination in the workforce I can tell you the gender gap would still exist, black counterparts would be overlooked for positions – although this still is rife! – and people with disabilities would be told to get a job at the till in a supermarket, only!

While I believe in female empowerment, I still have a bitter taste left in my mouth when I experience devastating “isolation” amongst my female counterparts because I don’t fit in, conversations around female empowerment seem to be selective around healthy women. I have had two experiences that have proved there still is not enough support between women when it comes to the healthy and non-healthy divide. 

When attending a diversity talk at Cass Business School headed by a JP Morgan female director, I heard so much about the gender gap, how the board was made up of 90% men. Excitedly I approached her and said “I am the disability ambassador at Cass Business School, what are your views on disabled women working in JP Morgan?”. Expecting an overwhelming response of respect, support and motivation I was flabbergasted to hear her response “between you and me we avoid employing people with disabilities, they are too risky to employ”. Did she ever put herself to think that maybe I was disable myself? For a “highly successful” woman she had the respect and compassion for her female counterparts of a chauvinist and a bigot. 

Back in 2007, as a tenderly and blissfully naïve young graduate, I was determined to apply for the top firms in the UK and the world, after all like my academic counterparts I came from a top university with a top degree and deserved equal success, right? Wrong. The second time my confidence was destroyed and annihilated was when I got through all 5 stages of the then KPMG Graduate Scheme, only to encounter the same disrespectful attitude from the VP who interviewed me at the last stage who responded to me with “you will never survive in this industry” before showing me out. Needless to say, I was fully aware I was not going to get the job. 

Having a disability, I have often been met with ignorance and lack of awareness around disabilities within the workforce. The central business district and the financial and professional services from my experience have been dedicated to elitism and discrimination. Yet there was legally nothing that could be done about it, not that I ever would, I wouldn’t want to be “blacklisted” from the industry never to be able to work in it again as “a trouble maker”. So, I shrugged it off, dusted my self off and kept going. 

As recent as 2018, I saw myself getting the confidence and courage to try again only to be knocked down, and this – or at least I thought so at the time – was the last straw. I remember being interviewed by NatWest’s Head of Diversity and Inclusion – yes you heard that right, that’s her role – and being told by her and her colleague “you have an amazing CV, you are clearly highly educated and very talented, so…”, the sentence fading off as if to imply “so what’s wrong with you then if you don’t already have a job?”. I will tell you what is perceived ‘wrong’ with me, I disclosed in the interview and not a moment before that I needed to work part-time flexible hours because of my disability, and apparently even to a black woman who worked hard to become a director in the banking industry, this was not acceptable. What hurt me most was that the conclusion was made from a woman who holds a job title with two very important and strikingly obvious words ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’, at a time when I though 10 years down the line things have changed in the world of employment for people like ‘me’. 

Fast forward to 2020, and human rights movements have given people a voice. Louder than ever. Granted that right now it’s the time to chant “Black Lives Matter” because, quite rightly, it is your time. Its not my time – yet. But, through you, your pride, your confidence, your anger I have found my voice too. I have realised that I deserve to be treated fairly too, disabled people have a voice too. Because you know what? #disabledblacklivesmatter too! 

The first time I saw this on my twitter feed was the first time I screamed in joy. For many 2020 has been a devastating time, but for me it has been a time for global growth, a time for community and compassion, a time for uprising and change, a time for technology to take virtual centre stage, a time for flexibility and freedom in the Workforce. 

I recently attended a virtual event with the CEO of 2to3days.com, the flexible working job agency, and PwC, one of the global Big 4 professional services firms, and listening to the representatives of PWC speaking with such passion and positivity around the idea of flexible working arrangements, it made me shout out loud “yes! Totally agree, this is so right! “. The Flexible Talent Network by PwC promises to give “everybody” the chance to work flexibly. 

I can’t lie, I am still a little apprehensive as to whether “this is real”, I’m still pinching myself to make sure that I’m not imagining this, after 15 years of hard hits, of losing all hope, losing my courage and my confidence, I am treading extremely carefully of fear of rejection yet again. But, could it be that after so long and after so much distress looking to work in the industry it is finally my time? Could it be that it took a global pandemic to change my life and give me the opportunities I deserve though flexible working arrangements? Maybe. 

I say “maybe” because past experiences have bruised my confidence, I am not the same blissfully unaware and highly driven woman that believed I could achieve anything. The constant let-downs and frequent discrimination I endured have changed me. 

One thing is for sure, two major aspects in my life have still not changed. My invisible illness and my ambition. Hopefully, coming out of this pandemic they will become aligned and be the two very important reasons why I can prove that my resilience and determination have been enough to help me achieve success in a more flexibly inclined new working world. 

I may live with an invisible illness, and my past may be riddled with barriers to fair opportunities, but I will tell you one thing for sure what my experience from this global pandemic has proven: Now you see me, I’m not invisible anymore!

Article published on The Everyday Magazine: https://theeverydaymagazine.co.uk/opinion/invisible-disability

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