Acknowledging disability in the workplace: An interview with Martin Townsend

Navigating the workspace can be a challenge, irrespective of ability. Long hours, repetitive tasks and fatigue get to the best of us. The challenge only gets worse. The reality is that working as a disabled person can be a gauntlet, especially when the environment and the tasks of the job aren’t suited to your ability.

Today I sit down with Martin to discuss how he navigates the workplace as a person with Cerebral Palsy. Martin has had many jobs, from working in the service industry, to being a DJ, he loves trying his hand at everything. He’s currently working as a freelance graphic designer.

Martin’s experience with poor communication

Thank you for coming to talk to me today, Martin. I appreciate it. I’m interested to learn about your experiences of working as a disabled person. I think we should start off with an easy question: what’s your disability and how does that affect you?

“I have Hemiplegia [a type of cerebral palsy]. My right limbs are affected, mostly my right arm and hand. That would make anything that’s dextrous difficult for me, for example, I’d find it hard to pick up and hold objects in my right hand.”

What are some of the struggles you encounter in the workspace?

“The biggest struggle I have in a workplace is often my colleagues and bosses lack of communication and general understanding. It’s my main issue. Often communication is stifled by the lack of understanding of my disability; people tend to have this perception of my ability, and they’re almost always wrong.”

Martin and I worked together for a little while and because I was hired first, I found that co-workers would come up to me and ask about Martin’s ability level and what type of jobs he might be able to do. People were under the assumption, that because we both have cerebral palsy, both of us experienced it in the same way. Which isn’t true at all.

“Another thing that makes communication difficult is politeness. People feel the need to tip-toe around the topic of my disability because they think they might offend me. When actually, a proactive chat about my needs and limitations is exactly what we should be doing. People don’t want to have that talk though; they think it’s awkward. So, I often get too much help, because people assume I can’t do something, or less help when I speak up, because people think I don’t need help at all. Because of this, time and witnessing my struggles is often the best way people have learnt about my limitations.”

This has been similar to my experience in the workplace as well. I’ve found people get used to the idea of having a disabled employee eventually, but I’m often the one that has to start those awkward conversations.

Martin’s experience of accommodation and adaption in the workplace

Martin has worked a load of different jobs, from creative ones to labour-intensive ones, and I wanted to know what his experience of accommodation and adaptation was like across the board.

You’ve worked so many jobs: in your opinion, how accommodating have your different employers been?

“I’d say all my employers have been rather accepting of me and my disability, but accommodation has come at different levels. Most of the jobs I’ve done haven’t needed any real accommodation for me. My current job doesn’t allow me to work any of the party shifts – I work in a bar, which are the busiest and need the faster workers, which I’m not, so that is great for me.”

Did anything need to be adapted for you in your previous jobs? If so, how was that handled by your employers?

“Working in the service industry was the only place where I needed something changed or adapted. Working in a kitchen was a problem for me, as most of the tools and official procedures are designed to be used with both hands. Obviously, I struggled with that part, but with some changes I felt I could have been fairly good at kitchen work.”

I think one of the worst things to encounter as a disabled worker is not having your needs met, or even feeling discriminated against. It’s a tricky subject to navigate, because it relies heavily on clear and honest communication from both parties.

Were there any cases where you felt your needs weren’t being met or your disability not being taken into consideration?

“Using that service job as an example, in the kitchen everything moved quick, and communication was equally as fast. I found it hard to ask for new tools in kitchen so I could do my job better. I was always told people would look into it, but they never did. With the nature and speed of the job, it was easier for staff to place me on a station that I could do and because of that, my request about kitchen tools was forgotten.”

Would you say you’ve felt yourself be discriminated against in the workplace?

“I would say never purposefully, but by situations, yes. Again, I’m thinking about the service industry. There was a round of promotions coming up and I asked one of my bosses, “what would I need to do to get promoted?” They responded with “get better in the kitchen.” I pointed out where I needed help with tools, but we both agreed to give me more opportunities in the kitchen, but when the restaurant wasn’t as busy, so my speed didn’t affect my productivity. My first shift back in kitchen was during a busy lunch period, with that same boss as my trainer. They weren’t prepared to train me and I struggled as I wasn’t prepared to train and work at that speed, as we’d agreed I’d work in a quiet period. When I brought it up in conversation I was told “maybe it’s not meant to be”. I never fully learned kitchen, I never got new tools and I never got promoted.”

I moved us along to a more positive topic, one that I know Martin was excited to discuss and we started to talk about his work, as a freelance graphic designer. I wondered what the difference in his experience was like, as I’m a freelancer myself and I know it’s changed things for me, drastically.

You’re currently self-employed, so you’re in charge of your own work environment, how has that changed things for you?

“I can work from where I want at my own pace. My clients don’t have any issues and sometimes no knowledge of my disability. My freelance work is often done on my own and I work to a pre-set deadline. So, my disability has no effect on the outcome.”

In terms of work for others vs working for yourself, which do you prefer and why?

“I would say I prefer working for myself overall. I mean growing up me and my other disabled friends, we were never really encouraged to have a vocation. We all sort of fell into our own vocations without being pushed into them. Most of us have been creatives, or have desk jobs. I’m into graphic design, I’ve got other friends that work in IT. It’s all desk work, you know? But society never really pushed us into a vocation, we had to find our own and by finding and making our own, we can work on our own time, using our own methods. When you’re employed you’re always working to the strict rules of that business and sometimes, that’s hard to adapt for those with disabilities. So, for me, working for myself is a better thing.”

What’s your dream job and why?

“My current freelance work but more regular and successful. I gain the most satisfaction out of life when I’m being creative. This job, using my creativity to help business’s flourish, is overwhelmingly joyous for me.”

Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today, Martin. It’s been great. Just a final question for you: Drawing on your own experience, what advice would you give employers to help improve the work environment for disabled people?

“Actually spend time solely focused on the employee’s disability. Talk and observe what their needs are. Look into and enquire about how something affects them in this workplace. Look at how other staff members act with a person and their needs. Work together to find solutions to any struggles that arise. Ultimately be open and forthright at all times, yet keep it in that zone between overly polite and being rude. Remember, we’re just people, at the end of the day.”

Need some help?

Knowing your rights is important. Make sure you know what you’re entitled to in the work place.

Your rights in the UK as a disabled employee

How to ask for changes at work as a disabled employee

About the author

Lauren is a freelance writer from Falmouth. After graduating from university, she took a keen interest in writing about disability, so her story and others like it could be told with passion and conviction.