Today’s blog is brought to you by Kirsty Major, who currently provides support and training for people who want to develop their English. In the blog Kirsty explores reasonable adjustments and how they can be beneficial for everyone in the workplace.
I set up my own English language teaching business in 2012, and now I make sure that every system in my business is accessible for me as a blind person working with a screenreader. That doesn’t mean that I never need help with anything – things like making sure images on my website are the right size and the right way up. I learned that one the hard way and always check now! But the day-to-day systems for running the business are all set up in a way that I can use them.
This is easy to do when you’re running your own business, but if you get a job in another organisation, there are likely to be challenges to overcome in order to make the working environment more accessible for someone with a disability.
A reasonable adjustment is a change made to the workplace, role, or way that something is done to prevent disabled people from being at a disadvantage to their non-disabled colleagues. In this article, I’d like to tell you about some of the things that we did and some of the suggestions I brought in when I worked for a large organisation during the time before I set up my own business. Actually I held several positions there, so I’ll draw examples from different roles.
Some blind people have support workers who assist them with parts of the role that they would be unable to do on their own. I’m not going to talk about this here because I didn’t have a support worker. I didn’t need help all the time, and when I did, it was usually an urgent, two-minute job, rather than a bunch of things that I could batch together for a support worker to go through with me. I tended to ask colleagues for more help than someone with their own support worker might have, but I also did things for my colleagues – things that they maybe didn’t enjoy or were not as good at.
Sometimes you can help everyone to be more efficient
Having a disabled person join the team is a good opportunity to evaluate things on a wider scale in terms of what is actually working. Everyone knows that dumping empty boxes in the walkway is a bad idea in terms of health and safety, but it’s only when someone is working in the office that might not see them and fall over them that something gets done. But really, nobody should have to be picking their way through boxes and papers all over the floor.
When I joined the team, there was a notepad that was used for booking the meeting rooms. I can’t tell you how much time was wasted lookingfor it because people would walk off with it and not bring it back. I couldn’t use the notebook, so we implemented a new system via which the meeting room could be booked online. It helped me, because I didn’t have to hunt down the book every time and then ask someone to write in it for me, but it also helped everyone else, because we could all see at a glance when the room was free and make a booking without leaving our desks.
In a later role, I took on responsibility for a project progress plan. It was a huge document in Word. There were pages and pages of it in tables that were a pain to format and even more of a pain to work with. One day I’d had enough and put the whole thing in Excel. It’s not that I can’t use Word, but having the document in Excel made it easier to filter the different items, so I could look at what needed to be done by the first quarter, which things each person was responsible for, what was outstanding etc.
I still needed a hand when it came to formatting the thing and setting it up for printing, but I could work with the data much faster, and in turn, so could everyone else. People responded with their updates faster when they were shown how to only look at what was relevant to them. And we also saved some trees!
When I attended meetings, I always took my laptop with me, and this is how I accessed the meeting papers. People needed to be educated that they couldn’t just dash off a few photocopies of a document 2 minutes before they ran into the meeting. I needed to be sent it in advance so that I would have it with me and could read it along with everyone else.
Sadly this didn’t always work out and there were occasions where I could not participate in the discussion because someone had only brought hard copies of a document that I could not access. If I was leading the meeting, I’d say that anything like that had to be put on the agenda for next time, but I wasn’t always chairing the meetings, and in the short-term there were limits to what I could do. Still, that didn’t prevent me from complaining afterwards because nobody would have been happy if I’d turned up with a bunch of Braille hand-outs.
However, when things went well, everyone benefited. If the papers were sent out in advance, I did have them on my laptop for the meeting, but as well as that, we were all able to read them in advance and make informed comments about them in the meeting.
Sometimes you can work out a trade
Generally I found my colleagues to be helpful, but I didn’t want to feel like the person who was always giving others extra things to do or asking for help. This is why I sometimes had people, who were earning far more than I was, doing a bit of photocopying for me, but at the same time, I was setting up spreadsheets for them that would save them a lot of time, because they didn’t know how to use Excel. When I became a manager, I could legitimately delegate these tasks, but in the beginning, I looked for swaps that benefited both parties.
When I was an Admin Assistant, I never took my turn handing out the post, but I did more than my share of telephone answering duty. I never did coffee runs or sorting out rooms after meetings, but I did more than my share of the minutes, because I’m a fast typist and I find it easy, whereas other colleagues absolutely hated it!
Sometimes you need to state the obvious
My colleagues learned quickly that leaving a post-it on my desk didn’t get a response. In fact, if they came back a couple of days later, they might still find it there, undiscovered and lonely. I don’t respond to post-it notes because I can’t read them and might not even be aware that
I think before I joined that particular team, it was a preferred way of keeping in touch. However, people needed to learn that this wouldn’t work with me. They needed to call me, email me, or come and find me. In the same way, I preferred telephone and email to wandering around the building looking for people. And really, you can save a lot of time that way!
I don’t think the post-it colleagues were trying to be unhelpful – people just don’t always think about what may or may not be helpful for a disabled colleague, especially if people have been doing the same things for a long time. Getting people to actually talk to one another improved relations in the office because a hastily scribbled note can be a bit impersonal and demanding.
Sometimes people are happy to help – if you ask them
When I was Communications Manager, part of my role should have been to take photos to accompany the articles I wrote for the website or staff publications. I never took any photos because I can’t, but people were often happy to do this for me. In the age of selfies, most people are happy to provide a photo of themselves or their teams – usually they were more happy to do it themselves anyway so they could make sure they got one that they were happy with, rather than having someone from Communications snapping away! This was great because I still got my images, and I can’t tell you how much time and money I saved by not having to traipse around London on photo missions. It was a win win situation!
Sometimes you need to be honest about the things which are causing you trouble
In the early days, a colleague from another team created a macro for me to strip out erroneous formatting in documents. I can check the font, size, style of an individual letter, but random font changes don’t stand out to me as they would to a sighted person.
I was working with documents from different sources, and I couldn’t notice straight away how to fix anything that was out of place. I didn’t have the skills to create a macro like that, but my colleague did, and he saved me so much time and stress! If I’d pretended everything was ok, he wouldn’t have known there was a problem.
Sometimes it will take time
I did encounter resistance when I suggested some changes. Usually the managers were the easiest to convince – all you had to do was show how the proposed change would make things quicker or better, and they were sold on the idea! Other colleagues, particularly those with less developed IT skills, took more convincing, particularly when making the office environment more accessible involved moving away from paperbased systems.
When I joined one team, nobody seemed to have heard of meeting requests. The Pas wrote lengthy emails with all the information, and people copied it out into their diaries. I didn’t want to ban people from using paper diaries, but we needed a better way to track attendance, communicate with attendees, and circulate information. So I brought in distribution lists and Outlook meeting requests – and some people hated them at first. They felt uncomfortable because they didn’t know how to use them. It took time for me to sit down with them, demonstrate what we were doing and why it would be better in the long run. Using the Outlook calendars did in fact help everyone to see who was around, where people were going to be etc. So something that started off as an accessibility exercise because of the room diary, soon mushroomed into something much bigger, but which in the end encouraged better use of technology by everyone, and did save us a lot of time.
Some of these things were solely to help me, but others actually benefitted the rest of the team as well. In every situation, communication was key. People are much more likely to respond positively to change how they work if they can understand the reasoning behind it. Reasonable adjustments are necessary for a disabled member of staff to play a full and active role in the team, but many of the things I did actually brought wider benefits. There needs to be willingness on both sides – willingness from the employer and other colleagues to challenge existing ideas and think creatively, but also willingness on the part of the disabled person to be part of the solution and make suggestions. After all, you are the best person to know what will work for you and what is possible with the technology that you have.
Generally I found the carrot was more effective than the stick, although at the same time I wasn’t afraid to challenge things that were not inclusive.
About the author
Kirsty Major is an online language teacher for adults. You can find out more about her language teaching work on her website.
In her spare time, Kirsty runs Unseen Beauty, a beauty and lifestyle blog from the perspective of someone who is blind.
You can also follow Kirsty on Twitter @EnglishWithK
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