Heigh ho, heigh ho it’s back to work we go

When I first became spinal cord injured way back in 1985, it went without saying that my working days were over even though I was only 26. At the time I was working as an Assistant Green Keeper on a golf course and all I had ever done was physical work. Educationally I had been a victim of the Comprehensive school experiment started with much enthusiasm in the sixties, which by the seventies in many schools began to unravel so badly. But then as long as you could read or write (or even if you couldn’t in some cases), there was in the South at least, plenty of work to go to when you left school at 16 in 1975.

The type of school I went to was not unlike the one the comedian Micky Flanagan describes at his stand up gigs;

‘You went to the local comprehensive and you did nothing. You stared out the window. Most ambitious kid in our class was Gary Hutton – you know why? He wanted to drive a van. Of course we all erupted. No one from this school has ever gone on to drive a van! Come on Hutton, you know why this school is here. This school is here to produce the people who carry stuff to the van!’

At the time I became spinal cord injured I was regarded as a not very well educated, low skilled, agricultural labourer, not least by myself. There was no mention of returning to any kind of work or retraining. I was effectively written off as a tax payer, again not least by myself. When I was working we didn’t expect anyone who was a raspberry ripple to go to work, that’s why we paid our taxes so they could be looked after and when I became one I expected not to work and be looked after.

There were however some isolated examples that should have made me think different. One guy, a paraplegic, on my ward in Salisbury Spinal Cord Injuries Centre went back to work in pretty short time after his injury. But he worked at Cheltenham GHQ and was middle class and educated, different from most of us fellow inmates. He was a nice bloke but in my eyes he was a pen pusher, a boffin. There was also a fellow tetraplegic in with me, who became a good friend, who returned to his workplace sometime after being discharged, albeit on a part-time basis, and is still there some twenty seven years on.

I have since realised of course that there were many other spinal cord injured people who got off their arse (many of those not literally of course) and looked for work. The majority of us though, mainly because of the social attitudes that prevailed and the many barriers we faced, did not.

So it came as a great surprise to me in my mid-forties when I found myself applying to SIA for a job as their then Social Affairs Officer. At first I was put off by the job ad in Forward magazine, as it required potential applicants to be educated to degree standard. My long suffering wife at the time was having none of it. Seeing me sat idle for so long and probably longing to get me out from under her feet persuaded me to at least ring Paul Smith, SIA’s CEO and give it ago.

Sometimes when you are seeking employment you need a break. Luckily for me Paul gave me that break. He recognised that the experience I had gained campaigning with a local voluntary disability organisation and as a spinal cord injured person for 20 years, was relevant.

Paul could also see from what I told him that I had a sort of education that was just as valid, via the University Life, the school of hard knocks and the kindergarten of having the stuffing kicked out of you. I went for an interview, got the job and more to my surprise than anyone, ten years on I’m still working for SIA.

In the last 30 years since my spinal cord injury, attitudes regarding disabled people in work have changed immensely as has the workplace itself. In many quarters it is now seen as beneficial that those disabled people who are able to work, are supported to do so not only for our own benefit, but for that of employers and the wider society as a whole.

In 1985 and for sometime after that most jobs were manual, now the majority are not. More people, including disabled people, have had the benefits of higher education so they now work with their brains and not with their brawn. Legislation has been introduced to make the workplace more accessible, in the age of technology you can also work from home and despite some of its failings there is Access to Work support.

More and more disabled people do not only want to work, they see it as vital to escape a life of total dependency on the state, which can only be good for everyone. It is therefore encouraging to hear in recent interview with the Disability Action Alliance (a consultation group on disability) the latest Minister for Disabled People, Justin Tomlinson, speak passionately almost evangelical at times about getting more disabled people into work, moreover in the ways we would like to see it done.

In the interview the Minister said that he had employed disabled people himself in his business and had seen for himself what a positive difference they had made. His priority, he said, is to get that message over to employers, relevant stakeholders and across government. View the full interview here

Are we at long last I wonder, rediscovering the attitudes we once held on disabled people in the workplace and the positive contributions they make? I remember a good few years ago when attending a conference (on something relating to disability), talking to an old sage over lunch, who expanded on the theory that disabled people were respected and valued a lot more in the 18th and 19th Century’s.

His argument was that in those times, when Britain really did rule the waves (and most of the earth) sailors in our navy suffered horrific injuries. Injuries mainly caused by huge splinters of wood flying through the ships decks, while our lads and the rest of the world (much of which we seemed to be fighting then) exchanged cannon balls at close quarters.

Then there was only one way to deal with smashed bones, twisted tendons, shredded muscle and infection control and that was to hack off any offending limb. If you were lucky enough to live through the primitive surgery, where you shipped back to Blighty and forgot about? Not likely, with the whole world lined up against us we needed every man-jack-tar we had, able bodied or not. Then, they fitted you up with a wooden peg and crutch, or a hook, put a parrot on your shoulder and you were found a job on the ship you could still do.

Even our greatest sailor, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson had only one arm and one eye and no one took a blind bit of notice – why? – because he was still the best at his job. Quite simply, in such times disabled people just carried on working and were valued because they were doing a useful job, putting in a shift and contributing to the team.

If you a thinking about returning to work or require advice on employment then I would encourage you to contact Dave Bracher, SIA’s Vocational Support Manager.

Mick Hutchins, SIA Public Affairs Officer.