VSJ – September 2006 – Sounding Board

Darren Brook, MIAP is a freelance IT professional of 15 years’ standing, specialising in software development, database design, report writing, Web development and systems analysis. He suffers from a progressive disorder called Peroneal Muscular Atrophy, which mainly affects the muscles and can be very debilitating. Here he describes some of his experience as a disabled person in the IT industry.ereH


First, what can’t I do as a result of PMA? I can’t walk long distances, stand for very long, carry heavy objects or use staircases. I also have trouble with high steps and low seating, and with carrying objects such as hot drinks, as the condition severely impairs balance. I can’t sit for long periods as it causes stiffness, muscle pains and circulation problems.

As a child, I couldn’t do sport but I could and did write computer programs and develop software. So it seemed an obvious career. And, in fact, the majority of people I have worked for or with have been very understanding, considerate, helpful and conscientious when it comes to having a disabled colleague. But not always…

When I was younger, I didn’t automatically tell potential employers that I was disabled; it was unnecessary, as, at the time, it didn’t pose any real problems to me. But as I got older, I had to tell them because my condition had worsened. And I was, for the first time, faced with genuine prejudice.

Sometimes it was blatant but more often than not it was subtler. I recall one instance where I had disclosed the details of my condition during an interview that had been going really well, and the interviewer then suddenly said, “Well, I don’t think we need to take this interview any further. Thanks for coming, Darren – someone will be in touch.”

I could recount many such examples and I have got used to it. But should I have to?

Assuming a successful interview there follows a catalogue of issues to be considered. These include building access, lifts, steps, chairs, desks, lunch breaks, the ease (or difficulty) of getting a drink, access for parking and the distance from car park to building. If one of these issues turns out to be a big problem, I may face the possibility of losing the offer. In fact, this has happened to me on more than one occasion.

In one instance, a job offer was rescinded as the client company had no lift access in the part of the building in which I was to work. The company was large and high profile, so I was shocked by their attitude. The lack of lift access was the sole reason for the withdrawal, despite the fact that they were (and are) legally obliged to provide adequate access and provisions for disabled people.

At one company where I was working under contract, one of the managers had a particular dislike of contractors in general. He knew I was disabled yet thought it amusing, on a number of occasions, to remove and hide the chair from my desk when I left the office.

My most recent experience was also whilst working under contract. I had an accident at work owing to a floor being sticky as a result of something having been spilt on it (which I didn’t know until after the event). I was injured and had to take time away from work. What was the client’s response to this? Within a matter of hours, they wanted to terminate the contract with immediate effect.

A more recent problem, as my disability has got worse, is health and safety and insurance. I was offered a permanent job in 2005 that I intended to accept. However, the medical and insurance evaluation led the company to conclude that I was too high a health and safety risk. As a result – and as the insurance would be more costly – the company decided that they could not afford to employ me.

I’ve sometimes wondered why people – and companies – demonstrate such discrimination and intolerance. One theory, sometimes referred to as ‘fragile body syndrome’, states that non-disabled people don’t like coming across disabled people because it reminds them, subconsciously, that they may well be disabled themselves one day.

Another is that if a physically fit person is out-peformed by a disabled person, especially in the work place, they can feel threatened or inadequate. I have experienced this myself while working on a project that had been in the hands of a developer who had made a disaster of the software. He’d spent 5 months on it. I fixed and completed the software in 1 month, with 2 months to spare. He made it quite obvious that he felt someone who is disabled should not be doing a better job than him. Notably, he prided himself on his ‘ability’, was physically fit and possessed a first-class honours degree in computer science.

I would like to re-iterate that I have had plenty of positive experiences too and a successful career spanning 15 years. Many employers have gone out of their way to help, with one in particular ensuring that I had all the resources I needed to work from home effectively.

But that does not excuse the bad apples. Many companies don’t even know what their legal obligations are. The worst ones are those that do know but don’t care anyway.

More needs to be done to make employers and companies aware of their legal responsibilities and more needs to be done to enforce them. I believe that there should be a social responsibility code of practice in relation to disabled persons that all companies should follow and promote. In addition, more flexibility needs to be absorbed into the workplace for disabled workers.

I think that the software development community in the UK needs more companies and employers allowing people to work from home. Yes, there are some scenarios where you simply have to work on-site, but there are plenty of others where you don’t.

The Government needs to encourage this more – but so do company directors and professional bodies, such as the Institute of Directors. It has to be said also that some pressure could also come from IT’s own professional bodies, such as the BCS or our very own IAP.

There is a plethora of software and hardware products available that support remote working. What is the point of all this technology if nobody uses it, and benefits from it?

I think that we in the UK are somewhat behind the times on these matters, as we seem to be in so many things these days. Britain should be leading the way, not lagging behind. I find it staggering that the Government wants people to use their cars less and reduce pollution, congestion and traffic. Yet one of the most effective and popular ways they could do this – by promoting home working – they just ignore. It would also release more money back into the taxpayer’s pocket from the savings on fuel costs.

An acquaintance of mine works in the US for a software company. He’s a permanent employee and he’s been with the company for around 3 years. He has worked from home for all that time, as he did for the company where he previously worked. His colleagues also work from home. They go on-site when necessary, meet for social events, meetings and training. But importantly, they do the majority of work from home. He seems to be successful, and his employer is a familiar company. There are many companies working like this not just across the USA but also across the globe. Why are we here in the UK so slow to change? I put some of it down to the old British cynicism but for the main, I really do not know.

I think that it’s vital that we do something to drive this type of working arrangement here in the UK. Too much work and too many projects are going abroad. Working from home can reduce costs and enable UK companies to be more competitive. This potential marketplace could open a world of opportunities for many disabled people, some of whom might only ever be able to work from home.

It also makes for happier and more productive employees. I would want people working for me – whether disabled or not – to start their day feeling happy, refreshed, clear-minded, focussed, positive, enthusiastic and maybe even inspired. I would want them to enjoy their job. They aren’t going to feel like that having to get up at 5.30am, spending an hour and a half in traffic, day-in day-out.

This is all of course relevant to me because of my disability. There is no such thing as an ideal world, or an ideal solution to all these problems but working from home is an easy and simple solution to so many of the associated problems of being a disabled person working in this field.

I hope that, in the future, home working will become more popular, and that the law can be strengthened and other measures implemented so that the elements of disabled prejudice that do exist in the industry can be reduced or ideally, eradicated.

You can contact Darren at darrenbrook@btconnect.com.

Mike Ryan, the IAP’s Director General, adds:

The IAP takes the issues raised by Darren very seriously, which is why we’ve committed almost all of our space this month to them. It happens that one of the IAP’s Council members, Ian Walker, is disabled as a result of a car accident about 15 years ago. So we’ve asked him to write a response to Darren’s article, which we’ll publish next month.

By way of introduction, Ian says: I think Darren’s article is very good in highlighting some of the many issues that we often face in trying to just live as normally as the next man or woman! However, the legislation cannot do the single most important thing that needs to be achieved in order to reduce discrimination (irrespective of the grounds for discriminatory behaviour). Legislation cannot alter peoples’ attitudes or their misconceptions about disability, religion, race and culture or indeed sex (in terms of sexual discrimination – which is still as much of a problem in some areas as it always has been).

[Something you’d like to get off your chest? Email me (Robin Jones) at eo@iap.org.uk.]

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