A diversity expert’s first-hand experience of disability discrimination highlights why barriers of all kinds must come down – quickly
In September 2005, dynamic and successful HR executive Julian John was driving home from work when his world tipped upside down. Pulling over with the distinct feeling that something wasn’t right, Julian worked his way out of his car and collapsed, unable to stand.
“At first I thought it was going to go away,” he tells Inemmo, “and then I realised I had no sense of balance. I went to the doctor, and he told me I had an inner-ear infection that would probably shift in about six weeks. But things got progressively worse. That was the start of me being housebound for the next three-and-a-half years.”
Julian’s background was professional development within retail, and he had worked at some of the UK’s largest high-street and leisure-park brands – such as B&Q and Iceland. At the latter, his final role was HR work-stream manager for a major, national project, looking after the policy and training side. By the time of his incident, he oversaw about a third of the organisation’s estate.
“I was Captain Indestructible,” he says. “I was living in Cardiff, my office was in Southampton, I was there by 7:30 every morning, went skiing twice a year, out every weekend – you name it. And at the age of 30, just before it happened, I was thinking: ‘Happy days… nothing can touch me.’”
Julian’s illness remained undiagnosed for two-and-a-half years, during which he wrestled with a loss of motor control on his right-hand side and a host of other, gruelling symptoms. Eventually, he was referred to the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, which told him he had chronic peripheral vestibular dysfunction, a condition he defines in the following way: “‘Chronic’ means it’s permanent; ‘peripheral’ means it’s on one side, ‘vestibular’ means it’s to do with the vestibular system, and ‘dysfunction’ means it’s knackered. They reckoned it was food poisoning – a bacterial infection from a dodgy steak.”
Julian had been permanently brain damaged. To help him retrain his brain almost from scratch, the hospital put him on a course of vestibular rehabilitation therapy (VRT). “I’d lost all of my cognitive abilities,” he says. “I couldn’t read, look out of the window or use my phone. My speech was slurred, and I became very sensitive to sound. So I did four hours of exercises a day for the next five years to learn how to stand, walk and talk again.” The regime played havoc on his disoriented senses as he attempted to wire them back into place. “You begin to feel sick, and suffer chronic fatigue with it – even though it’s a set of quite simple exercises to get your eyes and brain working in unison again. Imagine the brightest, loudest, 3D movie you could only just about bear to sit in front of: that’s what it’s like.”
But amid all the turmoil, Julian’s ambition began to resurface. “My only answer to get out of the situation was to get back to work,” he says. “With all my experience in HR and recruitment, I thought I was way ahead of the game. In my last role before my collapse, I’d been a diversity champion, and I did a lot of work around equality. I’d always recruited people with disabilities, because I’d always hired talent. To me, background didn’t matter. I’d only ever been interested in recruiting people who could add benefit to an organisation.”
That, though, was when he began to hit a whole, new set of barriers.
“Initially, I ran into some stumbling blocks with support organisations, who said, ‘Actually, you’re not ready for work yet, so we don’t want to do anything with you – there’s a lot of European social legislation that says you’re not the best fit for our project.’ So I just decided to do without support and contact employers myself.”
At that point, thickets of resistance only intensified – and two, specific incidents from that time stand out for Julian as moments where he knew that he was on the receiving end of the sort of negative perceptions that scores of disabled job candidates encounter every day.
“I went for a job in a university careers department,” he says, “as a liaison between the institution and graduate employment schemes. With my background of having 15,000 staff, sales turnover of £1 billion, proven ability as a fast-track champion and experience of writing graduate-employment training courses, I thought I was a shoo-in to get an interview.
“When I applied, there wasn’t much of an opportunity to indicate how my disability can be an impairment – or, more positively, explain how I can work around it. So on the day after the closing date, I phoned up and spoke to the administrative assistant who was responsible for the application process. I told her I just wanted to add a few things to the application form – but I didn’t, at that point, explain it was something to do with a disability.
“She said, ‘Not a problem – just bear in mind that it’s going to take about six weeks before we start sifting to get a shortlist. That’s probably the best time to get in touch if you want to make any changes, and that should be absolutely fine.’ I said, ‘That’s great – it’s just that I’m disabled, and I’d like to explain how best to get around some of the restrictions I have.’ She just went, ‘fine,’ and put the phone down. Within two minutes, I got a rejection email saying they weren’t going to take my application any further.”
In the second situation, Julian applied to a council in relation to a role on a scheme for getting people back to work after long absences – a subject close to his heart. “I thought I could offer a suite of services like CV writing, interview experience, mock assessment, that sort of stuff. This council was also on the DWP’s ‘two ticks’ scheme, where they would automatically grant a disabled person an interview if they met minimum requirements. The requirements in this case were having a driving licence, and four GCSEs.
“I rang the council HR team and asked whether I’d be guaranteed an interview, because I just wanted to make sure. They said, ‘Absolutely.’ This was when my wife and I had nothing. We’d lost our home and moved to Swansea where our relatives were. We’d saved what little we could for six months, so I went out to buy a suit that I could wear to the interview, because I was sure I was going to get one. And then I got a rejection letter. I phoned up, quite disgruntled, to ask why I didn’t get the interview – and was told I didn’t meet the minimum requirements. I said I had the driving licence, and more than four GCSEs. But they said the requirements in this case had been changed to the job description as listed.”
Those experiences, and others like them, prompted Julian to forge his own path and set up his specialist disability-inclusion consultancy Delsion, which offers a range of HR and learning and development solutions. “I thought I could do some good,” he says. “It’s not so much about how I see all this from an individual point of view, but from an organisational one. I can now see how vulnerable organisations are to losing people, and what would happen if a third of any given workforce was hit by something like this. It’s about getting organisations to see that there’s another talent pool out there.”
His plan to do good must be working: late last year, Delsion scooped a Recruitment Industry Disability Initiative (RIDI) award for making Swansea a Disability Confident city.
Julian’s experience cuts right to the core of what it means to face the implacable brick wall of negative perceptions: unconscious biases that are based purely on an individual’s social background or physical status. And it’s a malaise with which we continue to struggle, across all social areas. Just look at how long it took for the first female tailor to set up on Savile Row. And marvel at the story of born-blind Srikanth Bolla – once rejected by the Indian Institute of Technology, but now an MIT graduate and influential entrepreneur. Both had imposing barriers to climb on the way to where they wanted to be.
“It absolutely has to change,” Julian says. “There’s no getting around that. I think the key thing is looking at exposure. The more you work with people of different types, the more you have understanding. We use what we call a ‘Key Model’ for managers around disability inclusion, and it’s based on: i) Knowledge, ii) Empathy and iii) Engagement. They’re the three most important tools for tackling this issue, and getting people to talk about it.”
He adds: “recently I was at an event with minister for the disabled, Justin Tomlinson, plus a lot of like-minded organisations similar to ourselves, and I put a challenge to the room, saying, ‘Within the places where I’ve worked, my team’s aim was always to be 10 years ahead of everyone else. If you’re 10 years ahead of the pack, you’ll always be at least five years ahead of the frontrunners.’ That means you can lead, rather than dictate.
“When it comes to disability inclusion, the goal is to generate ways of working that eventually become the mainstream. But the key to removing any kind of barrier is changing perception, and that’s just a matter of knowledge: talking about the subject until you don’t have to talk about it anymore.”
Julian points at mental health as one field where inclusion is lagging quite seriously behind. “It’s about taking an open approach to these things,” he says. “If I walked into any organisation tomorrow and said, ‘I’ve got a way where you can manage every employee to the best of their individual strengths and abilities,’ then that’s absolute nirvana. That’s where you want to be. And that’s where the opportunity for disability inclusion – or really any form of inclusion – is: being able to manage people as individuals.”
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