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Following International Day of Persons with Disability, I was asked to write about my experience in the Civil Service - and now the Senior Civil Service (SCS) - as a person with a disability. I joined the Home Office back in 2004. I am now a Deputy Director.
In disability-speak, I am “partially sighted”. This basically means I’m not blind, but I certainly don’t have “normal” vision. I am not able to drive, for example.
There are lots of different types of visual impairments. Mine relates to the fact that my eyes lack the pigment (melanin) that helps control light through the eye. This means my eyes are quite sensitive to bright light, my distance vision is really poor and my close-up vision is not brilliant either.
My sight has been this way since birth. So I don’t know any different. When I was younger in school I absolutely hated any sense that I was “different”. So much so that I used to pretend I could read things when in fact I couldn’t - such as the blackboard the teacher was writing on. Not a great tactic if you actually want to learn!
I carried that reluctance to be “open” about my disability into the Civil Service, which I joined in 2004.
I made my line manager and Head of Unit aware, but I was reticent about telling others. A bit like in school this created problems. For example, I would walk past people I was working with without knowing they were there and they would think I was ignoring them!
Over time I have realised that, in my experience, the best path is to factually make colleagues aware of my eyesight challenges. I don’t talk about it every day. I just let new people I meet know the situation and that if a circumstance arises where I can’t or haven’t seen something I will explain why.
This openness has been universally reciprocated with really helpful responses and it makes ways of working much smoother for everyone.
I have now been in the SCS for around 18 months and that has brought some further challenges to work around. For example, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, I attended a lot of cross-Whitehall meetings on behalf of my Department where large groups of people were meeting, often in circumstances where at least initially many didn’t know each other. The sorts of practical challenges this created for me were around:
Not being able to find my name plate and seat without pre-warning the secretariat and flagging I might need some help.
Taking time to learn peoples’ faces because I needed to get close enough to know who they were (I can’t learn faces across a large table).
But there are always solutions that can be found. So long as you make others aware of the issues you can then work together on practical adjustments.
I would encourage anyone with a disability - of whatever type - to feel they can talk to their colleagues to explain the potential limitations and adaptations around how they work. And this week, as we recognise and raise awareness around disability, is a great time to do it if you haven’t already. It’s one of the ways in which people of all grades with a disability can maximise their contribution within the Home Office community.
The genius of the civil service is that it brings together such a wide and diverse group of people in the collective endeavour of public service. This means that anyone with a disability has a valuable and valued perspective to bring to the work we do. And that could not be more important given the challenges that lie ahead.