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My challenges – from inaccessible buildings to frequent hate crime

Category: testimonial, Discrimination, Aon, women in insurance, Physical Disability, Insurance, Staff Networks, Staff Testimonial, customer service, customer services, staff network group, physical disabilities, achondroplasia, dwarfism

Disability

Andrea Baldwin, Customer service advisor in the pension service centre at Aon

I’m Andrea Baldwin, and I’m a customer service advisor in the pension service centre at Aon, and I also sit on its Workability (Disability) Business Resource Group (BRG). I’ve been working with Aon for nine years. I have a condition called achondroplasia, which is commonly known as dwarfism. You can find out more from this marvellous organisation: https://rgauk.org.

How my disability has impacted my life

It took me five years to find a job! The main reason, I think, was that people assumed that I had learning difficulties, or that my disability made me unfit for the position. Often, I couldn’t even get to the interview stage. I’ve experienced things like walking through the door and watching people on the interview panel put their heads down to avoid looking at me. In fact, at one interview when I walked in, I was told, “I'm sorry, the job's already gone”. It hadn't, they just didn't know how to interview me.

I did eventually find employment with Sheffield City Council. I found out through a friend of a friend that they knew of an equal opportunities officer who could help me. Following my meeting with the equal opportunities officer, I had two job interviews and was offered both jobs! I’m certain this was through the intervention from the officer.

 Everyday obstacles

It’s not just employment that throws up obstacles for people with disabilities, there are so many things that you might not think of unless you have a disability yourself.

I live in Sheffield, and years ago, when we still relied on using telephone boxes, they were once suddenly changed overnight! Suddenly, I couldn't reach the telephones anymore. Apparently, they had been ‘modernised’. I called to complain but their understanding of different disabilities was, shall we say, disappointingly lacking. From that day forward, I couldn't reach a telephone box in Sheffield if I needed to…and that's why I bought a mobile phone.

Finding holiday accommodation can be a minefield too. When I ask for a disabled room in a hotel, the toilet will be designed for a wheelchair user, so it will be higher than a standard toilet. I struggle with the height of a standard toilet, so as you can imagine, I almost have to take a running jump to get up onto it!

The bed in an accessible room will also be higher to allow a wheelchair user to easily transfer into it, so I can’t win! The only good thing about using accessible hotel rooms is that usually the light switches are lower down and I can reach them.

That’s just two examples of situations where I feel that my disability slips under the radar; things that non-disabled people take for granted. I do understand that every organisation can’t cater for every disability, but I do feel that the disability that I have is not spoken about enough – there’s not enough awareness.

Living with hate crime and abuse

Mobile phone technology has made things worse for me - people blatantly take photographs of me when I am out. They aren’t even discreet; they hold their phones up to me to take a photograph or a video and think that's okay.

My partner and I went for a walk in a park with our dog recently and sat on a bench to rest. Across from us was a couple in their late 30s to early 40s. The woman seemed to be either recording a video or taking pictures of me. Usually, my reaction depends on what kind of day I’m having. Some days, I'll just ignore it. And other days, I'll say something. I'm always very polite - I'm not confrontational.

I said to my partner, “that woman is taking photos of us”. He hates any kind of confrontation and told me to leave it, but I said no, and went over to her. I asked if she was taking photographs of me, which she denied. Her partner then took her phone and there were 35 pictures of me on it! When he asked her why, she said, “I've never seen a real life one before”.

This sort of thing happens every time I'm in public. Most people don’t take 35 photographs, but they will take one. What do they do with it? Where is my photograph going? Are they putting it online? I feel uncomfortable, knowing people do that, and that they think it's perfectly okay. Years ago, people with dwarfism were in the circus, and now we are labelled in the same way as a clown or ‘freak show’ act that attracts stigma, there to be laughed at.

I was physically attacked just for being me

I’ve reported two incidents now, and nothing has happened, despite the police classing them as hate crime.

I was attacked in broad daylight in autumn 2020 - I was just walking my dog. I heard someone say, “I dare you to kick that midget in the head,” and a man approached me, kicked me in the head and ran off. I stumbled home - and just went into a sort of shock.

I sat on the sofa for the rest of the evening but didn’t tell anyone. As the shock wore off, I became angry. How dare he?  

My eye closed because of the bruising, I suffered a perforated ear drum and a fractured skull. My partner encouraged me to contact the police, so I reported the incident, sent photographs of my injuries, and went to A&E. The attacker hasn’t been caught.

I don't go out alone anymore.

You can find out more about this incident – and about other people suffer from attacks – in this BBC TV documentary, Targeted: The Truth About Disability Hate Crime.

Making assumptions

I hate that people assume that I've got learning difficulties, because of the way I look. Sometimes, people bend down and talk to me like a child, or they talk to the person I'm with and ask them questions for me like, “Does she like sugar in her tea?”. It's mind blowing. My friends can’t believe that things are still as bad as they were 30 years ago, or worse.

We need to start educating children about different disabilities at school. I’m willing to visit schools and talk to children; the younger we start the better things will be - especially now technology and social media are such a big part of life. Social media can be fantastic, but it can also be very damaging. Not just for people with disabilities, but for anyone being bullied or threatened.

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VERCIDA works with over one hundred clients who are committed to creating an inclusive work environment. If you are an employer and interested in working with VERCIDA to promote your diversity and inclusion initiatives and attract the best candidates, please email [email protected] for more information.

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