Tom Talbot shares his experiences of education and the workplace, and makes the case for the need to discuss what disability access actually means.
I don't often consider myself disabled, however it was recently pointed out to me that in fact I am. I regularly attend appointments for my Type 1 Diabetes: hospitals, clinics, doctors, eye appointments and dental appointments. At school, this would affect my attendance, usually averaging 85% in a good year. The awards for attendance were always for 95% or above, thus removing any chance of a certificate for me. I'd like to add that I wasn't unwell during secondary school, I was just your average teen, although I had these things to go up to, to help maintain average teen status.
This may seem a minor inconvenience, but society likes attendance and punctuality, the working world revolves around it, every company has a policy on it, and is often the reason used to terminate an employee. I've been working since I was 16, so far I've been lucky. My first boss was also a Type 1 diabetic and understood that I'd need a break if my blood sugar was off, this worked well and was a great introduction into the working world. As I changed jobs, I found myself time and time again explaining about my diabetes and how it can affect me: confusion, dizziness and shaking. Explaining carefully what to do should anything happen usually paired with a slightly mortified look of concern on their faces, accompanied with supportive words and how "whatever I need is fine".
"I occasionally need a 20 minute break if my blood sugar drops low."
The support disappears. "When does this happen? How can we solve this?"
"You can't solve this, it just happens sometimes, usually if I have done too much exercise etc, and it happens whenever you can't often tell."
"Well, I guess that'll be okay then," they say after I reassure them it rarely happens, once a month I say (it's actually once a week when control is good) and that usually settles the matter.
Of course, the first time it happens is usually when the bar if rammed on a Friday night. I feel terrible every time, ditching my colleagues, having to sit down to have a chocolate and Lucozade break. They understand, but there is always banter with subtle ablest undertones. Undertones that I and many other people with disabilities have come to accept as normal. This recently lead to a former boss calling me lazy behind my back and eventually became a factor in me moving to another site. My new boss is a lot more understanding, she has supported me throughout Covid and I've been able to work safely. I have been lucky in the sense that my bar is shift-work, so I can get to my appointments in and around normal commitments. However, I'm sure this will change with my next job.
The title is wrong, I guess. Relatively 'unseen'. The stare when someone notices. The looks up and down. The little girl coming up asking questions. "What's that? Is that inside you?" It's the injections she's talking about, I have to inject at least once a day plus with each meal, 5/6 injections a day. This is the bit we want to be 'unseen', the injections and the blood glucose tests. It's the bit that makes us feel most different. It's the bit I've tried to hide. The only job I can't do is 'airline pilot', so that doesn't affect me much, but the injections are what makes me feel weak like I'm not one of 'the normal people'.
Society needs to change. Covid has disproportionately affected disabled people, and people with long term conditions. It has highlighted the need to protect certain areas of our society. Great as this is, we need wholesale change, change not just to protect but to include. Video calling is everywhere. Many disabled people have never been able to get so involved, attending meetings, conferences and courses learning new skills which to some was impossible before. This scares many of us into thinking that they will be left out when we get 'back to normal'. We cannot let this happen, we need to change society to accept disabilities: society should work for all.
I've started talking about my disabilities more, now making a point not to hide my injections, it's who I am. The journey to an inclusive society is long, but it's in our reach. We need to take the first step, let's start talking openly about disabilities. What does disabled access actually mean?
Tom Talbot (22) recently graduated from Queen Mary University of London in mathematics. He has a passion for community and making a society that works for all. He is a new member of the Young Fabians and hopes to start a career in politics to do some good. He Tweets at @tajtalbot.