How to talk to disabled people (tip: just like anyone else)

Cath Cobb, Traffic Signals Graduate Engineer
16 March 2018
two people sat opposite each other at a desk.
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Cath Cobb is a Traffic Signals Graduate Engineer on Amey’s Streets Ahead contract in Sheffield. She lost a leg to cancer as a child and is an Amey Scope Ambassador. She offers her insights into how to talk to people with disabilities in the workplace.

My name is Cath and I’m an engineer. A disabled engineer. I lost my left leg to cancer when I was seven. From the day I took my first artificial leg to pieces to find out how it worked, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.

But I encountered barriers pursuing my goals. My first barrier was school. The careers advisor told me I had two options: secretarial work so I could sit down all day or to go on benefits. This just made me more determined to be an engineer.

I applied for many jobs only to be told I was unemployable because I didn’t have nice legs, or I couldn’t carry the tea. And being not just a woman, but a disabled woman in a male dominated industry was a challenge. I was expected to do more than my male colleagues and they would often ask me to carry things that were far too heavy for me. In one job, I had to fetch bags of plastic granules from a top shelf of the warehouse to which the only route was a rickety ladder. In another I had to stand throughout a 12-hour night shift manning a machine, and came away with a blister on my stump the size of a fifty pence piece.

But no matter how much they threw at me, their prejudice just made me more determined to succeed.

Working at Amey turned my life around, I told them at my interview that I was disabled and they didn’t bat an eyelid. They overlooked my disability and employed me on my merits. Companies could do more for their disabled employees if they just sat down with them and asked what would make their working lives easier. I have my very own parking space right outside the building, risk assessments in place in case the fire alarm goes off, my very own fire buddy and my protective high vis clothing altered for me.

So here are my tips for employing people with disabilities:

• Have discussions once a month to highlight if there are problems that need addressing

• Ask your disabled employee to keep a log of things they struggle with - I had a problem carrying my laptop to meetings, I spoke to my manager and the problem was solved immediately

• Consider training staff in how to recognise when someone is struggling - most disabled people are stubborn and will bottle their feeling up so they don’t cause a fuss

• Having a confidant helps me in my work place, someone I know I can talk to honestly and openly if I have a problem

• Companies could also consider support groups for a variety of disabilities, Limbless Association, for example.

There’s so much help available too. Speak to organisations like Scope. I’m an Amey Scope Ambassador and as part of the End the Awkwardness campaign my role is to educate people on how to approach a disabled person. Quick tip: talk to them just the same as anyone else!

Speak to an expert about your challenge.