There are 16 million disabled adults in the UK – that’s almost a quarter of the population and now we have the disabling effects of long COVID, that figure is likely to rise.
Thousands of disabled doctors already work in our NHS, and bring huge benefits to their workplaces. We know disabled doctors add to the diversity of the teams they work in, increasing innovation, creativity and strategic thinking, as well as insights into caring for disabled patients. At a time when the NHS is experiencing some of the most severe pressures in its 75-year history, it is crucial we attract and retain them, so the benefits they bring to patients and the wider NHS can be realised.
To mark Disability History Month on 16 November, we asked two members of our disability and long-term conditions network, public health consultant Tamasin Knight, and consultant neurologist Helen Grote what they bought to the workplace.
Dr Knight said: 'As a dyslexic and dyspraxic person my brain works in a slightly different way – and this brings with it both strengths and challenges. My strengths include creative problem solving, ability to simplify things, and seeing the bigger picture. This is a great help to me in my work in public health, where we address complex problems often over long timescales.
'Many of the adaptations to help dyslexic people, such as meeting papers being sent well in advance, will also help other employees. A dyslexia-friendly workplace is likely to be helpful for everyone else too.'
Dr Grote, expanded on this: 'I think my deafness has given me a valuable insight into what life is like for some of my patients. I understand all too well the difficulties with living with an invisible disability – for example, the fatigue that comes from constantly having to concentrate twice as hard, the challenges of navigating access to even seemingly simple reasonable adjustments (such as clear masks in a pandemic). It’s gratifying though to use my personal experience to help others: whether that’s through my knowledge of access schemes at theatres, the legislation around assistance dogs, or how the access to work scheme operates.'
What more can be done?
Our disability in medicine survey shows more needs to be done to ensure disabled doctors were supported at work, particularly for the 80% of disabled doctors with invisible disability.
When asked what could be done to help disabled doctors thrive in the workplace, Dr Knight said: 'Accept, and even value, the fact disabled doctors may need to do things in a different way. I think it is very easy for indirect disability discrimination to unintentionally occur. I believe more support is needed for managers to help them take action to prevent this and other forms of disability discrimination.
'Employers need to ensure policies and practice in the workplace do not have a disproportionately negative impact on disabled doctors. They can do this by considering the potential impacts of policies and engaging with disabled doctors around this.'
Dr Grote said: 'I’m the chair of the disabled staff network at my trust (Chelsea and Westminster): we’re a small, but supportive group who exist to make the trust a better place for both staff and patients with disabilities. The trust has included us on a recent review of the accessibility of the outpatients department, identifying several things that need to be improved to ensure disabled patients have a better experience here. Even simple, relatively inexpensive things – like the introduction of portable loop systems for use at receptions and clinic rooms can make a huge difference to communication for those with hearing loss.'
As part of our wider work, we are conscious that cultural change is needed in the workplace to break down stigma experienced by disabled doctors, raise awareness of existing support and develop new ways to support all doctors thrive in the workplace.
We have today, published guidance to support disabled doctors to tell their employers about their disabilities in the workplace and to support managers in approaching those conversations. We hope that this will not only lead to improved support for individual disabled doctors, but will help foster disability-inclusive workplaces and work cultures.
Caroline Strickland is a senior policy adviser in the BMA equality, inclusion and culture team