Reaching your potential in the workplace
Reaching your potential in the workplace can be challenging, especially with sight loss. Matthew Clark shares his journey to employment as a young man with only 5 percent vision.
It is easy to get immersed in the dilemmas and challenges I face today - getting to work on time, being there for customers, making good of my time outside of work, and so forth - but the immense joy I take in not just doing my job, but having a permanent one, cherishing these dilemmas in fact, nods to my dilemmas and challenges from yesterday.
I am a former college Head Boy, University of Glasgow graduate of History and Business Management, university Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Group President, Ballroom Dancing Society treasurer, charity trustee, campaigner, and advocate for young people - and more besides. But not just ordinary young people. Young people who are blind or partially sighted.
Because 17.3 percent of working age people have a disability or health condition. Yet only 11.4 percent of the workforce have a disability or health condition. Fewer still will be blind or partially sighted. Only one in four working aged blind or partially sighted people are employed. This reality, unlike the whole disability employment gap, has widened in recent years.
This has been the storm cloud looming, overhead, my entire adolescent life. I have been running from it. Because I have been shown that I can be in the lucky, successful, minority.
Being in this minority costs a lot though - in the love, focused support, and encouragement, from family, first and foremost, from adolescent years. We went on to make the hard decision that a specialist secondary education was right for me, at a boarding school - New College Worcester, a specialist school for the blind, where you are taught in smaller classes by expert teachers, but independent living skills are included in the curriculum, in an environment accessible by default. The result is you learn your true potential. The fall back of this, is the wider world is not accessible by default.
University was harder, many part-time and casual jobs are off limits, and what opportunities can be taken advantage of require much more fore-thought and support than anyone else would need. But I do all these things, want to work, because I know how to, know I can, know I enjoy it, and want to be a full and ordinary member of society.
Insurance it turns out, is full of passionate and skilled people who, without other calling, ended up there, trying to be there for people when something in their life goes wrong. That’s how Zurich feels anyway. I met them when I successfully applied to Leonard Cheshire Disability’s incredible Change100 Professional Development Programme for leading students and graduates with disabilities. They matched me to an internship working as an Underwriting Assistant, in Zurich Municipal’s Charities, Voluntary Organisations and Health team.
That summer, I found myself with a manager, in a team and organisation that possessed experience in organising reasonable adjustments, the confidence to work with me as an equal and with the opportunity to enable me to learn so much about the industry. It was the most incredible time. With this skill and belief, we overcame any challenges presented, by making IT systems accessible, or challenging timelines related to the government funded Access to Work programme that funds workplace reasonable adjustments.
There are smaller challenges too, regarding things sighted people take for granted. Whether they be that the drinks machine is not all that accessible, especially when different machines have the same drinks on differently ordered buttons that I cannot see. Or the usability issues relating to the ongoing rollout of destination dispatch lifts in many office buildings. Facing up to and overcoming these small challenges takes a few moments of thought and help. It makes life and work so much nicer when those I work with understand and assist.
Three months on, I secured another internship, working in an environment I dreamt about, as someone interested in history, politics and society - working as a Parliamentary Assistant in the Scottish Parliament.
The truth though is, in writing this, I am ironing over lots of really, really tough moments between these posts. For many jobs, I simply got no reply to my applications. For graduate programmes, I never once passed the automated aptitude tests. I worry that disclosing my disability subconsciously makes many humans fear appointment; while some of my attributes as someone with a disability - needing a little more support in the early days, which has the payoff of being able to help you learn the job - is what the computers may well be programmed to filter out. When you only know your true ability, not being proffered opportunity to put it to work, is demoralising to the soul.
It was several months after concluding my time at the Parliament that I was successful in securing my first permanent contract - that as a Claims Handler, back with Zurich, today.
In post now, I have found the same challenges as before, but also the same belief and solutions, in myself, the team and organisation around me. It is those people and that organisation that invited me to speak as we hosted the launch event for this Disability Confident thematic programme.
True Disability Confidence
Disability Confident is all about making these positive experiences and success stories the norm, and not the exception. I am confident in myself and so much of what is around me. Enough people and organisations have invested the same in me. It is time that younger and working aged people who are blind or partially sighted, and potential employers, know, believe, and live out, the very same.
So, what is true disability confidence? It is believing in ordinary opportunity, and success, for people who are blind or partially sighted - rather than any of these being extraordinary. It is being willing to question how opportunities, application processes, and the setup of a role and working environment, can be inclusive. Diversity in people and practises in our world, makes them a richer, better, more successful place to be.
Zurich has come a long way with this in a few years. I am proud to be a part of them, and our conversation about how much inclusive ground can be covered still.
Wherever you are today, please join our programme and this change for the better.