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Professionally disabled

Source: Public Sector Executive Dec/Jan 2015

Andy Rickell, CEO of Action on Disability and Work UK and a government adviser on disability issues, talks about the barriers and challenges for disabled people entering the professions.

By very definition in traditional thought, the term ‘disabled’ applied to an individual implies that they are incompetent in some aspect of their abilities compared to non-disabled people.

Conversely, the word ‘professional’ implies a particularly high level of competence in some abilities of the person described. The clash of these two contrary thoughts can result in an expectation that ‘disabled people’ ought naturally to be under-represented in any and every ‘profession’. This is, of course, unhelpful to disabled people keen to join a profession, and unhelpful to the profession if it means really able people being denied access to that profession because of global assumptions.

Whilst I am aware that many professions have been keen to remove unnecessary barriers to disabled candidates, it continues to be the experience of disabled people that they find unfair barriers to obtaining admittance to a profession. The most obvious barrier is where an unnecessary health requirement is set. Less obvious ones include, for instance, expecting a certain minimum level of general academic qualification for entry to courses and placements necessary to achieve professional qualifications. A disabled person may have experienced barriers in academic education, which have undermined their prior formal academic achievement. Ideally there could instead be some alternative standard entry exam to prove academic competence.

A further barrier can be the failure to offer appropriate reasonable adjustments in professional placements, professional courses and professional exams. A distinction needs to be made between the competence being tested, for which no adjustment can be made for any candidate if professional standards are to be maintained, and the manner in which that competence is taught or examined, which may need adjusting to address barriers the candidate may face that are not associated with demonstrating competence.

The two issues are unfortunately often conflated, and reasonable adjustments are therefore sometimes unfairly denied. Some thought on this can improve the inclusiveness of the professional route. (Some ideas on how this might be done can be gleaned from Ofqual’s duty under the Equality Act, in respect of general qualifications, to determine what reasonable adjustments for disabled candidates do not undermine the rigour of those qualifications.)

That’s enough about achieving professional status – obviously there are issues about the help student placement providers need to provide too, but I wanted to concentrate on the issues particularly pertinent to professional bodies themselves. I also wanted to say a little bit about professionals who become disabled after achieving professional status. Most disabled people at work will acquire their impairment in middle to later working life, rather than at birth or whilst young. Professional bodies should be doing all they can to ensure members are able to retain their professional status and hence ability to continue practising and working if they become disabled. This might include such issues as ensuring CPD is accessible in its variety of formats, and whether any process that might deny continued membership or access to the range of member benefits to a disabled member is really necessary and proportionate.

This does sound like a list of ‘thou shall nots’ but actually the goal of addressing barriers must be to ensure that talented people, whatever their circumstances, are able to be members of your profession and enhance its reputation. In particular, disabled professionals’ personal experience of disability should enhance the quality of their professional work insofar as it relates to taking account of the needs of disabled people in the practising of their profession. This ‘expertise by experience’ can then be used to enhance the quality of the professional knowledge base accessible to all members of your institution.

The under-representation of disabled people as fellow professionals is symptomatic of a bigger deficit for professions – ensuring that the experience and aspirations of disabled people feed into the development of professional expertise and practice.

Whilst about one in six of all people living in the UK are disabled people, it is remarkable that for many professionals they have no experience of disability in their own lives or anyone close to them. This is a major weakness if professional development is to take account of the impact of disability in society, an impact that can only increase given the correlation between ageing and increasing levels of impairment. This professional deficit can be addressed in part by systematically including the voice and views of disabled people into individual and collective professional development; for most professionals that will require talking to organisations of disabled people to learn about how to do it effectively.

The ultimate outcome has to be a profession which is well-versed in the needs of disabled people, either as customers or as people who are otherwise affected by what the profession does, and which can demonstrate its successful commitment to disabled people as professional peers. This can be achieved, with the right advice and motivation.

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