Disability should not be a barrier to a brilliant career. Continuing our series on UHNM Staff Role Models to celebrate Equality, Diversity and Human Rights Week 2017 we talk to Gemma Grimes who has an ileostomy, which is where the small bowel is diverted through an opening in the abdomen.
Gemma has worked at the Trust since December 2014 and is a Deputy Human Resources Manager in our Employee Relations Team.
Q: What is your personal story of disability?
A: I had been ill with Crohn's disease since my mid-teens, but when I turned 30, I became much more unwell with what turned out eventually to be bowel cancer. My ileostomy saved my life. I also have a chronic liver condition, closely linked to my inflammatory bowel disease so I can still get very fatigued. Following my diagnosis and operation, I was inspired to come and work in the NHS. I'm proud to be part of an organisation that has had such a positive effect on my life.
Q: Have you experienced any challenges at work or in your personal life because of your disability, and if so can you describe what effect it had on you?
A: It took nearly two years for me to get a firm diagnosis and during this time I experienced some periods of time off from work. My previous employer didn't understand my condition which was difficult. When you look well on the outside, people can be very judgemental. It was this that prompted me to change jobs and look for work in Human Resources in the NHS. I've worked in Human Resources since I was 21 (a scary 15 years!) but my experiences really made me want to work within a caring organisation.
Q: How can we improve attitudes towards disabled people?
A: In my opinion, we need to focus on what people can do, rather than what they can't. Albert Einstein said "Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." And from personal experience, we also need to recognise invisible disabilities. It is all too easy to dismiss what we can't see, which means someone may be missing out on vital support.
Q: Sometimes people without disabilities struggle to talk to disabled colleagues about their condition, either because they are worried about saying the wrong thing, or are embarrassed about asking questions. What would you say to people about enabling positive engagement with disabled staff in the workplace?
A: Since I started working at UHNM I have been completely open about my ileostomy. I think the questions started when I was picking the peas out of my soup at lunchtime in my first week! Rather than give a false reason, I explained about my ileostomy, and I have continued to answer questions honestly to this day. These questions have come alongside my colleagues getting to know me as a person, so my advice would be, don't focus on the disability, focus on the individual.
Q: Have any required any workplace adjustments to be put in place to support you at work?
A: As long as I have access to a disabled loo, I don't need much else at work. My line managers have always been supportive of the time off I need for my medical appointments, in line with policy. I'm also likely to require more medical appointments than someone without a disability, so my line manager has allowed me to take additional time and work this back.
If you do require workplace adjustments, our Occupational Health service can be very helpful, as can Access to Work, who are an external organisation that work on a self-referral basis.
Q: How can colleagues and managers support disabled staff at UHNM?
A: Early intervention is incredibly important in my opinion. From the moment we recruit a disabled employee, or a current member of staff becomes disabled, we should be looking at reasonable adjustments to support them in the workplace. This shouldn't been looked at as a cost or an inconvenience; many adjustments are minor and cost free, but make a huge difference to the individual involved.
Q: What more can be done to make working at UHNM with a disability better?
A: Disability is a part of everyday life, so having some more positive examples of disabled employees at UHNM at all levels would be good. We value diversity and the positive impact that has on UHNM but, for me, we should shout about it more.
Q: Do you think that having a disability has affected opportunities for progression in your career in either a positive or negative way?
A: I think ultimately that my disability has had a positive effect on my career, as it pushed me to find an organisation which had the right "fit" for me. I feel like I can progress further if the organisation that I'm working for is the right one.
Q: Is there something that you particularly appreciate about how the NHS and UHNM in particular treats disabled employees?
A: In the NHS, we come across disabled patients all the time. I think this gives us a unique take on how disability shouldn't hold anybody back from achieving their goals. I would hope that compassion is extended to colleagues; it certainly has been in my case.
Q: What would you say to those who may be facing difficulties regarding their disabled status at work?
A: Talk through your concerns with someone you trust. Consider talking to your manager (if you can). Speak to an Employee Support Advisor; consider joining our staff network for mutual support in a safe and confidential space. Contact our Workforce Equality Manager – firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Be assured that your concerns will be taken seriously. Don't suffer in silence.
Q: Only 1.3% of UHNM staff have a declared disability but we know this is an under representation as 59% of staff records have an unspecified or non-declared disability status. Why it is important for staff to let us know?
A: The organisation can't support what it doesn't know about, so for me, it is vitally important that we have accurate records about employees' disability statuses. I updated mine by using ESR self-service via my Smartcard.