1 November 2018
I worked in central London after I had landed my dream job. After I unexpectedly became pregnant we were in financially dire straits. (I have PCOS and like many others was told I would not be able to have children. And yet one night and too many whiskeys and...doctors tell fibs!) On return to work after MATL we found we could not even pay the bills alongside childcare, so I managed to get a secondment to a different department who were based outside of London. We’d get our rent paid for a couple of years, much better quality of life and cheaper living. Great! The only downside was giving up my dream role and moving into HR. And so, ironically in the one department who should know better, the discrimination started.
I experienced two occasions of discrimination. Both times the person was my Line Manager. The first person was extremely manipulative and childish and my attempts to raise issues were often met with tears and hysterics. The department head dismissed the problems as girls being girls (we were both in our 30s but the way my LM acted created a high school type environment of he said /she said). I was discriminated against largely because I am autistic and therefore different. My department was all women and they valued the more social side of working in a team and treated anyone who didn’t conform to that way of working as a problem. So I tried to raise awareness of autism by doing a talk to staff and writing blogs in the hope my team, and LM, might better understand my differences and leave me alone. Instead the attention I received made my LM’s behaviour worse and in performance reviews I was told things like ‘You don’t think about the impact your autism has on me’ because I liked to be quiet when I first got to work and my LM repeatedly took this as somehow insulting to them because I wasn’t up for socialising and gossiping for the first half hour. The department head continued to do nothing and herself began to attack me. I started to have increased panic attacks and became depressed. Eventually I was signed off work for a month and asked if I could move departments on my return. I was able to become part of the HR team back in London and worked remotely for them, travelling to London once a week. I assumed working for the Head of Diversity and Inclusion I would be safe and could use my past experiences to help better the organisation and ensure what happened to me didn’t happen to others. In reality the Head of D&I discriminated against me because of my differences (in the meantime I had been diagnosed with an auto-immune condition, requiring me to use crutches, in addition to the anxiety and depression and alongside being on the spectrum). I repeatedly tried to raise the issues with her and continued to raise awareness in the organisation by talking about my previous experience and striving to create a more inclusive environment. I talked through problems with my other team member but found, because I was in D&I I was essentially trapped. The person I would go to about discrimination was my LM but she was the one discriminating against me. The next person above her was the Director of HR - how could I go to them?! The staff groups were mine and my LM’s day to day colleagues - I couldn’t talk to them. And working remotely I was not close to the rest of London HR and so felt I had no-one to turn to. I ended up signed off work again with severe stress and depression and tried to go through occupational health to get my needs addressed but it all came back to my LM. She dismissed everything I raised as me not being able to take criticism/called me an out and out liar (‘I wouldn’t do that; I’m the head of D&I!) I fought my hardest to retain my job and salvage my mental health and eventually reached out to the director but I had no response. I had no support, nobody to turn to, nobody cared because I was a remote worker, the attitude was ‘if it is so difficult to work with your conditions why do you keep trying?’ When in reality just making a few provisions for me (accepting my verbal communication skills - like making eye contact - were never going to be as good and not something I could ‘fix’, helping me move chairs and not asking me to push trolleys when using crutches, accepting that I worked part time so physically could not do as much work. Accepting that, due to my previous experiences, I found it difficult to raise issues verbally so had to do it in writing, making sure I had the same desk when I came to London so as to avoid unnecessary stress and not expecting me to travel to London two days in a row when my health was so poor - that’s literally all the adjustments I needed but wasn’t given.) Sadly my health suffered to the point I was unable to return to work. It has been a year now and my physical health has deteriorated, although fortunately my mental health is slightly improved. I still cannot see a future where I am able to work, however, for the time being. And whilst this is the most effective step to address the discrimination - to just not work - it is profoundly upsetting and frustrating as someone who has a lot to contribute and wants to work and do well.
I felt lost, obviously. Tired, frustrated and like I counted less than everyone else. Like making simple adjustments for me (not expecting me to come to Christmas dinner, for example) was unacceptable and as if it was just too much like hard work to accept I was different. Most people’s answer was ‘why do you bother working when it’s so hard for you’ which is demeaning and made me feel dejected. I excelled at doing my actual job, it was all the other stuff that was hard. And yet many people find the social side of work easy but struggle with aspects of their jobs - like using IT - and yet nobody ever suggests maybe they shouldn’t work either. It makes me feel less than and unwanted and like I should shrivel into a corner and live out my life not getting in the way. With austerity and the absolute mess that is the benefits system I even feel rejected by my government. Because I have worked previously I don’t qualify for most types of financial support. If you haven’t worked or payed enough tax and get ESA you get discounts on a lot of things, free eye tests and help with your kids’ schooling. If you have actually worked and paid enough tax you don’t. We are in financial dire straits because I cannot work and I just feel completely forgotten about and like we don’t matter. I don’t have enough kids and my husband works so the government doesn’t care. I work and have to claim benefits so I’m dismissed by the rest of society as a lazy benefits bum. Because of my experiences at school and university, severe bullying and discrimination once I was diagnosed as being on the spectrum, I didn’t finish my degree so I am forgotten and dismissed by the employment industry. I was able to get my dream job because it involved aptitude tests so I could prove I was capable. But most jobs want a degree so I’m back to, even if I feel able to return to work, being rejected by most companies. If I were to note down my disabilities I would not get an interview or be invited to interviews to just meet the quotas. It happened repeatedly before I got my dream job and it will continue to happen in the future. I basically just feel like I don’t belong in this world and so it’s been hard to fight the suicidal feelings. I have my husband and an amazing kiddo who are enough to keep me going but it is extremely tough. I feel like I have no future at the moment but I remain hopeful for now.
The outcome was I had to give up work. Absolutely nothing changed.
For me the biggest take away from this experience is realising just how bad it was and just how little was done to help me. The problem for people with disabilities is that we’re often so busy being grateful for having a job we don’t stop to think about the reasonable adjustments that are not being made and if we do have problems we’re often afraid to raise them and rock the boat. Reading about the type of adjustments that are put in place for people on the spectrum, in inclusive environments, I was shocked. You tell yourself what you’re experiencing isn’t that bad and you shoulder the blame partly for being different in the first place. But seeing what it should have been like made me realise how much I had just put up with and accepted as a consequence of me being different. It was already a bad working environment for me without the additional specific discrimination from my LM. The lack of adjustments in the workplace for those with physical disabilities is bad enough but they are virtually non-existent for people with hidden disabilities/health issues. Sick absence policies often discriminate against those with long term health conditions, core compentecies and appraisals are - in their design - usually discriminatory towards people on the spectrum. People with health conditions are more likely to work part time and the workplace is often set up to reward presenteism and punishes those who work the standard hours, who take their annual leave and use things like parental leave. When you are all those three things at once (disabled, different and part time) the workplace becomes an impossible minefield to navigate. More needs to be done to address the inequality and lack of inclusion.
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