The future is accessible

Vivienne Stone shares her wisdom.

The 3rd of December each year, is marked by the UN as the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, to celebrate and promote the empowerment and creation of real opportunities for disabled people.

In line with the theme for 2019, ‘The Future is accessible’ I am going to talk about how your role as a PA can support these objectives, specifically when working either with disabled customers and stakeholders of your organisation or when supporting a disabled executive officer.

In my 30 years’ experience of working as an Equality and Human Rights Practitioner, questions about working with, supporting and communicating with disabled people were definitely top of the ‘most asked questions’.

Often employees and service providers would question whether working with disabled people should be the primary responsibility of people with ‘specialist skills’. My response was always a resounding no!

You will instantly recognise the essentials skills disabled people have said they look for in a PA:

  • Good communication skills, with an emphasis on listening
  • The confidence to ask questions and seek clarification
  • The ability to manage conflicting demands or barriers!
  • The ability to undertake research/fact-finding
  • The ability to identify and implement practical solutions to problems
  • A good sense of boundaries
  • A sense of humour!

These are the core skills you as a PA use every day.

The majority of questions fell into three main areas, concern about lack of specialist knowledge, whether to offer help and what words to use!

I don’t know anything about their condition. How can I know what they will need?

This concern highlights two misconceptions:

That all disabled people with the same impairment have the same needs: While it is generally accepted that non-disabled people may have different levels of fitness, ability or needs. People often mistakenly assume that disabled people with specific conditions or specific impairments will have the same needs. This is not the case, and so regardless of your experience, always ask.

That you need details of a disabled person’s medical condition, to meet their needs. You do not need to know about health conditions to provide support to a disabled person, any more than you need to know why someone has a specific dietary requirement before providing them with refreshments.

In both cases, the focus is on what they need (and how they need it). Occasionally, it may be helpful to have that additional information e.g. if someone has a specific allergy, it helps you to check out the specific ingredients in some foods but as a rule, adopt the practice of focusing on requirements, and avoid questions that relate to specific health conditions. If it is important you know the latter, the person will tell you.

I’m worried that my lack of awareness may cause offence?

Concerns tend to fall into key areas using the wrong terminology or the offer of or withholding of assistance.

Am I using the right words? I would recommend using ‘a disabled person’ or ‘disabled people’ for instance when addressing a group of people or speaking to people with whom you have little contact. However, you should be guided by the person and the language they use to refer to themselves. Some will describe themselves as ‘a person with a disability’, others as ‘a disabled person’ and on occasions, some will include their health condition in their description. These are quite personalised descriptions and will be unique to each individual. The only sure way to get it right is to ask people what they prefer.

Should I offer help (or not)? People often hesitate to offer assistance for fear of causing offence. Despite significant progress on raising awareness of the rights of disabled people, increasingly I find that strangers will start an offer of assistance with “I hope you won’t be offended, but…” Some can (and do!) cite examples where their offer elicited a negative response.

The majority of disabled people welcome the offer of assistance, and will not be offended, even if the help isn’t required… What can be perceived as offensive and threatening, is when the person persists or indeed imposes the rejected assistance. Understandably, the imposition of help is experienced as undermining, and can also be dangerous. For instance, incorrectly lifting someone who has fallen, can cause significant injury.

Within the work context, the Equality Act 2010 requires organisations and their representatives to make reasonable adjustments to remove barriers to services, employment and participation. You as a PA must ensure that your working practices recognise this.

What does ‘supporting’ a disabled person mean? What will I be asked to do?

Support is a very broad term and will depend on each individual’s needs. However, the support you provide should be commensurate with the duties set out within the job description of a PA.

This does not include making an assessment of need, but you could be asked to ensure that the appropriate resources, including people with the required skills, are available to meet those needs. It may also require you to consider different ways of doing what you already do e.g.

Communication with staff, suppliers and stakeholders: as a PA you will be the first point of contact for both internal and external stakeholders, some of whom may have specific communication needs, including the availability of information in braille or large print, or access to a BSL Interpreter. Companies providing these services advertise online, but you may also find that the disabled person you are working with, already has a contact or a preferred supplier.

If the person you are working for has communication needs, with their permission, you may also be required to advise others on how they should ensure their communication is accessible to your manager.

Travel: You will already have experience in developing and implementing travel itineraries. When considering the additional needs of a disabled person, this may include:

Booking assistance with travel and transport providers. Most airports, airlines and rail companies across the world have information on their site about their facilities, which include a meet and greet service for disabled travellers. It is recommended that travel arrangements are always confirmed in writing.

Booking accessible hotels and accommodation. The majority of hotels also have a process for booking accommodation for disabled travellers. There are varying views on what constitutes accessible, even in countries where access is covered by the legislation. Therefore it is essential to provide accurate information about what is required, and in the case of access, it is recommended that you either visit the accommodation or request photos of the bedroom and access into and out of the bathroom. Any additional equipment required should be available through the hotel, but if not you can find information about equipment providers online, some of whom deliver worldwide.

Accessible Meeting and Event Management: The provision of reasonable adjustments (amendments to practice and provision) is enshrined in the Equality Act 2010, setting out that organisations must make adjustments to enable disabled people to access services and participate in events. These changes go beyond the provision of physical access and meeting communication needs, and will include how things are done and when. For instance, including regular breaks in meetings for people to take additional or extended comfort breaks. Further information about reasonable adjustments can be found on the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s website:

You can ensure that your working practices comply with this by asking attendees about their needs. Many organisations send out a specifically worded form with their communication others incorporate the questions into the meeting invitation e.g. Please tell us if you have specific requirements as a disabled person so that we can ensure that you can attend and participate in the meeting.

The collection, management, distribution and storage of information:

Many of the people you support will have established systems, developed to meet their specific needs. This can include formatting, font, language and the storage of the information,. At first glance, this individual approach may not appear to be a conventional and logical system but is structured around the need for the disabled person to access the information frequently and independent of assistance. The first thing to do when developing or taking responsibility for the storage of information is to seek to understand the rationale for the system. The greater the understanding, the more effective you will be at providing support.

Should you work with disabled people, I hope that you will take the following away from reading this

• Always ask, never assume
• It is never offensive to offer help. It is always offensive to impose it.
• Within the work place, it is essential to ask disabled people what they need
• As an experienced PA you already have the core skills needed

Vivienne Stone has spent more than 30 years working to promote Equality and Human Rights, advising Government, the public sector, private sector and voluntary sector on the adoption and implementation of policies and practices to address discrimination.

Her work for Local Authorities in the North West of England included leading on positive action in employment for disabled people, and the Greater Manchester Travel Voucher Scheme. She has also worked as Partnerships Manager for the Disability Rights Commission.

Vivienne recently retired from the Equality and Human Rights Commission where she worked as Deputy Director of Disability Programmes. She has worked to integrate disability issues within the Commission’s programme of work, and on the Disability Related Harassment Inquiry.

Vivienne has been a member of a number of disabled people’s organisations, and is currently Deputy Chair of Breakthrough UK Learning from her disabled peers continues to underpin Vivienne’s personal and professional life.