The Importance of Trade Unions for Disabled Workers

We have been going through an unprecedented time, where we have been tested on many levels. My beliefs have been tested, my values, friendships and relationships. One belief that is unwavering though is that disabled people should have fair treatment in society and in work. 

If the systems we live with in the UK are anything to go by - we know its a long way off equality (and not just for disabled people).

Recently I've been really disappointed by responses I've seen with regards to at risk people and/or disabled people but those things are nothing new, just a new situation to comment on. But I want to talk to you about the people who try and protect disabled workers as best they can and the services that can help in work.

Trade Unions.

I may not talk about it a lot here, but am an avid believer in the Trade Union movement, make what assumptions from that you will - but I believe in workers rights, equality for all - across all marginalised groups and groups that society hasn't and doesn't always treat fairly and generally being a force for positive change in this world. 

Trade Unions operate in a number of sectors, notably Public Services, Retail, Rail and even Royal Mail. The union you join depends on the sector you work in. If you work for a department store - your most likely choice would be USDAW; the Union of Shop, Distributive, and Allied Workers. If you work in the public sector you might join UNISON, Unite or GMB, for rail you'd join RMT (National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Worrkers), for Royal Mail it would be the CWU (the Communication Workers Union), as a teacher you may join the NEU (National Education Union). There are unions in lots of areas, sometimes its about seeking them out for yourself and sometimes the union presence is strong, like in public services. 

I talk about disability here because I want to build awareness, understanding and maybe even see peoples attitudes towards disabled people change - especially those of us with invisible disabilities. But I'm also actively involved in talking about issues for disabled people elsewhere too. 

Tshirt from Creative House (gifted but not in relation to this post) and leggings from Carolina Dress Room


When I started my working life, I wasn't a disabled worker. It happened at a later date, and of course took time to diagnose and understand. But what I was when I began my working life, was a young and impressionable person who wanted to believe the best in people. Don't get me wrong, I still would like to believe the best in people but am more cautious now - especially in working life.
I won't go into too much depth of why I joined a union, but I didn't feel I was being treated fairly and neither did the people around me. I was thankful that I had two wonderful union reps who I then worked with and they gave me a form, explained and got me signed up. I'll always be grateful for that.

My working life didn't start out in the most amazing circumstances, and when I became disabled things proceeded to change further. I haven't always had the best experiences as a young disabled worker, and I know from speaking to friends and colleagues who also have disabilities they haven't always had the best experiences with regards to their disability and work either. 
Joining a union though, has meant that I have been offered support when needed - with regards to equipment, dealing with management, flexibility and even community. 

As a disabled worker you are likely to be discriminated against at some point in your working life. Its unfortunate but true. Trade Unions actively fight against discrimination. Stewards/Rep's are your first port of call when you have a problem - I've always found that if they don't know the answer they will find out - or pass you on to a person who does know. If there isn't a rep on site - the Branch is next. 

The union are there to protect you, first and foremost - but it is also a community full of activists that choose to be there for you and other members. In my union the stewards, Branch Officers and members take the lead on guiding the union in a direction that is wanted by the membership - all stewards are elected by members, along with Branch Officers so that it is fair and you are represented by the people that are chosen by a majority.  
The community within a Trade Union has multiple layers and the Self Organised Groups play a big part (but these don't exist in every union), these groups are Women, LGBT+, Disabled Members and Black Members. There is also a Young Members group but they are not considered within the same bubble as you cannot identify as a young person (there's an age limit).

In particular, as we are talking about disabled people at work - the Disabled Members Group operates within the Branch, Region and Nationally.  Its a forum where disabled people can come together and discuss issues that are important to them. There is also a Disabled Members conference where disabled people from all across the union come together to discuss motions that affect disabled people within work and our society.  I actively participate within different layers of the Disabled Members groups, as someone who is young and disabled I often feel underrepresented in much of what I see online or when people discuss disabled issues - I take part to give a different perspective and am often one of the youngest people in the room but its good to have the diversity. 

So why should it be important to you?

As above, if you are disabled you are more likely to be discriminated against than your able counterparts, you may receive unwanted comments, have a higher sickness level than colleagues, be refused reasonable adjustments or any number of issues. That's not to say that other people don't have these problems, but the Equality Act exists for a reason - because discrimination against people with protected characteristics does exist and is a substantial enough issue to have warranted further protections for certain groups. 
The equality act is on your side, but sometimes you need a bit of back up too - and that's ok. That's where the union comes in, even if you do not feel comfortable to be a further part of the union, it is there for you and part of why you pay in. The union is there for many reasons, and if you are feeling discriminated against it is always important to voice it and not feel left alone. Your representative is not there to judge, they are there to help you. 

If you are a disabled worker, and your sector does have a union, I highly recommend joining. The union is on your side - they will always try to do what is best for workers and from experience they work really hard at it.  Cases are assessed on a case by case basis and its a partnership between you and your rep to ensure the best outcome. 

Access to Work

I wanted to make a little note here, that disabled people who are working are entitled to reasonable adjustments to be able to do their job. For example, in an office a reasonable adjustment for someone with back pain may be an ergonomic chair which can adjusted specially for them to offer support and help them stay in work comfortably.  In other environments there might be other adjustments that can help too.  

Access to work is a scheme that is there to support people with physical, mental health and long term health conditions to stay in work - that includes mental health support. 

The government website states: "your employer must make certain changes (known as 'reasonable adjustments') to make sure you're not substantially disadvantaged when doing your job. These could include changing your working hours or providing equipment to help you do your job. You should talk to your employer about reasonable adjustments before you apply for Access to Work" 

Personally, I do think contacting Access to Work offers a more concrete way of ensuring adjustments are made - as employers sometimes drag their feet. 

Access to Work offer support based on your needs, which can include a grant to help cover the costs of practical support in the workplace - such as for equipment. Smaller employers are not charged a penny for the equipment received to help you continue to work (the grant awarded is dependent on the employer size), but larger employers may have to pay towards it - this is not your responsibility and you will not have to pay anything personally; Workplaces have to offer reasonable adjustments by law. 

Access to Work can also offer support with regards to help getting to and from work - such as taxi's if you cannot access public transport safely or comfortably - this is all assessed on an individual basis though. 

You have to apply online for this and will be assessed (with Covid-19 timescales and the way assessments are completed have probably changed) based on what you need. 
If the employer refuses the adjustments you can discuss with Access to Work advisor and with your trade union who will be able to help and advise on the situation. 


Support

So I'll now jump off my soapbox for a little while and let you think about it, maybe you'll discuss it with people in your life, or maybe you already got bored. But I just wanted to say that there is support out there for disabled workers. 
I know how hard some days can be as a disabled worker, I've experienced nasty comments, discrimination and I've even come home some days and cried - sometimes from pain and exhaustion because working life is hard as a disabled person, but sometimes just because of how people have made me feel. Just know you aren't alone, and support is out there.

If you have any questions or anything you think should be added to this post please don't hesitate to send me a message over on social media (since my comments section doesn't seem to work!)



Note: I wasn't always a fighter for disabled rights and I hold my hand up to that - but I try and do better now and I've grown a lot as a person the last few years. Part of that, I owe to my union and my experience as a disabled young woman.

Nici xx



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