KC Group conference 2011
Access to Work
Steven Franks and Janet West
Action for Blind People
SF First a few facts about AFBP. A common misconception is that AFBP and RNIB have merged. We are still two separate organisations but we’re working in association. This means we are working towards common goals, avoiding overlap and duplication and avoiding competition for funding. We have aligned the two organisations so that roughly, RNIB do the campaigning, influencing, media and fundraising and AFBP deal more with providing the services, among which is employment. We do have one helpline which is the RNIB Helpline, so all enquiries for our services come through them.
The proportion of blind and partially sighted people of working age who are unemployed is two thirds, so that is the rationale for why we exist. We do help people looking for work and nationally we managed to place 201 people into full time work last year. That is a low figure compared to previous years and is a sad reflection of where we are at with the economy. But we did work place assessments for 784. That is encouraging, because it means employers are retaining people in the work place, and we’ve seen the number of assessments we do rocket over the past few years.
JW Just to add a word about some recent research that was carried out and reported on in March 2011. That gave data not only about those registered blind or partially sighted, but those who have sight problems but are not registered. When we look at that broader population then 49% are in employment so that is a bit more encouraging. And I know that many of you with KC are not registered.
SF Whether and when to disclose to an employer that you have a disability is a very personal decision. There are no hard and fast, right or wrong, rules about it. But, should an employer make adjustments if you haven’t told them you have a disability? So the advice generally would be to tell an employer, so that they can make adjustments needed and look at what it going to help you retain your job. The important thing is that under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) it is the employer’s responsibility to make adjustments, but they do need to know. One of those adjustments could be for someone in employment to have an assessment to identify what solutions and what adjustments would enable someone to work more effectively, more on a level playing field.
Q Does disclosure mean some sort of formal filling in forms?
A No. How you disclose that you have some level of sight loss is again an individual thing. But it could be talking to your line manager, talking to someone in HR, someone in occupational health, not necessarily writing a formal letter but talking to somebody. They may want more information, so they may welcome a letter from your ophthalmologist, but initially it’s talking to somebody. It’s also worth mentioning that there is something in the Equalities Act that employers should be able to perceive disability, which sounds as if you may not have to tell them. But of course, it may not be that obvious; if you’re using a cane they should be able to perceive you have a disability, but if you’re not using a cane and seem to be making your way around fine on your own, how are they meant to know? So in those cases, I would advise actually saying.
JW Another thing is, I’ve come across people who have been working so hard to cover up the fact that they have a visual impairment that they are making life harder for themselves. So once they’ve told their employer, how is the employer going to react? If the employer is very negative then we suggest you contact AFBP who would be able to talk to the employer to dispel some their perceptions. But once you have declared you need some help, then there is equipment and support out there.
So in essence, disclosure is important and you need to thing about when you disclose. If, for example, you’re unemployed and you’re applying for a job, do you say before or after the interview? These are very individual questions. My suggestion would be perhaps to discuss it with employment officers from AFBP, to think about how you feel yourself, how do you feel about your sight loss?
SF My experience also is that, even when you’ve got a large organisation that’s known to be very flexible or accessible, don’t necessarily rely on the people you’re applying to knowing about all the adjustments and solutions. It may be that Head Office knows all the solutions and is very disability aware, but you may be dealing with a branch office of that company, you may be dealing with a local manager or a local HR person who doesn’t have all the knowledge at their fingertips and you need to say to them – there is Access to Work, there is money out there that can provide support for me in the work place. Don’t assume they will know.
JW And that leads me to talk about people’s individual experiences in work, and that depends on a range of different factors, for example, employers’ awareness. Somebody in HR may be very aware of an employer’s responsibilities under the Equalities Act but a line manager may be less aware, colleagues may be less aware. So it can be very helpful to be open about your sight loss. For example, there are a lot of us wearing glasses. Now for me, wearing glasses does the job, rectifies my vision, but for many people with an eye condition, wearing glasses is not necessarily solving the underlying eye condition and people will make an assumption that wearing glasses is rectifying the situation. So it can be helpful to be a bit more open, otherwise people do not understand.
The other thing I want to say about the different factors is that employers may be out of their comfort zone, it may be something they’ve never dealt with before. So they’re also on a learning curve with you in terms of what can be done, what is out there like the Access to Work scheme and other adjustments. I’ve heard Access to Work referred to as the government’s best kept secret, so employers and managers may not have heard of it. So it’s important for you to find out as much as you can so that you are informed and you can tell them that there are these schemes and there is funding that can help. So knowledge is power! You have the knowledge and that will build your confidence when talking to employers.
Access to Work
ATW is a government scheme designed to provide practical advice and support to enable people to work alongside their colleagues with more of a level playing field. It basically provides a discretionary grant towards equipment, support, travel to work and modifications. There is no right of appeal, so if you have an ATW assessment, ATW advisers will look at what has been recommended and they will decide what they will fund, what they will contribute towards. So an organisation providing the assessment make recommendations and ATW advisers decide what they are going to fund.
ATW can cover adaptations, specialist aids and equipment, also support workers and travel to work. Sometimes people will benefit from having sighted support in the workplace to undertake visual tasks that are perhaps more challenging or difficult - not doing the job for them, but assisting them with talks that they’re not able to do with the help of technology. It could be anything from 2 or 3 hours a week to many more hours a week. Sighted support could also be helping someone with their travel eg keeping independent and using public transport rather than a taxi, but helping with the route or identifying which platform to go to. Sighted Support could be helping with reading written information.
You are all individuals even though you all have KC and your needs may be quite different. So what adjustments will be appropriate or relevant will be individual. It could be modifications to equipment, it could include time off for appointments or time off for rehabilitation, it could include adjusting working hours so you don’t have to travel in the rush hour, it could include thing like lighting, which I think can be a big issue for people with KC. So discussions around where someone is going to sit in the work environment can be very pertinent and can come under the heading of reasonable adjustments. (What is defined as ‘reasonable’ would ultimately have to be defined by an employment tribunal rather than by you or the employer).
SF It’s also worth mentioning that the way ATW works is that there’s the assessment, then you wait for the report, then there’s a bank of money that the employer can dip into to pay for the support provided. We did also talk about the private assessments. What happens there is that some of the larger corporates and a lot of Government department employers may say, we don’t want to go through the process of ATW. So what we do there is exactly the same process of doing an assessment, but we’d charge the employer directly for it.
JW So that’s a contract between AFBP and the employer, which means you get more of a holistic assessment looking at wider issues than what ATW might contribute to.
SF A word of caution though – if an employer uses the private assessment route, then they would fund the solutions suggested. With ATW not only is the assessment free, but also as we discussed, they provide funding for equipment etc. Whereas if it’s done privately, if we’ve done the assessment and say this person needs a support worker for 20 hrs a week, needs help with travel, needs special software, the employer is going to have to purchase all of that out of their own funds. With ATW, they provide the funding, though not all of it. There is a threshold and that has changed recently in terms of the proportion of costs ATW will cover and what they expect the employer to cover.
Thinking about the assessment, it’s really useful before you make that application to ATW to think about what tasks you do as part of your job and what are the issues you’re having. Also with KC, it’s a fluctuating eye condition, so sometimes you might be absolutely fine and you may not need any support, but other times you’re struggling. So you need to think about the times when your sight is at its worst. So think about the talks that you’re doing – does the job involve reading handwritten material, does it involve completing forms, accessing computer data. Break the tasks down. And do you know what is available to help you, for example, the whole range of magnifiers, portable and desk top ones. If you can inform yourself, that’s very helpful.
There’s an exhibition called Sight Village, which is in different parts of the country now – in London, Birmingham, Edinburgh. If you google Sight Village you’ll find all the details. It’s a good way to build up your knowledge of the aids and equipment available.
The other thing about ATW – it’s you that makes the application, not the employer. Do talk to us at AFBP: we have employment officers in all the regions throughout the country. As part of the assessment, whether it’s private of ATW funded, what can be very useful is to have visual awareness training.
As I mentioned earlier, it can be a whole new learning curve for the employer and for work colleagues. So it can be very helpful for someone to come in and do visual awareness training for colleagues so that they get some understanding of how to work in supportive ways with someone with sight loss.
In the last 5 or so years I’ve seen a number of clients in work with KC and I’d like to talk about two of them. The first is an operations manager who has responsibility for the day to day operations in a horticultural research centre. He looks after the farm and the estate with overall responsibility for buildings maintenance, so it’s not specifically office based, he’s out and about doing visual tasks. At least 50% of his time is computer based and the rest of the time is spent on the estate. He has KC which was diagnosed in his teens and gives him distorted vision. One eye is affected and leaks and runs from time to time. He relies on his other eye for detailed work. He explained that he felt discomfort in his good eye, and experiences double vision, ghosting and blurring when he is refocusing. Peripheral vision in both eyes he felt was quite good although he explained that depth perception could be quite difficult. He hadn’t seen an ophthalmologist for a number of years but was going for annual check ups at the optician’s. He was prescribed varifocal lenses for his good eye for distance and close up work and his glasses had a distance lens only for his affected eye. He explained he was now getting more and more discomfort when looking at anything for more than a minute, but for everyday tasks that didn’t involve that detailed refocusing he wasn’t experiencing any significant impact. He was not registered. His preferred format for receiving information was large print (18 point) Arial or electronic by e-mail. He was still able to drive.
After an assessment where I went to the workplace, had a look at what he was doing, had a tour round the estate and saw the visual tasks he was doing on the management side of things, the recommendations were that he should have a larger monitor, a larger character keyboard (a standard keyboard where the letters are larger and higher contrast) and some low vision aids. At that time he didn’t need electronic aids, but basically low level magnification aids which we got from the low vision clinic at the hospital. The lighting was an issue for him so we discussed ways in which he could adjust the lighting. We also suggested a signature on his e-mails to indicate his preferred way of receiving information so that people would respond to him in Arial 18. After the assessment, he got all that equipment and was working much more happily and with less strain.
The second case study is someone who worked as a detainee custody manager for a security firm. So again the job isn’t administrative as such, but he said 90% of the time his work was computer based. His KC was diagnosed in his late teens but his condition has progressed since then and he had undergone some corneal surgery in one eye. There had been a gradual deterioration in his sight; his vision was still not sufficient for him to see clearly even after surgery and he was relying on his other eye, his better eye, in which he had a contact lens fitted. He had reduced peripheral vision and had to turn his head to maximise his useful sight. Again, he was not registered. He was experiencing some discomfort and pain as well, and thought it was quite likely that he’d need further surgery at some point in the next year.
So his sight loss was affecting his ability to read printed material, to interact with the computer and to see detail. He was very sensitive to lighting, bright lights and also had poor night vision, so not only bright lights were a problem, but also reduced lighting. He was also very sensitive to glare, to reflected light from white such as black on white printed material and had difficulty recognising facial expressions. Glare from the computer screen was also causing him some discomfort.
So after an assessment we agreed that he would benefit from a portable video magnifier which enabled him to look at printed material and also notice-boards, also screen reading and screen magnification software to access the computer (so he needed something more than just a larger screen) headphones so that he could access the speech from the computer and also the telephone at the same time. So he could switch the headset to listen to the voice from the phone and to the voice from the computer. We also recommended a large monitor and a large character keyboard, visual awareness training, which we felt could benefit his work colleagues and also some high contrast pens and gel pens. Shall we break for questions here?
Q One thing I haven’t heard you mention is training for the person getting the equipment. I know a few years ago, I could probably have got ATW to buy me Jaws Supernova but there was no training to use it. Is than now covered as well?
A Absolutely. Anywhere we recommend software we also recommend training because there’s no point in having expensive kit if you can’t use it! So with something like the Supernova screen reading, screen magnification software, training would be recommended as well and at the employer’s premises. And generally speaking, that would be covered by ATW.
Q I’m not clear who does the workplace assessment – is it part of your organisation or through ATW?
A ATW is contracted to organisations so we are one organisation contracted to DWP so we can do assessments on their behalf. It’s different across the country, different organisations have these contracts and they are re-tendered every few years. In London re-tendering is happening this year (2011) so we are saying we’d like to continue. In some cases ATW may feel there’s no need for an assessment and they can agree what the individual needs. But for people with sight loss, I would always suggest a workplace assessment is to your benefit because there are issues like environmental issues such as lighting and where your desk is located.
For private assessments, we do those but there are also other organisations that do them. We have contracts with a number of organisations where we have agreed we will do workplace assessments for them.
Q You were saying that the person themselves has to ask for the assessment – so who do they ask?
A AFBP have a number of regional offices, depending on where you live in the country you’d contact the operations unit there. RNIB are producing a fact sheet on ATW, which will include all the contact numbers. Also, if you go to the directgov website you’ll be able to look up Access to Work.
Also if you’re seeing a Disability Employment Adviser (DEA) and you’re going for a job interview then ATW still kicks in. They do provide support for interviews so you can request that from your DEA.
Q If you’re self-employed, is the government scheme open to you?
A Yes. In fact, I mentioned there’s a cost sharing arrangement with employers – for people who are self-employed it’s up to 100% funding through ATW. They’ll always ask for a voluntary contribution, but it can be up to 100%. Also worth saying that if you’re self-employed and applying to ATW make it very clear that you are self-employed. If you are working for an employer, the employer may have some way of supporting you in the meantime while you’re waiting for ATW, but if you’re self-employed you may not be able to carry on your work while waiting for ATW to come through. And another tip is that it’s work asking for a support worker while you’re waiting for equipment to be put in place and while you’re waiting for training to be put in place.
Q Does your employer have any remit to cancel any hospital appointments that you have?
A I would say no, you need a hospital appointment, so no, they can’t really do that. And good practice would allow you time off, however many employers do insist that people take it as leave.
Q Or make you work through your lunch hour to make the time up – it’s very unfair. You don’t get that time back if you work till 6pm, work through your lunch hour to keep that appointment that they wanted you to cancel.
A These are some of the issues that people with sight loss face in employment, where employers are not fully aware of the impact of sight loss. But if that’s the case, you might want to talk to an employment advisor and see if any advice can be given to your employer. It comes back to that phrase ‘reasonable adjustments’ where it’s whether the employer is being reasonable. If you can’t make the appointment outside working hours, which is often the case with medical appointments, then it’s reasonable to expect an employer to make that adjustment. It’s all about attitudes really; some employers have a positive attitude and more awareness and understanding, others have a much narrower attitude. There’s also business needs, so it’s finding a balance.
Q Do you not think there’s a problem with saying to an employer that Action For Blind People are coming along? Psychologically, I can see a problem with raising a big flag about going blind!
A There’s two ways of looking at it. On the one hand, you’re right, it could sound negative. On the other hand, if it’s an employer you think is at risk of discriminating (maybe not on purpose, but through ignorance) then it’s reassuring that there is support out there. And getting someone else involved and looking over the process means the employer can’t just ignore it. But always the way to present it, where you mention us or any other organisation, you need to emphasise that there are solutions. So, there is this issue, I may not be able to use the computer for more than an hour at a time, but there is a solution that I’ve got that will help me do my job. You don’t have to say what the solution is at that stage, you just need to get the employer ware that there are solutions so that they can’t turn round and say later ‘well, we didn’t know’. Whether you mention the name of the organisation or not, you should say that they’re here to help you as an employer. We always say when we go in, we’re not the Disability Discrimination Act police, we want to work with the employer to get solutions to prevent it becoming a legal situation, we’re there to help move things on in a positive way, to explore the options and perhaps think about their policies. Usually employers respond quite well to that.
But because everyone is different, you might get that whole thing of ‘oh, we had someone here last year with KC so we know what to do’. Well actually, it could be different this time. There’s that tendency to say we know about that, we’ve dealt with that, rather than seeing the person as an individual. When any assessment takes place you’re at the heart of it. I’ve known a lighting assessment to take place without the individual being present. That just doesn’t make sense. So it’s really important that you’re involved in every stage.
Q With regards to telling the employer before you actually get the job that you have a disability, I came out of the forces 20 years ago and I had a green disability card (nothing to do with KC). I could not even get past the application form stage. One employer in particular was after a really specialised person and I fitted the bill. I got a letter saying sorry you do not fit our criteria. Now I know for a fact that that was down to me being disabled. I finally got a job (there was no actual advert for it) I sent my CV to a company and I was in for an interview and got the job.
A This was before the Disability Discrimination Act?
Q Yes, this was over 20 years ago with the green card for disability, which you don’t get nowadays. They said I didn’t have the qualifications for the job – I knew very well that I did and there were very few people who could do that job.
A Yes, they used to have a quota system – we’ve got our 2% disabled, we don’t need to take anyone else. That’s one of the things DDA was brought in to address. Now employers do know that under the law, they do have a requirement to interview this person. If the person has the minimum requirements, they have to interview them.
JW Unfortunately you’re right, it does happen so it’s something to weigh up when you’re applying for jobs. Is it something that’s necessary to put on your CV and maybe for you it is and for others it isn’t, so when is it beneficial to tell someone in a positive way what equipment, what support you might need? For an interview it might be that involves a test - you may need to let the employer know what would help you have a fairer stab at that. And lighting may be an issue to you – in an interview you may be sitting facing a window with the sun shining on your face. So these are little things you might want to thing about at that stage. The timing of when you tell an employer is a very individual thing. If you do put it on a CV, it’s important to do it in a positive way. Although I do have an eye condition which has a certain impact on me, with low vision aids, magnifier, support from ATW, funding from ATW I can do the job.
SF I would also add that RNIB do have a legal team. People do take their cases to the legal team and get support for challenging decisions if they have been discriminated against. That can be done and has been done.
Q A couple of years later, the same company tried to poach me. When I told them why I wouldn’t even consider working for them, they got a bit of a shock!
SF I’ve been involved in one case where when someone was turned down for a job, I worked with the client and got them the job by slightly embarrassing the company by pointing out why they should take the person on. The employer had just panicked about the whole disability thing and didn’t think through the solutions (though we were lucky in that case as there wasn’t a suitable applicant) but when I had the chance to talk to the employer we were able to get the person in. So challenge it – you never know, you might be able to get a discussion.
JW And if you are in a situation where you are no looking for work, then think about your skills, your interests, your experience, your knowledge. You are selling yourself so that’s what you need to focus on. Your sight loss is a part of you but it’s not the big thing. The key is what you have to offer. And there’s a Government scheme called Work Choice, which has been going since October 2010 which can be accessed by going to the Disability Employment Advisor at the jobcentre and asking them what schemes there are to support someone with a disability looking for work. Work Choice is 6 months of intensive job support which could include the whole job search and also voluntary work experience while continuing to be applying for jobs.
SF One important point is that employers now aren’t allowed to ask medical question prior to the interview. They can’t ask health and medical questions that aren’t related to the job itself. They might ask you when they’re inviting you for interview if you have any additional needs. Then they are being proactive.
Q If an employer has to fund part of the costs of equipment, what happens if the employee subsequently leaves and gets another job? Would the employer get his funds back?
SF If both the employer and DWP have been involved in funding there is then the question of who gets it. If an employer leaves prematurely then there would have to be a discussion between DWP and the employer about who owns the equipment. But equipment depreciates with each year and after 3 years it is deemed to have no value. If the help provided is a support worker then the hours provided in one job might not be the same in another job, so that would have to be reassessed. With equipment, some people might be able to take that to their next job, or if it’s 3 or 4 years old they might be able to have it to use at home.
Q But that might be the obstacle – any employers who have been through the process might not want to go through it again.
A Yes, that’s true. In my experience most employers have let the employee take the equipment because what suits one person won’t suit another. So even if the employer gets someone else in a year’s time, the software might be outdated or might not have the right magnification. So my experience is that most employers say, take the equipment.
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- Steven Williams
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Anne Klepacz, Chair of UKKC group has e mailed me the above as an attachment and asked me to post the following transcript from Groups 2011 conference.
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Disability Employment Advisor at the jobcentre and asking them what schemes there are to support someone with a disability looking for work.
You are kidding me? Jobcentres have changed way beyond comprehension over the last 3 years, people unable to fill in forms because of other disabilities are just left.
You are kidding me? Jobcentres have changed way beyond comprehension over the last 3 years, people unable to fill in forms because of other disabilities are just left.
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