The Importance of Trade Unions for Disabled Workers

We have been going through an unprecedented time, where we have been tested on many levels. Beliefs and values have been tested along with relationships in our lives. 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).

I’ve been very disappointed in the responses I’ve seen online from people with regards to those of us who are classed as ‘at risk’ (even if not classed as shielding, though that has now ended officially – even if some people are still unvaccinated and can’t go out) and towards disabled people. Many disabled and at risk people are feeling scared, worried and nervous about the changes that have happened so quickly recently. Shielding has now ended, so this is a worrying time for many – without protections of shielding and the country opening back up and lots of disabled people still unvaccinated.

The official line is that all people who can work from home, should still do so.

UNISON is here to protect workers, and stand against unfair treatment. The Branch has a long reputation of standing for what is right and fair. The Branch has been doing this recently by ensuring that those workers considered more at risk who are being called back to work will have an individual risk assessment, tailored to them, their job and how to keep them as safe as possible – this can be achieved in many ways and the Branch are actively working on helping protect members during this time.

As a disabled worker you are likely to be discriminated against at some point in your working life. Its unfortunate but true. UNISON actively fights against discrimination and throughout Covid-19 and lockdown the union has been fighting at all levels for our members.

I came into UNISON at 20 years old, before I was disabled and before my life changed a lot. The union has been a welcoming place for me, and when I did develop my disability it was one place I felt accepted, supported and like I could make a difference. I believe in the Trade Union movement and the good it can and has done. I believe in workers rights and equality for all – across all marginalised groups that aren’t always treated fairly.

Nicola, standing by a wall with her hand on her hip and walking stick in the other hand. Wearing a skirt, tights, trainers, a cardigan and tshirt with 'vogue' written on it.

This is me and my mobility aid – I am currently 26 years old.

I talk about disability a lot, as a Young Member with a disability I am not always aligned with my peers in the same wants and needs and as I have a hidden disability that often comes with its own struggles, including at work.

When I started my working life, I wasn’t a disabled worker. It happened at a later date, and it 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. But I know with the union I have found people who support me and a place to be understood.

I joined UNISON at a time when my working life was a little rocky, and difficult and I didn’t feel I was being treated that fairly.
I am thankful that I was guided to the union by a couple of reps in my workplace, who explained and got me signed up.

When I became disabled things proceeded to change for me, I haven’t always had the best experiences as a disabled worker, and I know that others haven’t always had the best experiences with regards to their disability in their workplaces either.
Joining a union though, has meant that I have been offered support when needed – with regards to equipment, helping me to work with management, flexibility and even community.

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. At the Branch we are all volunteers, elected by members.

The community within a Trade Union has multiple layers and the Self Organised Groups play a big part – these groups are Disabled Members, Women, LGBT+, 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) – I was the Young Members Officer at Birmingham Branch until recently (unfortunately I age out this year).

In particular, as we are talking about disabled people at work – the Disabled Members Group operates within the Branch, Region and Nationally. The Branch’s Disabled Members Officer in our Branch is Philippa Hands. Philippa is a very knowledgeable and dedicated activist who stands up for disabled members and always has the groups best interests at heart.

Philippa wearing a stripy top and smiling

This is Philippa the Branch Disabled Members Officer

The Disabled Members Self Organised Group is a forum where disabled members can come together and discuss issues that are important to them.
There is also a Disabled Members conference annually, where disabled people from all across UNISON come together to discuss motions that affect disabled people within work and our society. Delegates are sent to the conference from the Branches, Regions and the National Disabled Members Committee – the National Committee has delegates from each Region and from the unions National Executive Council.

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, have issues around 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 and support you.

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.

To go to the Access To Work gov webpage click here

Support

In conclusion, I’ll let you think about it, maybe you’ll discuss it with people in your life, maybe there is someone that you can show this post to so they understand the importance of them joining a union. 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 contact me on nicola.moran@birminghamunison.co.uk

– Nicola Moran, Branch (joint) Communications Officer.

Click here to go to to the Branch Disabled Members page

You can find the Disabled Members Facebook page here

Leaflet for disabled members worried about the future

Disabled and Worried about the Future?