This is a longer version of a talk I gave at Civil Service Live 2018 in Glasgow. I was asked to reflect for 5 minutes on why I am happy to agree that the Civil Service is a great place to work.
I am going to approach this challenge with A Question, Two Stories, and Three Challenges for you.
First – the question. How many people using wheelchairs have you seen in the sessions you have been in today? (On the day two people said they had seen 1 person in a wheelchair and 1 person had seen 2, out of an attendance of around 2000 people).
I’ll come back to that in a minute, but first a bit of a story about my journey to the Civil Service. Which was even for me pretty long and winding. But helps explain why I think the Civil Service is such a great place to work.
I started working in the late 1970s in my dad’s pub, cleaning toilets. Which was great as it’s all been up since then. From there I graduated to 30 years working in what my mother still thinks is an unsuitably diverse range of jobs. Everything from running a café to support worker for vulnerable people and families in the community. From managing a news monitoring agency to operations director on an emergency aid project to Bosnia. Then from the mid 90s onwards in digital, in both industry and academia, as designer and a design ethnographer.
Until 4 years ago when I finally managed to add civil servant to that list of sectors I’ve worked in. And make my mum happy by getting a proper job at last. I am head of Scottish Government’s DDaT User Centred Design family of roles and the Chief Designer in the Digital Directorate. A role I adore but being honest am a bit surprised to find myself still in.
When I joined I thought it would be for a stint – 2 maybe 3 years. I’d contribute something, learn something, and move back to industry or academia. What I didn’t expect was that there was so much to learn, so many different ways to contribute, and most importantly of all, so many amazing people doing so much that seemed not just important, but crucial to my family, my life, my country. And I didn’t expect to join an organisation so engaged with diversity and inclusion.
You see I could have told the story of my long and winding journey to the Civil Service through another lens. One best summed up in one phrase – I have spent my entire adult life being excluded, and fighting to be included. Over 30 years of being excluded first because I am a woman (I never did get permission to take technical drawing at school instead of Home Economics), then because I am a lesbian (when that exclusion was sometimes also in the form of violence), then because I am lesbian who is also a mother (yes the two boys really do have two mummies, I said, over and over and over again), and more recently because I am now disabled.
One of the biggest reasons I am still happily here at Scottish Government is that the Civil Service wants to change that culture of exclusion and, more importantly, encourages and enables me to help it do that.
So back to that question I posed. According to NHS England data from a couple of years back there are roughly 1.2 million wheelchair users in the UK (and two thirds of those are regular users). That’s roughly 1 in 55 people at any given point using a wheelchair, and about one in 80 of the UK population using one most of the time. Now I know I am being too simplistic in my use of that data, and I know that the visibly mobility disabled are but one part of the disability community. Still, as rough and ready metrics go it’s got some provocation value. And it reflects my own anecdotal experience as someone who lives some of the time in Munich where I see many, many, more people in wheelchairs out and about in daily life.
So my first challenge for you is to spend some time really thinking about where all the wheelchair users are. Ask yourself – are the 1 in 55 in my office? My department? If they are – celebrate and share that. If they are not, ask yourself – why not?
For my second story about why the Civil Service is a great place to work come with me to an event I was speaking at recently. As often happens there was no ramp to get up on the stage. OK it was a low stage, most able bodied people could get up easily unless they were in heels, in which case the two small steps with no banister the organisers provided would have helped. But my heart sank when I saw those two small steps. They meant my ascent to the stage was doomed to be both hard and frightening. I have MS, my left leg drags, my balance and vision are awful, and if I fall I can’t save myself the way an able bodied person might.
But the physical challenge and potential physical impacts of that inaccessible stage were not the worst thing about that situation. It was the psychological impact. Because what the lack of ramp and the need for me to ask for that said to me was – we were not expecting you, we were not really thinking about you. You don’t really exist for us. We don’t think people like you routinely belong here.
It’s how I get told “You are not welcome”.
Now don’t get me wrong, the Civil Service still tells me I was not expected more often that it should. But the support and encouragement to keep challenging I get from everyone from my perm sec (thank you Leslie Evans) down; the ever growing levels of better, richer, deeper understanding of the needs of people like me I see growing around me; the improvements small and large I see rolled out continuously; and the support and encouragement I get to improve my own understanding of the needs of others with experiences of exclusion I do not share, these all tell me daily that this is truly a Great Place to Work.
My second challenge to you is to go back to your office and be part of that continuous improvement. Really think about the ways in which you don’t make certain groups of people welcome. And make one improvement.
It could be something as simple as deleting the word special from the forms you send to people asking if they have “special” requirements. There is nothing special about my need for a ramp, far from it, it’s my normal. Labelling it special is your special way of telling me you don’t expect me here.
Or you could try switching off fully justified in your word processor to help people with visual problems or dyslexia read your content more easily. Or it could be something I cannot even imagine as I too have much still to learn about how to pull down what excludes and build up what includes.
Having worked for 30 years pretty much everywhere but the civil service I am absolutely certain, with the conviction of an outsider inside, that our commitment is real. Even as I am certain that our challenges are still great and our progress still slow. Which is why my third challenge to you is to go back to your office and look around and really notice all the ways we *do* make people welcome, all the changes we are making to make exclusion a thing of the past. Take heart from that. Use that to empower you to keep doing more and more of those ‘one small things’.
The commitment I see in the Civil Service, which holds me here still, is not just real but vitally important. You need to believe in it and be part of it. Because if we can’t make diversity and inclusion the norm, routine, unremarkable, then who will? If I am not welcome here, what hope for anywhere else?