Disability History Month: Interview With Olive Essien

Olive Essien, co-chair CPS Disabled Staff Network

Disability History Month runs from 18 November to 18 December, to shine a light on disability issues and celebrate the achievements of people living with disabilities and long-term health conditions.

NBCPA member and former chair Olive Essien, a District Crown Prosecutor and co-chair of the CPS Disabled Staff Network, shares what Disability History Month means to her.

What does Disability History Month (DHM) mean to you and why is it important to celebrate DHM?

Raising awareness about disability and long-term health issues is of paramount importance. Disability History Month creates a platform to focus on raising awareness about disability issues; challenge barriers and discrimination, which can impede career progress; and celebrate the many achievements of those with disabilities and long-term health conditions.

Having a disability is sometimes seen as ‘a dirty little secret’ or the ‘elephant in the room’ when it should never be. Disabled Staff Network is determined to change the culture surrounding health issues so that staff can feel comfortable asking for support, and assistance to do the job they are employed to do. This is not just about a moral or legal obligation but it makes good commercial sense. Where staff are encouraged and supported to do their best, thereby adding value to the workplace, it can only be of benefit to the organisation, its customers, partners and the wider diverse communities that it serves.

Do you feel as though your disability has positively or negatively influenced your career? And if so, in what way?

Like many parents, I put my career on hold to ensure my children had the support they needed. Two of my sons had particular medical needs.
During that time, I took the opportunity to gather as many skills as I could. I was determined that I would have sufficient skills and experience to work anywhere I wanted in the CPS. Achieving Higher Crown Advocate status was something I was particularly proud of, as I saw myself as a melanated female Rumpole of the Bailey. Unfortunately, I developed arthritis in my hip and knees. It is not curable and causes inflammation in the joints which are extremely painful so mobility is a huge issue. This restricted the types of roles I could apply for. The impact has been negative. Having said that I realised I needed to concentrate on what I could do and not what I could no longer do. The CPS has plenty of opportunities so it was about finding the right opportunity for me.

Why is it important for organisations to participate in DHM celebrations?

Engaged, experienced staff is the most important resource any organisation has. Disability is the only universal protected characteristic that anyone of any characteristic can be impacted by.

According to the data below from Disability: A Research Study on Unconscious Bias. ENEI 2014, www.enei.org. Accessed 3.11.17.

“Despite substantial progress, disabled people remain significantly less likely to be in employment than non-disabled people.Over a third (36%) of people tend to think of disabled people as not as productive as everyone else.Unconscious bias against disabled people appeared to be higher than any other social group.Over one in three people show an unconscious bias against those with a disability, higher than levels of bias on the basis of gender or race.”

This type of data is quite worrying. We are all living longer and the change in pensions criteria means that people will retire at an older age. Old age goes hand in hand with ill-health. So raising awareness and being aware of how this can impact anyone at any time. So it is everyone’s business.

What kind of things should organisations be doing to ensure a better understanding of disabilities and disability inclusion?

Senior leaders impact, create and enforce cultural change in organisations so where they lead, the organisation will follow. But that cultural change must take into account the needs and requirements of disabled staff. Organisations must be willing to listen, learn, be flexible and proactive by working in collaboration with staff, staff networks and unions, organisations will be able to quickly discover what needs to be done and implement those changes.

What do you hope colleagues will take away from this year’s DHM celebrations?

The use of storytelling is an impactful way for people to share experiences so we launched “Bodies Behaving Badly”. This is an opportunity for staff to talk about their health challenges, how they have overcome them, what support they have had from their employer and the highs and lows they have experienced. By doing so we hope to encourage people to be open and enable others to realise they are not alone and there is support for them out there.

What challenges have you faced on your career journey, and how have you overcome these?

Like many a child of immigrant parents, I was told that I should work twice as hard to achieve my career goals but it is not as simple as that. You also need to understand the ‘politics’ of your organisation and create a brand that fits in with your employer’s brand. In addition, cultural norms meant trying to be an African wife and mother i.e. dinner time is egusi soup and gari and not pizza and chips, the latter being so much easier and quicker to prepare.

So, whenever I felt I was not getting the support I needed, I found someone who would help me. I volunteered for every available opportunity even if I did not know how I was going to do that role. If I made a mistake, I did not beat myself up about it. When I did not get what I wanted I either kept applying or took a different route. I moved across the service, taking various roles to enhance my skill set.

I believe you should write your own story and never let anyone write it for you.

Do you have any role models? If so, who?

If I was to name a hero it would be Nelson Mandela who said, “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”

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