How health and safety can help disabled workers to thrive at work

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Prakash Narola, of the British Safety Council, wants the workplace to support disabled workers to fulfill their own potential.

“I’m not fixing it, I’m finding the fault of it,” Prakash Narola is correcting me. His job in IT is not to develop software, but he identifies when website functionality goes wrong. “I’ll describe the issue, I write the steps to get that [problem] and then I send it off to the developer so they can reproduce that same scenario and they fix it.”

Prakash is responsible for software quality assurance at the British Safety Council. He does not have the use of his legs, which were affected by polio when he was a child. He has to use a wheelchair to go everywhere. His enjoyment of his work, which is all about dealing with problems is, I learn, not gained by chance.

In life, as in work, Prakash has had to take problems and find ways through and around them, by sheer determination and patience. “If you think,” he explains, “that your disability is going to affect you, then it’s going to happen. But I am really confident in my work and really flexible in managing myself. My disability doesn’t really affect me.”

Wanting to find out more about what it’s like working with a disability and to find out what health and safety should do more (or indeed less) of, to support such workers, I caught up with Prakash.

Prakash joined the British Safety Council in June 2017. “I test any IT functionality first before it goes to live to customers. Whatever changes [the developers] do, I have to test that it’s working as required.”

Explaining how he manages his work with his disability, he says, is not complicated, because the British Safety Council is accessible. “All the meeting rooms are accessible and I have somewhere I can park my wheelchair, and I can transfer from it to my chair directly.”

He also drives to work and any support needs, he says, are minor things. “I have to ask someone to get help for lunch, to take the plate or my drinks, I have to be very careful while carrying hot things. I have to use my special toilet, I can’t use other toilets because of the wheelchair.”

Prakash at his desk where he works in software quality assurance at the British Safety Council.

His needs from an accessibility perspective are simple, and, beyond changing the fire escape route to accommodate his wheelchair, have not been more complex than that.

“Our social committee team realise that if I’m going to an event they have to find a place where I can access, or make relevant arrangements,” he adds. More importantly, he enjoys being at work: “Since I started I feel like a normal person here because it’s really good, everybody’s friendly.”

But his working experiences have not always been as straightforward and he has not always felt as supported. When he arrived in the UK from India as a student he applied for part time work as cashier at a well-known supermarket.

“In the first place they didn’t take me, they didn’t give me a reason.” He noticed that the spaces behind the cashiers’ desks were cramped and guessed the supermarket was worried that his wheelchair would not be able to fit in.

However, a friend put a word in and Prakash got an eight-hour contract that soon became 20 hours, and finally office work which he did for two years.

He explained how he showed his employers he could manage his own needs quite easily. “They realised I can transfer my chair, myself, because – here [he indicates to his chair where we are in the office canteen] I also transfer myself to the normal chair.”

The problems that made working life a challenge however, were in travelling to the job, something his employers had never taken into consideration. “I had to go from my place in Wembley to Harrow.

At Harrow-on-the-Hill station there is no lift, so I had to ask someone to lift my chair and I’d get myself up and down the stairs.” He did this by lifting himself up and down each stair on his hands. “I was then travelling to Amersham station where I had to push my chair to the store, which was about 20 minutes distance.”

Prakash wants workplaces to be more accepting of different needs, from disability to mental health issues

At no point did his managers ask him how he was managing the journey, and even worse, when he found an opening nearer his home he asked for a transfer. But the answer was that the ‘job was taken.’ “I did explain to them, ‘look I’m travelling this much.’ But I was accommodating myself, I never got late to work, never sick. So they said ‘no, just keep coming.’”

Trust and communication 

Prakash remains upbeat – he has an easy going and positive manner – but his main wish and message is that employers should ask the disabled person about their needs in the first place. “I would say if the employer has any doubt they should ask questions to the person so they can clarify, not make an assumption on behalf of the disabled person. Because it’s not like you always have to make so many changes to your place, because so many times the disabled person is able to make themselves flexible as well.”

Indeed, HSE says that employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to make sure disabled workers aren’t seriously disadvantaged when doing their jobs.

But also that many of the adjustments can be simple and straightforward – it’s a myth that employing a disabled worker is expensive and difficult. Prakash agrees and says that simplicity should be at the heart of any health and safety involvement where disabled people’s needs are concerned.

He tells me, for example, how at his wife’s firm (his wife has disability in one leg) she has to fill out numerous health and safety forms, which wastes time. “The main thing is that you have to understand the routine and the requirement of the person then you don’t have to keep bothering the person, to ask, ‘do you need help, do you need help?’”

Excessive attention can also build up distrust. “I would say if the employer is really co-operative with me, then I’m not hesitating to ask anything to my employer.” If he senses a block in that person’s attitude: “I’m not going to ask many questions and I might be behaving differently and I might not be doing something I have to do. I might not ask for help as well when required.”

More than accessibility

According to disability charity Scope, 19 per cent of working age adults in the UK are disabled.

There are in total 13.9 million disabled people, with the most commonly reported impairments being mobility (52 per cent) but also breathing and fatigue (38 per cent). Over 3.4 million disabled people are in employment.

There is no health and safety legislation specifically for disabled people, but we know that for all workers who have a long-term health condition, a flexible attitude is a must.

Prakash explains that indeed, it’s not just about making workplaces accessible with ramps and so forth, but by being accommodating in other ways. For his particular disability he says: “I can’t have a high desk, I have to have my lower desk and a particular chair which I am using. I can’t use this sort of chair [he gestures to our hard chairs]. I can use it for a short period of time, but for longer it gives me back pain.”

He adds: “I’m sitting down since I wake up. You wake up in your bed you will straighten your back, that’s fine. But mine, since I sit in my chair it’s always like that, until I go to bed.” Stretching is important for him to incorporate into his week where possible.

“I stretch myself, if weather permits I just go out and sit down in the park somewhere.” He says he is grateful for the flexibility his manager gives him to work from home: “My boss allows me to do that because it saves me a lot of time, plus I can stretch myself during work hours,” he explains.

What are Prakash’s thoughts about progress for people with disability at work more generally? His eyes light up at this point and he becomes passionate, as if sharing with me a secret that he cannot believe no one else is noticing or acting on: “Personally I have never found myself working next to a disabled person. There’s a big question, why?”

“There are so many disabled people. Is it that we’re not encouraging disabled people to work, or the employer is not helping them?” He thinks that the government needs to face the taboo head on, identifying industries with low numbers of disabled workers. “They should be collecting a database. Name and shame industries. I’ve never been served by a person in a wheelchair, why?

“There is a big question [around the lack of disabled workers] in supermarkets or retail services or anywhere where the role is customer facing.” He says that disability must be seen as part of the bigger picture to accept difference in workplaces and society. “Disability is not only about physical disabilities, because some people just need mental health support. Workplaces can do much better.”

Government help for disabled workers may not be soon forthcoming. But what we can do, and the main message that I get from Prakash, is for all of us to be accepting of our shortcomings.

We may, for example, not say or do the exact right thing to help a person with their mental or physical disability, but that should not stop us from trying. I ask Prakash, what common mistakes do people make? He puts my thinking straight with a smile: “The way I’m thinking I don’t see anything as a mistake.”


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