Ambitious, highly-skilled and ...disabled

Technology can remove the physical barriers to a disabled person building a career in IT, but managers and colleagues often need...

Technology can remove the physical barriers to a disabled person building a career in IT, but managers and colleagues often need convincing. Roisin Woolnough talks to three disabled ITers about their experiences

When Paul Holliman gets into work in the morning, he turns on his computer, logs onto the network, checks his messages and sorts out his tasks for the day. Pretty much what everyone does in fact. There is one big difference between Holliman and your average ITer though - he is blind, and has been from birth.

This hasn't stopped the 44-year-old from pursuing a career in IT. A senior support specialist at the Government's GCHQ communications centre, he is the first registered blind person to get the Microsoft Office User Specialist qualification at proficient level - and he is preparing to sit the expert exam.

Lack of sight isn't the only obstacle Holliman has had to overcome in his progress up the career ladder. There is, of course, the issue of how other people perceive him. Holliman says people often have lower expectations of anyone who has a disability and will automatically give the more challenging, exciting projects to someone else. "I have felt in many instances that there was a feeling of 'we had better accommodate this blind person' rather than thinking that I could make a real contribution," he explains.

And perhaps worse still, a lot of people assume that disabled people have low expectations of what they want out of life and their job.

This can make it hard for disabled people to motivate themselves because they feel that employers and colleagues don't expect them to excel or be ambitious. "It is very easy to feel that you're not worth the same degree as other people," says Holliman. "This has a knock-on effect and it is easy to feel that you can't be bothered because you think people don't want it anyway."

The recent Disability Discrimination Act promotes good practice among employers. Part of this means employers treating disabled people as they would any other person, whether it is at the selection stage or once the person is in full employment.

Holliman says having a good manager makes all the difference. "Good management is all about spotting potential," he says. Just as your average able-bodied ITer is keen to learn new skills and get more responsibility, disabled ITers don't want to be stuck doing the same role day-in day-out with little prospect of promotion. Same as with any other member of staff, employers should be trying to progress the careers of any disabled people they have working for them.

For Holliman, it is only recently that he feels he is working to his full potential. In fact, a few years ago he thought his days as an ITer were numbered. "It was when we migrated to Windows. At the time there was very limited access technology on Windows and it was very flaky," he says. "A lot of my time was spent rebooting my machine, which kept crashing because Windows wasn't stable.

"I ended up doing a lot of things differently to other people in the office, with them using Windows-based applications and me having to use Dos versions. It was very demoralising having to do everything differently to everyone else. It basically knocked me out of the job and I thought that's the end of my IT future."

In the end, Holliman decided to go into project management, but didn't enjoy it. "It bored me. I like tinkering with machines rather than two-hour meetings."

His break came two years later when he was offered a role on the helpdesk at GCHQ, and by this time access technology for disabled people had greatly improved.

Holliman says his job was made much easier after he enlisted the help of AbilityNet, a charity that assesses the IT needs of disabled people. What happens is that someone from AbilityNet visits the disabled person and works out what equipment or adjustments they might need. In Holliman's case it was things like having a very speedy screen reader with synthesised voice output.

George Ransome, a systems administrator at Triangle Computer Services, has also benefited from contacting AbilityNet. Ransome, 24, suffers from Friedrich's Ataxia, a degenerative disease that affects his balance and co-ordination. He has been in a wheelchair since he was 16. AbilityNet advised him to use a smaller keyboard and a tracker ball.

Ransome says having the equipment to work as quickly as everyone else and being in an environment where his input is appreciated has made a huge difference to his life. "I've got the option to be on a par with everyone else," he says. "I don't see anyone as different from anyone else and I don't want to be treated any differently from anyone else. It is brilliant when people come up and I can help them. I don't want people saying 'oh there's that poor disabled guy'."

Peter Dunn, 44, is a classic case of someone whose problems have been exacerbated by not being able to work with the appropriate technology.

Currently unemployed, Dunn went on a 13-week placement at a big software house earlier this year. As a sufferer of Parkinson's disease, he finds it hard to operate fiddly equipment. When he went on the placement, he found that he was expected to fix laptops. "It was all tiny notebooks and screwdrivers," he says. "I'm alright on PCs but when the PC jobs came in that I could do, they just wouldn't give them to me. They let me fumble around. When they found out that I couldn't do it very well, instead of moving me to something else, they just kept me there.

"One of the guys I was working with said to me one day 'NVQ - what does that stand for? Not very quick.' I only stayed there for 10 weeks because my nerves were so bad and it made the Parkinson's worse."

Dunn says he has met with a lot of prejudice about his disability and thinks it is the reason why he is unemployed. "I went to a recruitment agency recently and the guy was very chatty because we're both Australian. At some point during the conversation I said to him 'I've got to be honest with you mate, I've got Parkinson's'. He just shut off and said there wouldn't be any work for me."

You can have all the access technology in the world, but if someone harbours prejudices about disabled people, it can be very hard for the disabled person to overcome them.

In many cases it is not a malicious prejudice that prevents a person from doing their job or finding employment, but a matter of not realising that disabled people can be as ambitious as the next person. For Holliman, it meant the difference between just having a job and feeling like a valued team member.

"It's not just a case of them finding me work I can do, but I'm a valuable member of the team," he explains. "It has made me feel much better about myself and that I contribute something. You feel that people learn to respect you as you, not just as the blind chap in the office."

Useful contacts

  • Christine Goldsmith, BCS Disability Group: 01245-242950

  • AbilityNet: 0800-269545

  • Disability Rights Commission: 0845-7622633

  • This was last published in July 2000

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