Disability Discrimination in the Workplace
Cheryl discusses her experiences of discrimination in the workplace.
Content Warning: This post includes descriptions of depression, suicide, stillbirth and workplace discrimination.
Cheryl is a woman with multiple disabilities who has worked in the private and not-for-profit sectors for over thirty years, including eighteen years in the disability advocacy space. A mother of two daughters, she wants women to feel empowered to speak up in the workplace, to have their voice heard, and for women to know that they have the right to speak up against bullying and discrimination in the workplace. Cheryl worked in an office full-time until six years ago when she asked for workplace adjustments and started working from home two days a week. In 2018, she made the decision to give up full-time work for family and health reasons and is now an independent contractor who works from home full-time. This has given Cheryl the flexibility to be able to continue working, as well as helping her achieve a better work-life balance.
I have three invisible disabilities, and another two chronic illnesses which mean that I need workplace adjustments to be able to work.
However, for almost 20 years, I didn’t disclose my disabilities to my employer as I experienced appalling disability discrimination in the workplace early on in my career. This discrimination took away any confidence I had to disclose my disabilities or ask for help at work.
I have Major Depressive Disorder and Bipolar Disorder, which impact my moods. Having Bipolar Disorder can be very disruptive and makes it difficult to function in day-to-day life as I can experience extreme highs and extreme lows. When I experience extreme highs, I have increased energy, high self-esteem, a reduced need for sleep, and I can stay up all night and get a lot of work completed. However, when I experience the extreme lows, I become very depressed, lose interest in everything, and have difficulty concentrating, feel worthless, hear voices telling me that I’m useless, and often I can’t get out of bed for days or even weeks.
Around 20 years ago, I went through a major depressive episode after suffering several miscarriages and then losing our daughter Emily during birth. Following my daughter’s funeral, I tried to take my own life and was hospitalised. When I returned to work a month after that, I was advised that because I was “unreliable”, my responsibilities had been transferred to someone else, my hours reduced, and that, basically, I had been demoted. It didn’t matter that I had worked there for five years without incident, that I had been promoted twice and they had been happy with my work before I needed a month off work. All that mattered was that I was now seen as “unreliable” and “mentally unstable”.
At the time, I just accepted what happened and considered myself lucky to still have a job at all. At the time (and many times after this), it has taken everything that I have just to survive my depression, and to not give up completely.
About two years after losing our daughter Emily, I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia which causes severe pain, problems with memory & concentration (fibro fog), problems sleeping, and extreme fatigue. I casually mentioned to my employer that my doctor suspected that I had Fibromyalgia to see how he would respond. He advised me that if I did have Fibromyalgia, I wouldn’t be able to keep working there as he needed someone who could physically set up meeting rooms (moving tables/chairs etc.) walk to the shops and post office, and pick up catering for meetings. So, out of fear of losing my job, I kept quiet and pretended that I wasn’t in any pain – I kept doing everything at work that was expected of me, even though it caused me immense pain.
For the next fifteen years, I kept my invisible disabilities hidden from everyone. I was too scared to tell another employer that I had a chronic illness or disability which would prevent me from doing some things at work. I had little tricks to help me manage at work such as ordering disposable plates/cups for meetings as I couldn’t stand at the sink to wash the dishes, and ordering catering to be delivered so I didn’t have to walk to the shops and carry it back.
There are a lot of very small adjustments that can help people with disabilities and chronic illnesses in the workplace, and these workplace adjustments, no matter how small they are, can have an enormous impact on people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. I would like to see more employers take the initiative to learn about how they can make their workplace accessible and inclusive for employees with disability, as often these changes are quite minor.
However, I’ve learnt over the past six years that asking for workplace adjustments and even getting them approved, doesn’t always protect you from workplace discrimination or workplace bullies.
Over the years, I’ve accepted a lot of mistreatment at work, but what I’ve learnt is that if you have a disability, you are often seen as “less than”, and if you’re a woman with disability, they will bully you into keeping quiet or paint you as being “crazy”.
Sadly, I’ve had several colleagues and bosses turn a blind eye to how I have been treated. They didn’t speak up for me, they didn’t want to get involved, and they certainly didn’t do anything to stop the bullying.
It’s been quite a journey over the past 20 years, from learning that my mental illness is a disability, to standing up for my rights as a person with disability in the workplace. I’ve learnt that women with disability can make great leaders. To me, leadership is speaking up and ensuring that our voice is heard, that our rights and the rights of other women with disabilities in the workplace are upheld, and that our workplace issues are taken seriously when we raise them. Too often, we are talked over, disregarded, or told that we are over-reacting when we raise an issue at work. It’s important that we do not back down out of fear. It is incredibly difficult not to back down when you’re scared of losing your job, but what I’ve learnt over the past 20 years is that staying in a job where you are mistreated, ignored, or excluded. will wear you down and it will have a devastating impact on your life.
I still cry when I tell some of the stories that happened to me over the years, and some of them are now over 20 years old, and I often wonder if I would have healed better if I spoke up at the time and said that the way I was being treated was inappropriate, and walked away from a toxic workplace.
I now work from home full-time as an independent contractor, which gives me much greater flexibility, and helps me to be able to continue working.
If this post has brought up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or chat to someone online (external link).
If you are affected by a miscarriage, stillbirth or the death of a baby, you can contact SANDS for support on 1300 072 637.
Note: This story was originally written and published on WWDA's Leadership Blog.