After being assaulted in 1998, Dean Harding’s life was turned upside down. Years of rehabilitation followed to help him cope with his traumatic brain injury. But the world of work seemed a place he would never return to, believing that he “wasn’t capable”.

However, the birth of his son 17 years later changed his whole outlook on life.

“I didn’t want him growing up thinking, ‘why isn’t my dad working?’,” remembers Dean.

“Most people work, or they’re supposed to. It gives me a sense of feeling like a ‘normal’ person, although I’ve still got my disabilities.”

Dean was given a job as a peer support worker with Headway London; helping other people whose lives had been affected by brain injury.

The fact he was now in employment also enabled the purchase of his first house. For Dean, providing for his family in this way, and overcoming his own personal battles, were huge achievements.

“Because of the disabilities, it’s portrayed that you’re useless, you can’t do anything. I don’t know if he was trying to kickstart me into doing something, but my neurologist said I would never have a meaningful job. To me I’ve now got a meaningful life, so I sort of blew him out of the water,” he says.

Emilie Cole, (pictured above, to the left) an employment specialist with Irwin Mitchell, says the ability of someone with a brain injury to secure a job which also takes into account their needs and requirements, is a huge boost.

“The psychological element is probably more important than anything else, that sense of being purposeful, productive and contributing towards society,” she says.

Dean agrees. “I feel more normal. I feel like a member of society. So I can join in conversations where people are talking about work. I just used to sit there and I couldn’t get involved in the conversation because I didn’t work. And now I can get involved.”

Through her role as an occupational therapist, Mandy Richmond works with many people with disabilities to encourage them to return to some form of vocation.  

“I think the best is if there’s a fit between the individual with a disability and the work itself.

“So to me, if there’s a right fit, the psychological benefits would be amazing. If there’s the wrong fit however, if the hours are too long, if their start time is too early, that person with a disability can actually feel under pressure.”

Emilie believes being honest with a potential employer from the first dealings with them is an important place to start.

“I always advise clients to be open and honest and disclose their disability from the outset, then you can talk about what reasonable adjustments you need to support you in the interview and application processes, because legally under the Equality Act you’re covered as an applicant. 

“So not just once you’ve got the job, but also if there were things that need to happen in the interview and with the way the application form is set up to make it easier for you to have a successful potential application, then you should communicate that. And luckily most employers seem to be quite good at that initial stage, in my experience.”  

Once a person with a disability has secured employment, their employer, through the Equality Act, has a duty to make reasonable adjustments to support them in the workplace, to remove any substantial disadvantage they face.    

Emilie says: “Often it’s essentially an objective decision. What tends to happen is that occupational health will be involved, medical professionals will be involved, but it will unfortunately come down to the employer to look at what those adjustments are and whether they can reasonably action them in terms of the workplace.

For example, things like a staged return, later start time, earlier finish, breaks, all of that. That should be reasonable in any workplace, quite frankly. The difficulty is sometimes the mismatch between an employer understanding or taking on their responsibilities under the Equality Act and actually doing them to the benefit of that individual.

“Legally once an employer is on notice of your disability, then they have to make reasonable adjustments. But in real life, employers actually expect you to tell them what you need. So if you put it in writing and make it very clear to them what changes need to be made, they’re going to then look really bad if, in six months’ time, they haven’t made those changes.

“And unfortunately that’s where I will frequently come in and try and persuade them as best I can, and often we are able to do that. Sadly in some circumstances we can’t, and that’s where we end up going to the Employment Tribunal.”  

Dean can understand such a situation from his own personal experience.

“From a brain injury perspective, you don’t want to be told you can’t do something. There are many people who have just come out of hospital. They don’t realise the impact of what their brain injury is going to have on them but they want to go back to work full time,” he says.

“They just want to go back to the life they had before, because they can’t come to terms with their new life, that changed forever in 30 seconds, and they’re not willing to accept.

“They can end up in a vicious cycle where the mental health deteriorates, then it has an impact on their family life, and the family life then becomes fragile and broken.”

Mandy agrees. “The individual has to be aware of their own limitations before they can put themselves into that workplace environment. But you get lots of people with post injury who are desperate to get back to work.  

“Very often [brain injured] people I work with have their accident and immediately want to return to work and will actually do that, [but then] cannot cope.”  

Emilie says: “We do have this culture now where a lot of jobs are very stressful, very demanding, and if you can’t cut it, it’s ‘if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen’. I think a lot needs to be done to educate people that actually with someone with a disability, you need to work with and support them in doing that job and not just sort of discard them.”

Mandy adds: “Over the course of my career, of about 25 years, there has been a very positive shift in the UK, towards having a greater understanding of people with disability. I wonder if that also came through from the Paralympic sports and the growth within that industry and people’s attention drawn to that. Although things are not perfect, it’s certainly moving in the right direction.”

For Dean, his life was completely transformed through securing employment, and particularly in such a rewarding role.

“The role I’ve got as a peer support worker as part of the casework team, was made for me. I love it. I go into hospitals and support the families and the person, when they’re tearful I can give them hope. They think, ‘oh, so there is light at the end of the tunnel’. It took me years to get where I got, 17 years to get a job. So never say never.”

Dean, Emilie and Mandy’s discussion was part of a podcast series from Irwin Mitchell. Let’s Talk About It, podcasts for people living with disability – https://www.irwinmitchell.com/letstalkaboutit