I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the need for allies and champions at work, and I think they will play an important role in the disability and mental health agendas for years to come. I can also see a need for health professionals, including therapists who work with organisations, to step in as allies for people with mental health issues or disabilities.
Allow me to meander a little, because I want to explain briefly about the different models of disability. Broadly, there are three models of disability – the medical model, the charity model and the social model. The medical model works on the premise that people with disabilities or mental health issues are ‘broken’ and we have to fix them – it focuses on what is wrong with the individual. The charity model concentrates on the need to ‘help’ people with disabilities or mental health issues – it focuses on the helplessness of people with disabilities. The social model is different – it suggests that the way society is organised is what disables people.
Now, if we look at how health professionals can use these models as part of being allies, you’ll see how the emphasis shifts from what someone can’t do because they are disabled, to what we can do to enable people. Under the social model of disability, we rethink how something is done to find a solution that enables someone with a disability or mental health issue. A good example would be, instead of giving a child a book to read when they have a vision impairment, we can provide an audio book, or if a person is a BSL user, we provide an interpreter.
This mindset changes the conversation about people with disabilities and mental health issues at work. We re-evaluate what’s possible when we consider how to adjust a role or workplace to support people with disabilities. And this is where allies and champions within the medical profession are needed. Rather than focusing on the disability or mental health issue that someone may have, we need to switch to what’s possible and help people better understand what they can do, rather than what they can’t.
If you’re wondering what on earth all this has to do with counselling within the workplace, there’s a connection. As a manager who has had colleagues working for me attend counselling sessions funded by the employer, the thing that I felt was missing was a connection back to me. Colleagues reported feeling that the sessions went well, and that they were getting support to focus on what they could do, or what they needed to enable them to do better – but that was the only way I got to understand what was going on. Managers don’t need a running commentary on what is, of course, a confidential session. But I do think it’s important that we find ways to let managers know how they might be able to help to make adaptations and changes that would make a difference.
That’s where allies or champions can help – by having a connection with the manager, I think health professionals would then get more opportunities to have conversations about what managers can do to enable their team members to be more effective. Not all managers want to talk to the people who work for them about their mental health, or about a disability, often for fear of getting it wrong – but I reckon they’d embrace talking to someone else, an ally or champion, who could be you – who had knowledge of what their team members are going through.
To find out more about how organisations are using allies and champions in the disability agenda, you can read The Purple Champions and Allies Leaders’ Guide, from PurpleSpace.
David Caldwell is a Digital Accessibility Manager at Barclays and a Founding Ambassador of PurpleSpace.
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