Here’s a story from a few years back. I have permission from the DEN member to tell it. Her name is Pam.
Pam works on a helpline in Liverpool. She has one leg and relies on Canadian crutches for mobility. The Department had organised for the construction of an accessible toilet to be built over an accessible parking spot. It solved a problem, for which staff with disability were grateful. But the accessible parking spot was not replaced; and exacerbated an existing problem with parking.
You Can’t Park Here
Pam says: At the time we had 3 designated car spaces. They built a toilet in the basement and took 1 of our disabled car spaces and did not replace them with suitable parking. There was not enough parking for staff with a disability. Because I started my shift in the afternoon it was usually me that missed out on parking.
Most times I had to park in the visitor car park (if parking was available) it was on a slope and was really small. This made it really difficult for me to get in and out of my car.
There was a lot more contractors and couriers coming and going and they had nowhere to park. The visitor car park was too small and it was difficult for them to unload their deliveries so many of them would park in designated disabled parking.
There was one courier that would arrive just before me and he always parked in the disabled parking. He continued to do this even though I had asked him many times not to do that.
The Need for Intervention
Pam had tried repeatedly to have the accessible parking spots reserved only for people who needed the accessibility feature. She was not successful and contacted me. I contacted the Executive Director for the helplines. She was very receptive to the matter and promptly arranged a meeting with Pam her colleagues with disability.
As Pam says: Claire came out and spoke to staff with disabilities. As a result we were allocated 2 suitable accessible parking spots and they started to monitor who was parking in them.
The fuller story is that Claire set up a meeting with the managers and directors from the helplines, property areas, and the building manager. I was invited to attend via phone
This is what happened. All contractors and suppliers were warned against parking in accessible parking spots as they entered the building’s garage. Any commercial relationship with the helplines would be at risk if they did not comply. New signs were placed at the accessible parking spots warning staff who did not require them that they would lose access to the parking station if they parked in them. A new accessible parking spot was made to replace the one lost to the accessible toilet. The meeting also realised there were a few other issues unrelated to disability it could address as well. It was a very productive meeting.
Problem solved. Pam and colleagues with disability could use the accessible spots without impediment from vehicles that should not be in them.
This is an example of what happens when careless and insensitive management meets great leadership:
- The senior leader listened to me and understood the situation was not okay.
- She promptly met with Pam and her colleagues to get the facts firsthand.
- She called a meeting of the key decision makers who then decided what had to be done, made it happen and ensured the decision stuck.
I don’t know what was said to the manager who did not understand that making this happen was their job. I am, however, confident that a conversation was had. That’s what a great leader would have done – and this was great leadership.
What Went Wrong
I want to reflect a bit on what went wrong; because this is commonplace, sadly.
Pause a moment and imagine the mindset of a manager who elects not to understand that an accessible parking spot is for people who need it because of their disability. There is a staff member with one leg and another who uses a walking frame – and still the idea that the parking spots designed for people with disabilities should be used by them doesn’t seem appealing.
Why, exactly, should a one-legged staff member have to seek assistance to obtain something that should be provided without hesitation? What was the manager who declined the request thinking? Clearly, they thought that it was okay to refuse to ensure that accessible parking spots were reserved for people who benefitted from the accessible features, and the proximity to the main entrance.
Either they did not know, or they believed they were free to choose not to comply with legal and policy requirements. Pam’s request did not trigger an inquiry by the manager about what, if any, latitude they had. It’s difficult not to assume they chose to believe they could ignore the request and continue to place staff at risk of injury.
In contrast, great leadership saw immediately what the right thing to do was – and made it happen. But it is what competent leadership should have done – and what Pam dealt with wasn’t even that.
It is a sorry day when a leader just doing their job with clarity and facility is celebrated as providing “great leadership”. But the truth is that it is rare to witness. It may happen more often behind the scenes, but it should open (subject to confidentiality requirements), so staff can have confidence it is going on.
It so stands out above the insensitivity and inertia of poor management and leadership it should be highlighted and cheered – especially if you are a staff member with disability whose work experience is improved by it.
There is an unhappy footnote to this story. The accessible toilet was used by staff who had no need of its accessibility features, forcing those who do to wait, often for an extended time (time flies when you are sitting in a cubicle with a mobile phone). Requests to have the accessible toilet reserved for those who need it were ignored.
Pam says: There were also issues with trying to access the disabled toilet. There was only one disabled toilet on the floor and many times able bodied staff would use the toilet while people with disabilities had to wait outside.
Not only were her requests ignored; she got into strife with her manager when she asked her colleagues not to use the accessible toilet. Pam has shown me notes and emails, and it is astonishing that such a level of insensitivity can be shown by managers.
Disabilities can impact bowel and bladder control, and the need to access a toilet can be sudden and reasonably urgent. People with disability who need the features of an accessible toilet tend to understand this. This risk of an accessible toilet being less available to those who need it, when they need it, is exacerbated by the popularity of people taking their mobile phones with them. It is not uncommon for a ‘sit down’ to take 20 minutes, sometimes more.
But this matter wasn’t raised at the time the parking issue was addressed. As good as great leadership is, it can do nothing if a matter is not drawn to their attention.
The toilet issue persisted well after the parking was addressed. The situation was, and is, in need of great leadership.
I sent my draft to Pam for checking. She said I could quote her response in full. Here it is:
I think it’s great and expresses the way I feel about living in a society that only seems to see the disability and ignores the person.
Many companies acknowledge that the person has a disability but they don’t want to do anything to assist in “providing a level playing field”
They like to “mouth off” about how wonderful they are and they have policies but never follow them.
Training staff and policies mean nothing if they are not implemented. I always say that it’s not only knowledge’s that is power. It’s the application of knowledge that counts.