On the face of it, organisations are getting better at facilitating “flexible working”. Inevitably, some are moving faster and more innovatively than others.
Some of those others have yet to acknowledge that flexible working is an employment right that has been enshrined in UK legislation since 2014 rather than a reward for productivity. Nevertheless, you’d struggle to find an office-based organisation that hasn’t realised that flexible working is something they need to be thinking about.
So far so things-are-improving. That said, it’s a very limited definition of “flexibility” that is incorporated into most flexible working policies. What it usually means is a policy to allow employees to work outside the office. Which is important for those who benefit from it, including disabled people with energy limiting chronic illnesses (ELCI*), like me, who are well enough to work part-time but cannot physically spend all of that time in an office.
Fran Halsall on the consequences of a late diagnosis and living with multiple chronic conditions.
Humans do not cope well with uncertainty, yet I am forced to confront it every day. People like me, with multiple diagnoses, can find that each new one brings not only clarity but also an extra layer of complexity that can be hard to live with.
When trying to explain my medical situation there are six diseases/disorders to choose from. Yet I often talk about multiple sclerosis first, despite the fact that on any given day it might be the least of my problems. There are reasons for this: people have heard of MS and it is taken seriously. It is an easy shorthand for establishing why my life has not turned out as originally planned.
1. As you say, the meaning we attach to the term “chronic illness” in this project does not reference medical definitions but considers chronic illness as a social identity. Does that make it invalid?
2. And in my struggle to develop a more precise language, such as “energy-limiting chronic illness” or “stamina impairment”, am I creating unnecessary divisions and excluding people who share a common cause, especially people with chronic pain conditions? Why can’t we simply unite under the umbrella of disabled people and fight our common oppression, you might ask?
Victoria Clutton highlights the barriers to work faced by the chronically ill.
In May, I started my first ever job which I found through a wonderful charity called Astriid. My job is five hours a week, working from home, with no set hours and amazingly supportive co-workers – the holy grail of employment opportunities for the chronically ill. Even so, it’s been a huge adjustment and ongoing struggle. A few years ago I was declared fit for work despite protestations by my doctor and two other medical specialists. The experience was a year of ludicrous horror before I eventually relapsed badly enough for it to be worth re-applying for benefits. These contrasting experiences have caused me to reflect on the changes that are necessary to allow more chronically ill people to work.
Leonora Gunn discusses society’s role in improving the lives of the chronically ill.
The big idea of the social model is to distinguish between ‘impairment’ and ‘disability’: ‘impairment’ is someone’s condition, ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis, or ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’) in my case, whereas ‘disability’ describes the way that impaired people are oppressed and excluded from society on top of their impairments. This challenges the assumption that disabled people need to be ‘fixed’ or changed to fit in to society, and suggests that society needs to be changed to include everyone.
This might seem like a funny thing for someone like me, with a chronic illness, to believe. Surely illnesses, like ME, need ‘fixing’? And how can it be society’s fault that I am ill?
Joyce Fox examines society’s differing reactions to disability and chronic illness.
Disabled activist, Stella Young recently wrote: ‘The social model tells us that we are far more disabled by inaccessible environments and hostile attitudes than we are by our physicality. My disability comes not from the fact that I’m unable to walk but from the presence of stairs.’
How true is this of people who are chronically ill? Accessibility is rarely the issue – we often have little energy to go out at all.
Patricia de Wolfe is tired of saying ‘sorry’ on account of her energy-limiting illness.
I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.
Sorry I can’t make it to your birthday party, your family gathering, your funeral. Sorry, no, I can’t come over for tea on Friday. Why? No, I’m not doing anything else. But I’m going out for lunch the Tuesday before. Yes, I know that gives me Wednesday and Thursday to recover but Friday would still be pushing it. And tea is a bit late in the day for me. Yes, I am sure. Perhaps we could meet next week? Yes, I know I cancelled last time. Yes, of course I understand you’re very busy… Sorry.
I want to stop apologising. I want to stop explaining. For me, inclusion would mean, at the very least, living in a society in which it is generally accepted that some people are ill. Chronically. Perhaps permanently. And in which we are not regarded as freaks, or hypochondriacs, or scroungers, or, for that matter, just “poor things”, but as people valiantly trying to cobble together something that feels like a life in the teeth of gargantuan obstacles.
Fionn critiques the benefits system’s failure to support chronically ill, self-employed people
I’m exactly the same as anyone else who’s gathered up a lifetime of training and experience. I have a lot of skills. People come to me for advice. They offer me work. They offer me money to do that work.
And I can do the work, but it makes me ill. I don’t mind; I’ve always been ill, and I love my work. I just have to stop every now and again till I get better, then I can do some more.
Now that I’m older, those pauses have got longer. I might work for five months and have to stop for another four. The trouble is that when the income stops, the bills don’t. I live alone, so I have to claim benefits.
Wheelchair Vista on the lasting effects of being doubted.
Many of us with long term conditions struggle to accept that we can no longer live life as we used to. It took me almost ten years.
I carried on working for longer than I should. A resident at the care home I managed said; “It’s doing you no good keeping on working. Why don’t you reduce your hours or stop altogether?” She saw that I could not stand for long without leaning against a wall. Staff noticed that I always relied on the lift and was often in urgent need of the loo.
When I had time off work for minor surgery it had to be extended due to massive bruising sustained in a car crash. This was soon followed by investigations for IBS and a referral for knee surgery, which culminated in my employment contract being ended.
Catherine Hale considers how half a lifetime of chronic illness has changed her understanding of the term ‘disabled’.
I’ve been sick for nearly 30 years. That’s the whole of my adult life. I always thought of myself as ‘disabled’ in the sense of being very incapacitated. During my bedbound phase I couldn’t wash, feed myself, go to the toilet or write my own name; nor could I read, watch TV or have a conversation.
But I never thought of myself as ‘disabled’ in the political sense used by the disabled people’s movement. That is, I never thought the disadvantages I suffered in not having a job, a career, or a social life were due to an infringement of my rights. It didn’t make sense to blame my profound isolation on other people or organisations excluding me unnecessarily or treating me unfairly.