Our Visit to No. 10 Downing Street for a Disability Confident Roundtable
A note from Chief Sender of Hugs, Faye:
On 22nd November last year Laura, Hug Outreach Assistant, and I were asked to attend a roundtable discussion at No. 10 Downing Street about what being a Disability Confident organisation means to us. Since BearHugs began, I've been really fortunate to experience some amazing things. You would think that getting to go to 10 Downing Street would count as a highlight, but for me, the real special moment was getting to hear Laura talk about herself and her role with BearHugs. I’m really passionate about offering and advocating for inclusive employment opportunities. I’m proud to say that, as a team, we're proving that inclusion can work well for everyone involved. I know we have a lot to learn (and I'm 100% committed to improving wherever we can) but knowing that we've even made steps in the right direction is the most incredible thing. I’m so proud to have Laura as a member of staff and really hope that BearHugs can continue to improve and develop to offer more opportunities to people as wonderful as Laura in the future. Laura spoke brilliantly on the day and there’s no-one better to tell you all about it than her.
Over to Laura….
Have you ever had one of those ‘pinch yourself’ moments, where you ask ‘Did that really happen?’ - well Faye (our lovely Chief Sender of Hugs) and I experienced just that, after attending a meeting at 10 Downing Street last November!
Just ten days before, we received an invitation to participate at a round table discussion surrounding accessible employment; an area in which Faye is truly passionate about. The meeting was to mark two years of the Department for Work and Pensions’ ‘Disability Confident’ scheme successfully running, with 10,000 company sign ups (BearHugs being one of them!). The meeting intended to hear from a selection of companies who have thrived in the area of supporting employees with a disability or chronic illness.
As an employee of BearHugs with a chronic illness (ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), I was asked to share how Faye has supported me to feel comfortable and confident in communicating how we can support my health and work to the best of my ability. I was determined to highlight how much Faye, and the rest of our team, have enabled me to be open and honest about how my chronic illness affects me, whilst still feeling completely valued as a team member.
I knew that I wanted to get across how, as soon as I had begun the application process, BearHugs presented an ethos for open and honest communication, in which, as time went on, this had become even more apparent; from team meetings sharing how we could support each other most effectively, to the option for ‘catch up cuppas’ whenever I needed them. Reflecting upon this, I realised how much my confidence had grown in terms of open communication and how far I had come from being a former perfectionist who shy-ed away from support from others. It also made me consider that I was perhaps now in the minority of those employed with a chronic illness that could be so open about their health at work.
Fast forward to the big day (and after several messages between myself and Faye trying to decide what we were going to wear!) ...
Faye and I met outside the famous Downing Street gates and had quite possibly the biggest, most excitable hug, due to it being our first time meeting in person! We were then guided through the entrance, having shown our invitations and passports, to then go through airport style security. The walk up to the iconic black door was quite surreal and a moment I’m sure neither Faye or I will ever forget. A mixture of excitement and nerves, we were greeted at the door (unfortunately not by Larry the resident cat!) and taken through the entrance hall and corridor. We were both surprised at how cosy such a grand place could feel, which put us at ease. My favourite part of the building was the shiny, black and white chequered entrance floor, which reminded me of dancing and the dance scenes from Love Actually, which gave us a giggle!
We made our way to a small foyer where other companies, part of the ‘Disability Confident’ scheme, were enjoying a cup of tea. Faye and I enjoyed speaking with the loveliest lady, called Beth, who was an employee of Sainsburys with a hearing impairment, before heading into the cabinet room where the meeting was to take place. A huge oval tabled greeted us with warm chitter chatter from other companies, such as Barclays, Channel 4, Microsoft, BT, KPMG, a smaller company called Transparity and… us! I was so proud to represent BearHugs and small companies, and did a little squeal (in my head!) when I saw our names and roles on place cards.
Although we were expecting Theresa May to be at the meeting, unfortunately she was unable to attend (perhaps a busy Brexit day!). The meeting was chaired by Sarah Newton (the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work), who introduced the ‘Disability Confident’ scheme and the aims of the meeting, before passing over to the first speaker … me! I had requested to go first to make sure I had enough energy to speak, before taking in what was to be a lot of information for me. I was a little nervous, but not as much as I had expected, as I just wanted to go for it and show how incredible BearHugs are. I spoke about what accessibility means for me in terms of flexible, remote work, BearHugs’ ethos and Faye’s professional yet friendly manner (she is the loveliest!). Faye’s speech was fantastic and really got across the importance of accessible employment and how she supports myself and the rest of our team; I felt beaming with pride for her.
Other employees then spoke about what accessibility means for them and how their employers support them through any barriers they may face. There were a range of needs highlighted, such as Autism, visual impairments and deafness, and it was inspiring to hear how everyone’s ability was focused upon whilst still considering ways in which to support them best. An example that stood out to me, was the positive impact technology had had to an employee with Dyslexia (i.e different reading/text modes and text to speech options), which also gave myself and Faye more ideas about technology I could use going forwards.
As the meeting drew to an end, I really felt that what had been shared could make a difference to the future efficiency of the ‘Disability Confident’ scheme, if policy is to be consistently put into practice. The discussion highlighted just how valuable every person is to their company, no matter their disability or illness. It was quite emotional reflecting upon this, after having been out of employment for several years, as BearHugs has had such a positive impact upon my life; especially feeling like I have more purpose to my week rather than focusing solely on when I am going to recover from my illness. To think, just a year previous to the meeting, I had been still applying for a role at BearHugs, made me feel extremely proud of myself and so grateful to Faye.
We were fortunate to be able to have our photo taken outside Number 10, which I now have printed in my little office space to remind me of the brilliant experience! Our only wish would have been to have the rest of our lovely team there, but we are so looking forward to having a meet up in the summer (hugs all round!).
Thank you once again to Faye for the incredible opportunity of attending the meeting and continuing to support me as an employee and (now!) friend.