Leona Atkins, a software developer at the Met Office, reports back from her first TUC disability conference
I work as a software developer for the Met Office in Exeter, I am the equal opportunities rep on the branch council and I have a severe sight impairment.
This wasn’t just my first disability conference, it was my first conference of any kind, so I didn’t know what to expect when I put my nomination forward last year.
All of the documents I needed were sent electronically, which was great as I could have the speech reader read it to me. The number of documents was a little overwhelming and I hoped I wouldn’t have to hold all of this in my memory!
When I arrived in London I dashed to New Prospect House for the pre-conference meeting. I was nervous as I didn’t know anyone but I need not have worried, as everyone was very welcoming.
We went through the agenda discussing who was going to talk on the motions. I was nervous about speaking so I volunteered to write up the report instead.
After the meeting, a group of us had dinner together and this was a great opportunity to get to know each other more and for me to find out how all this works.
Dr Mary Bousted opened the conference with a talk on inequality in the education system. This was then followed by each of the motions (14 on day one) with proposers, seconders and those wishing to speak on each motion. A wide range of topics – from Brexit to education to assistance dogs – were covered.
Prospect proposed a motion on improving support for disabled workers. We also seconded three motions on: supporting the social model of disability; more support for disabled people seeking, or in, work and how to build mentally healthy workplaces.
I wasn’t prepared for how emotional it would be to hear stories of people’s daily struggles and how they ring true for me. It’s so personal it can be overwhelming
I was full of admiration for those who got up on stage to speak – especially those doing it for the first time. It was lovely to see the huge support they received.
The committee proposed two emergency motions. The first asked the TUC to make Congress House, its London headquarters, fully accessible. I was shocked to learn of the problems faced by delegates using the venue and I would have thought that the number one prerequisite for a disability conference would be an accessible venue.
The motion calling for assistance dogs, such as guide dogs, to be classed as working dogs was interesting. Charities have to pay VAT on food and vets’ bills, when this money could be better spent.
Greyhounds are classed as working dogs and they make money for the gambling trade. Why should they be exempt from VAT and yet assistance dogs who actually change peoples' lives have to pay it?
Paul Nowak, TUC deputy general secretary, opened the second day by outlining the TUC’s three priories for the coming year: the general election; defending disabled people’s rights and raising awareness of mental health issues.
The next group of motions were all related to mental health, which was followed by an informal session on supporting workers experiencing mental ill health with the Professional Footballers Association and the National Union of Teachers. I found this session particularly difficult and upsetting.
The way the education system treats staff who have had a mental illness seems draconian. I know this from my partner’s experiences. Employers’ lack of support and compassion can't be allowed to remain unchallenged.
The last motion dealt with driver-only operated trains and what a disaster this would be for disabled people using the system. Questions covered included: who will operate the ramps and who will provide help or assistance during a journey? I know I rely on the great service the guards provide, we must keep up the pressure to keep them.
The conference ended with the ballot to decide which motion should go forward to TUC Congress in September. Delegates voted for the motion about making Congress House more accessible and/or finding a more accessible venue.
I have learnt a lot from his conference with a few leads I would like to follow up and some ideas I would like to see implemented in my workplace if possible.
Lessons for next time!
If I am nominated to take part next year, I would: get a spare laptop battery; take ear plugs to get a good night’s sleep; try to become more emotionally resistant and maybe pluck up the courage to speak!
I felt very fortunate to have been chosen to attend this conference and I feel I have made some friends along the way. I have made some good friends and contacts in Prospect union and am grateful for being given this opportunity.
What we discussed and agreed
All the motions that were debated were all carried unanimously. They are listed here with the actions for the TUC’s disabled workers’ committee.
Disabled people, Brexit and the age of bigotry
- to minimise the impact of Brexit on disabled people
- for freedom of movement for personal assistants and carers from EU countries to work in the UK
- for investment in skills and training for personal assistants and carers.
Disabled women and domestic abuse
- pressure government to hold to its commitment to ratify the Istanbul Convention and ensure disabled women's voices are at the forefront of the campaign; highlight the devastating impact of cuts to social security and domestic violence funding are having on disabled women's lives.
Access to work is impossible without the social model of disability and supporting the social model
- disseminate the TUC’s manifesto and encourage unions to use it in all campaigns
- collect evidence from affiliates on the impact of changes to Access to Work; campaign with disabled people’s organisations to change the ‘scroungers’ narrative and support the social model of disability; all unions to campaign for employers to do more than the minimum on disability inclusion in employment.
Separating disability-related absence from sickness absence protects disabled workers
- register with government disabled workers’ abhorrence toward this draconian eradication of TUC best practice
- lobby government to demand application of TUC guidance, ie guarantees for disability-related absence to be counted separately from sickness absence
- consider the feasibility of a strategy and campaign for disability leave to become a requirement under law.
Supporting disabled members to access apprenticeships
- focus on developing awareness among employers to challenge negative or inaccurate perceptions of disabled members
- address the accessibility of apprenticeships for disabled members within the government’s new scheme.
More support for disabled people seeking or in work and improving support for disabled workers
- campaign to improve policy and support available for disabled people seeking employment and for those managing disability around work
- produce and promote a summary of key negotiating points for workplace representatives
- survey unions to build a broader picture of any changes to employment provisions directly affecting disabled workers
- update the TUC’s guidance on mental health, and
- identify and share examples of good practice.
Department for Work and Pensions, office closures
- raise awareness and support throughout the trade union, disabled and equality movements around the disproportionate impact on disabled people and campaign across the wider TUC to oppose these closures
- encourage local trades councils to support campaigns against the closures, provide visible support at public meetings, help distribute materials and use contacts to lobby local politicians
- work with PCS to ensure that regular briefings and fact sheets are available via the TUC website; invite PCS speakers to TUC regional meetings. Use all TUC/DWC sponsored events to highlight the impact of DWP office closures and other attacks on public services for disabled people and other service users throughout the UK.
- consider including workforce diversity in the funding conditions set by the Arts Council
- conduct research to discover why the figures for disabled employees are so low and help non-profit organisations to meet diversity workforce targets based on the findings.
Parity for self-employed workers
- support the protection of all workers’ rights when they cannot work and campaign for an equivalent to statutory sick pay for self-employed workers in order to create greater parity between employed and self-employed workers.
Guide dogs and assistance dogs are working dogs
- campaign for equality for the owners of guide dogs and other assistance dogs
- lobby the government for a change in legislation to reclassify guide dogs and other assistance dogs as "working dogs" for tax purposes ensuring a VAT exemption on food and veterinary care for these dogs.
Building a mentally healthy workplace
- seek to embed good practices and supportive cultures by creating a one-stop-shop which includes case studies, examples of reasonable adjustments and training materials to raise awareness of mental health issues
- work with partners to develop information campaigns on key topics around health and work
- establish supportive networks around health and work.
Health and well-being of staff
- emphasise the economic benefit to the employer of investing time and money in employee rehabilitation and preventative action
- resource union reps to challenge employers to properly risk assess and reduce stress and over-work
- ask employers to sign up to the “Mindful Employer” charter demonstrating a proactive approach to support good metal health in the workplace.
- consult affiliates to ascertain what practical and positive support can be given and to share best practice
- raise awareness at every possible opportunity
- encourage a greater understanding of mental health issues within the trade union movement thereby ensuring that they are recognised just like any other illness.
Young workers and mental health
- encourage unions to make use of the TUC guide in raising awareness of the issues for young workers and to hold at least one activity around the issue in Young Workers Month (November) this year.
- explore and promote the Mental Health First Aid concept among unions affiliated to the TUC.
Improving access to mental health services
- intensify efforts to support workers suffering from mental illness. This should include a vigorous campaign to increase levels of public funding for mental health services, and the provision of detailed and up-to-date guidance for union reps and members on how to access those services.
Hidden disability rights
- prioritise campaigning and bargaining policies that defend disabled workers’ rights and
- campaign to raise awareness and remove the stigma associated with ‘hidden’ disabilities.
Driver-only operated train service
- support safe and accessible train transport.
Accessibility of venue for disabled workers conference
- ask Congress to agree to instruct the General Council to organise improvements to make Congress House fully accessible
- hold the TUC disabled workers’ conference in an alternative accessible venue until Congress House is bought up to standard.
- campaign and lobby the UK government to lift the suspension and give preferential treatment to disabled refugees and live up to its promises to leave no disabled child behind.