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“Rebecca won’t progress in this company due to her eyesight.”

Imagine how you’d feel if you came out of your appraisal, knowing it had gone well, only to later read that about yourself.

Of course, Rebecca (Becky), who has a sight impairment, wasn’t meant to read the comment


“That was my first job, long before I started working for the NHS, but it wasn’t an isolated incident, she says. I wouldn’t wish my experiences on any other person.


The bullying and discrimination Becky faced was both subtle and blatant.


“It was just one thing after another,” she remembers. She had to push for reasonable adjustments, which are a legal requirement, and her manager claimed she was doing her a favour by eventually agreeing to make small changes


Colleagues mocked her disability, referring to her as “Clarence the cross-eyed lion”, hiding documents and reinstalling light bulbs, removed specifically to help her work comfortably, when she was on leave.


“It was a sad period in my working life, but the behaviours I faced led me to a career in the NHS which has since rebuilt my confidence and faith in people,” Becky says.

Their actions were abysmal but more fool them. They could have had an employee who would have driven forward work and empowered staff to do the best job they could for the organisation. Instead, they drove her out through ignorance and unkindness
RCN Diversity and Equalities Co-ordinator Wendy Irwin speaking about Becky’s former employers and colleagues

Onwards and upwards  

These shocking experiences also made Becky determined to ensure that others don’t suffer in the way she did.

Now co-chair of the disability network in her trust, she’s also one of a team working on a standalone reasonable adjustment policy and the introduction of a purple passport in her workplace. This will allow individuals to record details about their disability or health condition.

“The work we’re doing is very practical,” she explains. “We’re looking at filmed case studies on reasonable adjustments and online toolkits to help all staff.”   

Hidden disabilities are included too, addressing issues some colleagues may find it hard to talk about. She has also set up and facilitates a disability work family peer support group and, this month, a disability network away day for disabled employees and senior staff is taking place.  

Rebecca Fell at work

Contrasting experiences  

For Becky, the contrast between her former and current employer couldn’t be starker. “The trust is listening and taking action to build a disability platform fit for the future. When I look back on what I experienced it was horrific. But it gave me the impetus to speak out.”  

It did take time and courage to speak out and get to this point though.  

“When I got here and first started working as a health care assistant in 2019, I wouldn’t say boo to a goose,” she remembers. “I wanted to blend in, but I knew I needed some adjustments. I now wear a wipeable cap, I use a stopwatch on my mobile phone rather than a traditional watch, and I work in darker corners.”  

Becky also uses different software and has a larger screen and a different chair to ensure the pain and headaches she was experiencing are mitigated.   

“These small adjustments make a huge difference to me and allow me to work on an equal basis with my colleagues,” she explains.

Career advancement 

It’s a testament to Becky’s determination and never-give-up attitude that she had her first promotion at the age of 50 and now works as an associate health care support worker development educator. 

“I’d never been able to show what I’m made of and what I can do. Now managers have given me the freedom to make the role my own and I’ve been told I’m exceeding expectations,” she says. 

stopwatch on a mobile phone

Above: A reasonable adjustment - Becky uses her mobile phone as a stopwatch in the workplace

“Reasonable adjustments provide a level playing field for a person with needs. Using them appropriately can give someone the ability to ensure they can do their job as well as anyone else. Asking for these adjustments doesn't make you a lesser person. It gives you a chance to flourish.”  

And it’s important to persevere if you come across resistance to your request for adjustments, Becky says.   

“Check what the policy says and keep a written record of what you’ve done to illustrate any delays you’ve faced. This might be a useful document for others to learn from in the future too. But always keep going. Reasonable adjustments are a legal requirement which employers must abide to.”  

Asking for these adjustments doesn't make you a lesser person. It’s gives you a chance to flourish

Now Becky has an employer and colleagues who value her and her work, her life and career has been transformed.  

“I feel rebuilt as a person. It’s cemented in my brain that I am worthwhile. I am as good as anyone else. I no longer feel I need to validate myself,” she says. “I’m working for an employer that values their employees regardless of their differences.” 

What are reasonable adjustments?

Employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to make sure workers with disabilities are not substantially disadvantaged. Employers are responsible for paying for any reasonable adjustments. 

Who can you talk to about getting these adjustments? 

  • The RCN – get in touch with your rep or RCN Direct
  • Your inclusion and diversity team.
  • A disability network.
  • Freedom to speak out guardians in a trust. 

Nursing support worker development

In her role as an associate health care support worker development educator, Becky’s addressing the challenge of retaining nursing support workers who could otherwise lose interest and leave workplaces if they’re not getting the right career development opportunities. 

Rebecca Fell delivering a training session

“A lot of people leave because they are not being challenged,” she says. 

“Everyone wins if we look after nursing support workers. Patients get the best care while staff are kept engaged and working in an environment they know they can thrive in.” 

Top tips for career development

  • Think about what you want to learn about and agree to take that knowledge back to your department to share it with colleagues if you get development. 
  • Ask to shadow staff who work in areas you’re interested in.  
  • Network as you get to know unfamiliar staff during development opportunities. 
  • Bring up development in your career conversations. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. 
  • Remember that leadership isn’t just for senior managers, it’s needed at all levels.  
  • Don’t give up if you can’t get on a specific course, be creative and consider other ways to get the development you need. 
  • Make best use of all available funding.

Words by Sharon Palfrey. Photography by Steve Baker.

Further information

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