Podium: Don't hold back the disabled

From a paper to a British Psychological Society conference by a Loughborough University researcher
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The Independent Culture
ALTHOUGH SOCIETY is increasingly adapting itself to the needs of people with physical differences, it is still, very much, geared to non-disabled people. Furthermore, disabled people still tend to be perceived as low achievers, which could explain the high rate of underemployment among this minority group.

However, the prejudice of negative expectations that society holds of disabled people may, in itself, be an incentive to strive towards career success. The interpersonal competition of trying to gain the approval of others or of avoiding social segregation has been argued to be a significant cause of motivation. Furthermore, career striving represents a major means of obtaining self-esteem.

This research addresses the issue of what success means to 14 professional males who have physical disabilities, the causal attributions to each individual's career success and whether there are any significant differences between people with congenital disabilities and people with acquired disabilities. A further focus is on how the concept of success was defined to the participants when they were children.

For the purposes of this study, an individual's career is deemed to be "successful" if his or her occupational status is professional.

The sample was initially identified via well established disability organisations, registered charities, media channels and networks in different regions of the country. Potential participants were selected on the basis of the following principles: they are employed in a high-status profession with a significant degree of authority, autonomy or power to make judgements; they have reached personally desirable positions of power, wealth or prestige in their professions; and they have a congenital or acquired physical disability that influences their mobility, dexterity or speech (typical disabilities include cerebral palsy, paraplegia and thalidomide).

The research findings suggest that, for these disabled professionals, the notion of success is construed primarily in terms of internal criteria which cannot be measured objectively. Six of the 14 men responded along the lines of "success, for me, is being happy in what I'm doing", or "achieving some kind of personal satisfaction".

However, while internal criteria were an exceedingly important part of all the individuals' conceptions of career success, external criteria such as career progression and material wealth were identified as significant components of career success for half of the disabled high-flyers.

Those who included external criteria in their definition of career success tended to have been nurtured within a middle-class environment during childhood. Thus social class background proved to be a significant factor in determining the notions of success held by participants with acquired and congenital disabilities.

Although the family was universally important in terms of providing the participants with love and support, the findings indicate that expectations of children with congenital disabilities from working-class backgrounds tended to be low.

They were conceptualised in terms of a medical model of disability, which positions disabled people as passive objects of intervention, treatment and rehabilitation, incapable of pursuing an autonomous independent lifestyle. Although disabled children from middle-class backgrounds were not exempt from this, disability may have been overridden by middle-class values of hard work and the need to do well.

Another major determinant was education, which was generally seen as an essential prerequisite to career success. In the words of one participant: "It is an essential grounding in making the mind flexible, it has been invaluable."

The research showed that participants with acquired disabilities believed becoming disabled to be a determining factor of their career success. In some instances the acquisition of a disability caused the individual to reorientate their career path.

Although social class background is as influential to a disabled child's career progression as it is to that of non-disabled individuals, the disabled minority are still at a disadvantage.

Employers should not assume that disabled people are a homogeneous group, with a single set of drives and desires related to their career. However, they should be aware that the skills a disabled person has to achieve to ascertain equality and acceptance are thought to be beneficial to employment. People with disabilities are good at solving problems, as they encounter one nearly every day of their lives.

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