Charles Crawford: Are some disabilities just too expensive to be supported?

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When I heard that the FCO was sending a profoundly deaf first secretary to work in the embassy I did not believe it could work. Diplomacy turns on nuance – deaf officers surely would miss too much.

But Jane Cordell arrived in Warsaw and rose to the challenge. Before coming to Warsaw she had taken Polish language skills towards "operational" FCO standard. This stunned her Polish counterparts. It was hard enough for any Brit to learn Polish – how had a deaf person managed it?

As her posting developed I put to Jane a tough proposition. We did not want to exploit her disability to help promote UK and EU disability policies. But a trail-blazer makes a difference. She could make a unique impact. Jane boldly took on this further portfolio, to the point of speaking Polish on Polish TV and helping the Polish parliament to draft new disability legislation.

In short, Jane Cordell did a superb diplomatic job for UK plc in Warsaw. Her success came at a price: the salaries, accommodation, travel and other costs for security-cleared lip-speakers for a deaf diplomat added up impressively.

This case opens a painful question: are some disabilities just too expensive to be supported at the workplace?

People with disabilities are necessarily super-realistic about fairness and what works and what doesn't. Any organisation grappling with these tough issues should bring in the disabled colleagues concerned to help sort policies and procedures – and the way decisions are communicated.

Talk about irony: if the FCO does lose this case, it may well be because it did not listen.

Charles Crawford is former British ambassador to Warsaw

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