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Deaf accountant challenges workplace mindsets

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 30 Nov 2023

For profoundly deaf accountant and disability awareness trainer Sarah Petherbridge, workplace adjustments are easy wins. But as International Day of Persons with Disabilities on 3 December highlights, changing mindsets to be more inclusive is a work in progress.

The Chancellor’s plan – outlined in this month’s Autumn Statement – to introduce sanctions for those who are long-term unemployed and economically inactive due to disability has been strongly criticised by disability rights campaigners for demonstrating a disconnect between the government and the lived experiences of disabled people. 

Sarah Petherbridge is a former senior tax manager at EY. “The attitude of the government was shocking because it made us feel that we were the problem. I find it upsetting because it demonises disabled people and labels them as work-shy. But we’re not the problem – the environment with its many barriers is the problem,” she says. 

At a time when the business benefits of diversity and inclusion are well-documented, and the importance of authenticity and being able to bring your whole self to work is the latest corporate mantra doing the rounds, disability awareness remains very much a work in progress, Petherbridge says.

Born profoundly deaf in rural Devon at a time when learning sign language wasn’t encouraged, Petherbridge says she learned to speak through intensive speech therapy. The laborious process resulted in delays to her speech development. “When I was very young, my Mum says I had lots of tantrums due to the frustration of not being able to communicate. It was a difficult time.” 

Petherbridge progressed through the mainstream education system and graduated from university before entering the accountancy profession, most recently at EY as a senior manager specialising in tax. While there, she helped to set up Ability EY, a network for employees with disabilities and long-term health conditions. At that time – around eight years ago now – diversity and inclusion was an emerging concept, she says, and very much focused on gender and race. 

“Back then, disability awareness wasn’t something people really talked about. Disability was way down the list of people’s priorities. Our objective was to challenge peoples’ assumptions and mindsets so they would stop looking at what we couldn’t do because of our disabilities and instead focus on our strengths and abilities first. We wanted people with disabilities to feel included and supported.”

Establishing the network wasn’t without its challenges. Bearing in mind that many long-term health issues and disabilities may be hidden, even just gauging the potential scale of the disabled population at EY at the start was problematic – not helped by the stigma that prevents people from holding their hands up. “Some people didn’t want to open up and admit they had a disability,” she says. 

And yet the need for support should not be underestimated, Petherbridge warns. “It can be really difficult working in a massive corporation with a disability. We wanted to give the opportunity for people to speak to others in a similar situation and share their stories.”

International disability day

The COVID-19 pandemic marked a turning point for disability awareness, Petherbridge believes, as the harsher realities of home working shone a light on the challenges facing certain marginalised groups. “When you’re working at home, your differences are much more pronounced so people became much more aware of the difficulties facing those with disabilities. I work best face-to-face because I lipread and pick up on body language. For me personally, having to do so many video calls and online group meetings all day every day while lipreading completely and utterly broke me,” she says. 

Black Lives Matter added further impetus to the need to address D&I. “Businesses realised they had to do better at creating more inclusive workplaces. Since then, there’s been a marked culture shift and a growing appetite for disability awareness, Petherbridge says. But while accessibility and workplace adjustments are easy wins, helping people to be allies and changing mindsets and behaviours to be more inclusive is a harder nut to crack.

Petherbridge left EY in April 2021 to set up as a freelance disability awareness trainer and public speaker on disability and inclusion. “My training is about understanding the barriers that disabled people face every day. For example, I can’t travel with ease because I can’t always hear what’s being said during public announcements. And there’s also the lack of communication towards people with disabilities because people don’t know how to communicate with us or are uncomfortable around us.”

Ingrained assumptions and stereotypes prevail due to lack of awareness, Petherbridge says. “For example, some people may think that everybody in the deaf community signs as a way of communicating, but that’s not the case. Appreciate the barriers that we face every day and then you can be our ally and help us remove some of those barriers and be more thoughtful and more inclusive.” 

Progress is being made, albeit small steps. The passing of the British Sign Language (BSL) Act last year formally acknowledged BSL as a language for the first time. The major milestone recognises the legal right to access public services such as health and education using sign language. “Accessibility in terms of adjustments is very much improving, but as for attitudes, we’ve still got some way to go.”

She continues: “Some people can feel uncomfortable around those with disabilities and that’s harder to change. Some employers may think disability is a burden or too difficult to accommodate. Unconscious bias can still exist. People may still focus on the perceived negative aspects of disability. What they don’t see are the workforce benefits: it brings in different perspectives and that allows you to be more creative and innovative in your output.” 

Those organisations genuinely looking to embrace inclusivity but neglecting disability awareness are missing a trick, she says. “It is also a chicken and egg situation. You’re not going to get people to open up unless you create a safe space for people to say, ‘I can be my authentic self. I feel like I belong here and it’s safe for me to disclose my disability and ask for help.’”

Useful resources 

  • The Business Disability Forum is a business membership organisation in disability inclusion working in partnership with business, government and disabled people to remove barriers to inclusion.
  • PurpleSpace is a networking and professional development hub for disabled employees, network and resource group leaders and allies set up by Kate Nash OBE. Nash is the author of Positively Purple, a practical guide to help drive purposeful internal change for and by people with disabilities.

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