Using my experiences to break down barriers
Sarah Stephenson-Hunter is a totally blind woman with a trans history. She’s also the University’s Staff Disability Advisor, working to support and advocate for disabled staff across the University
To mark World Disability History Month, we catch up with Sarah about the services Oxford offers disabled colleagues, the recent Workplace Adjustments Plan pilot she’s launched and her work at Oxford and beyond.
Please tell us about yourself and your background Sarah – how did you get to where you are?
I have worked in higher education for around 20 years. I initially sort of fell into this work through my experiences as a disabled student. I decided to use those experiences to benefit others and ended up working in university student disability support for 15 years.
When the Staff Disability Advisor role came up at Oxford, I applied. I feel that disabled students generally have a good level of support. It can always be better of course, but most universities have disabled student services as well as recognised funding streams and support for students.
Very few universities have support specifically for staff members. For example, the University has a Disability Advisory Service for disabled students. The team is under a lot of pressure and has a huge caseload. However, the team has several members – and I am a team of one, which does surprise people at times.
What does your role as Staff Disability Advisor entail?
Primarily, my role is twofold. There is the individual case management, where I work with individual disabled staff to make sure they get the support they need. I have confidential discussions with them about issues they might be having, and I give them advice on internal and external support, as well as ways to fund support if needed. I also work with line managers of disabled colleagues to answer specific questions or concerns around how to implement support and adjustments.
Secondly, there’s a strategic policy element. Working with disabled staff, I pick up emerging trends and issues that I’m then able to feed through to the wider University EDI strategies. I also use this information to make sure that policies and procedures take into account the needs of disabled staff. Additionally, I try to support the divisions and departments by providing them with insight that they can use to shape the disability support work they do at a local level.
Can you explain what the Disabled Staff Network is and what it provides?
It is a peer networking group for disabled staff to share their ideas and experiences, both positive and negative. It’s very much a space for camaraderie and encouragement. And by ‘disabled’, I mean people who identify as disabled; a medical diagnosis is not a requirement of the group.
I also use the network to share relevant University and community events, and I regularly get in touch with members about research projects where the perspective of disabled staff is sought.
Can you tell us about the new Workplace Adjustments Plan pilot scheme?
If you’re disabled, you may have had a discussion with your manager about adjustments and support when you first joined. When you change roles, or your manager changes, you’ll inevitably need to go through the whole process of explaining your needs and negotiating adjustments again. The Workplace Adjustments Plan addresses this by putting in place a record that details what your needs and adjustments are, which you can then take with you if you move teams.
Not only does the plan provide consistency, it aims to provide a framework for discussions about workplace adjustments. Disabled staff have reported to me that they often feel anxious or uncertain about how to broach this subject with managers. And managers often feel quite anxious about how to talk to someone about their disability and what language they should use to shape the discussion.
The pilot is running across eight volunteer departments and we’re looking to see if it meets the needs of both disabled staff and managers. If successful, we aim to roll it out University-wide by the end of this academic year, if not earlier.
A new Wellbeing Strategy has recently launched – how does the strategy impact your work?
Staff wellbeing has always been an incredibly important issue, but the pandemic has brought it into sharp focus. I’m a part of the Wellbeing Programme Board and the Wellbeing Strategy Group. I’ve also been involved in the Wellbeing Programme team since its inception.
My involvement has very much been in continuing to emphasise that when we talk about wellbeing, there are two pitfalls we find ourselves in. First, we tend to think of wellbeing as being shorthand for mental health – and obviously mental health is part of wellbeing, but it’s just one part. Wellbeing is physical health, mental health, emotional health and all sorts of other aspects of health.
And secondly, when we talk about wellbeing, if we're not careful, it becomes about things like yoga sessions, healthy eating and meditation. All of these are vital tools, but they’re mostly there for the benefit of those who are generally well but might be having a dip in their wellbeing.
What it doesn’t always take account of is wellbeing for people who have underlying mental health conditions, disabilities or physical health issues who are never going to be ‘well’ in the terms we usually think of. However, their wellbeing can still be impacted by issues at work and issues at home. And so I’ve been trying to feed in that point.
How does your work extend beyond the University? Is there anything you do outside of work that you’d like to share with people?
I realised that I am in a privileged position working at Oxford and doing the job I do. There are lots of disabled people who haven’t been able to find employment that want to.
For example, I am totally blind – and the unemployment rate of blind people who are qualified and could work has been stuck at around 75% ever since I’ve been in work. So I’ve made the decision to use my experiences as a disabled person within the LGBTQ+ community to break down barriers for disabled and LGBTQ+ people.
I often talk at events and sit on panels; I’ve also created my own podcast, the Simply Equality podcast, where I seek to foreground the lived experiences of people who are both disabled and LGBTQ+. I ask my guests to share their experiences and to talk about what we could learn from each other in the different communities.
How can people across the University help you do your job? Is there anything that people often don’t realise you can help them with?
In terms of the things that I can help with – I think staff don’t always realise that I am here as a confidential sounding board. If you’re not sure about something and you don’t want to speak to your manager or go to your HR Business Partner, you can come to me for advice or information.
It is confidential; nothing will go on your HR record. I can advise you on support that’s available and things that you could perhaps do differently, or point you to resources.
In terms of what people can do to help me in my work, I think it’s really a matter of changing your mindset and viewpoint. If you’re a manager, think about the fact that you may think a certain way and you may be lucky enough to have good health, but recognise that not everyone is the same as you.
You might be working with someone that has a hidden disability that you may never know about. We all think and work differently – embrace the difference and don’t view it as a challenge. Broaden your understanding and engage in some work around disability awareness. Go to events and help break down barriers.