Creating a supportive space for disability

Our Director of People + ESG, Rebekah Wallis, shares her personal story of building a successful career while caring for her disabled daughter, and why UK organisations need to wake up to disability inclusivity.

Image of Rebekah WallisI love my job. If you work with me, you’ll have heard me say: “I’m the luckiest person in the company”. I feel privileged to be able to spend my time making a difference, and I will never take my career for granted. 

You might think my career path has been linear and straightforward. But sometimes, it’s not always as it seems. It has been brilliant and diverse, but complex.

As a parent of a disabled child, navigating my career has been a different experience, but at every twist and turn, I’ve been lucky enough to have support at work and at home when I’ve needed it most. 

I know first-hand the importance of support, kindness and understanding in the workplace, so I’m delighted to announce our new Disability Affinity Group. A space for people with a disability and those affected by disability to come together and talk openly about the challenges, issues, and stigma that exist in our society. 

In the spirit of openness, I’d like to tell you a bit more about my daughter, Sarah. By sharing our story, I hope others feel empowered to speak openly about their experiences and access the support they need. 

Our story 

Sarah is 23. She is my eldest daughter. She presents with severe learning difficulties, which medical professionals call global development delay. She has low language use and only talks when she’s around adults she knows and trusts. She will never read and write and needs help with everything from preparing food to personal care. Sarah requires 24-hour support. 

It might sound clear-cut, but receiving a diagnosis was an arduous journey. It took until she was 9 for specialists to find any medical indicator of her disability, and even so, it wasn’t conclusive. Before then, I endured hours and hours of medical visits, phone calls and meetings with professionals, each with their own emotional rollercoaster. 

As a positive person, I was always more concerned with what my daughter could do, the little things she was gradually learning. But to ensure she got the support and benefits she needed, I was forced to focus on her limitations, which felt hard. With her younger brother and sister both learning and developing every day, it took time to come to terms with Sarah’s condition as she got older. 

These moments of emotion, realisation and strength define being a parent of a special needs child. Now she’s an adult, we know no different. My other two children are endlessly supportive, and Sarah is an adored member of our family. 

Managing work and caring for my daughter

I was fortunate at Ricoh to be able to work flexibly to support Sarah. It was the only way, as it was very difficult finding suitable childcare. 

At the time, to have someone in the most senior role in a division working part-time was ground-breaking for Ricoh and organisations across the UK. But, my manager, the CEO, wholeheartedly supported my request, and I returned to work three days a week.

Nowadays, I work 4 days a week, helping me balance my role with time I focus on my children, making me a happier, more relaxed mum. With this incredible support, I have continued to thrive and feel a dedication towards Ricoh beyond measure. 

I’m also able to organise the day-to-day complexities of Sarah’s life flexibly alongside work. In essence, being Sarah’s mum is like living two lives and working two jobs. She still needs the same one-to-one love, attention and care as she did at 5 years old, but as an adult, she now has a huge support system of carers, support workers and therapists who my family and I manage on a daily basis.

With our Disability Affinity Group in action and our flexible-first working policy, I hope more people at Ricoh affected by similar issues can seek the understanding they need. It makes sense for us to provide tailored support for people who need it, otherwise, we miss out on the talent, value and expertise they can bring to our organisation. But it’s not always easy to talk openly; I know this from my own experience. 

Disability inclusivity in the workplace 

Sadly, with Sarah’s challenges, she will never be able to work. But she has made our family even more aware of the unique perspective people with disabilities bring to our world. And as an HR leader, my experiences have made me even more passionate about supporting issues surrounding disability in the workplace. 

Disability is a vast spectrum. It can be physical, mental, intellectual or sensory. It can be visible or invisible. Some people choose to hide it out of fear of prejudice. Unfortunately, in many organisations, it is still widely misunderstood. 

There’s a myth in the business world that championing disability is expensive and overly complex. Yet a recent study found that while 90% of global businesses prioritise diversity and inclusivity, only 4% consider disability a key concern. It shouldn’t be this way.

Right now, there are 14.6 million disabled people in the UK. The employment rate of disabled people is 53%, compared to 82% of non-disabled people. Some people will have conditions that make work impossible, but others will be more than ‘fit for work’. They will be individuals with their own passions, strengths and unique capabilities ready to bring value to businesses.

By not providing opportunities to disabled people, organisations are missing out on untapped potential and, in my view, not doing right by society. 

Ricoh is a Disability Confident Employer

Ricoh has been recognised as a Disability Confident Employer, level 2 of the Disability Confident government scheme. As part of this pledge, we’ve committed to an action plan centred around recruiting and developing disabled people. 

We have taken steps to ensure our workplaces are accessible and work closely with our people to make the right adjustments when needed. Furthermore, we are putting energy into inclusion and opening up discussions to break down assumptions, barriers and beliefs amongst our wider workforce, who perhaps don’t understand the disability inclusivity issues as clearly. 

When it comes to disability inclusivity, lead with an open mind 

The key to greater awareness is listening and understanding. With Sarah, I’ve been on the receiving end of misplaced assumptions for as long as I can remember, whether it’s about her condition or our lives as a family. It’s rarely malicious, but often it comes from a place of never being touched by disability. Sometimes it’s not that people don’t want to understand; it’s just they haven’t needed to. 

In every context of life, we all have the opportunity to judge those around us. But to improve awareness of disability and privilege, we need to stop and lead with a willingness and an openness to learn.

Further articles from Rebekah Wallis:

How innovation can empower HR leaders to better support their people

Deliver mentoring that drives value for your business

*We have used a pseudonym in this article to protect the family’s privacy

Rebekah Wallis

Board Director - People & Corporate Responsibility and Ricoh UK

Read all articles by Rebekah Wallis