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The real value of the Calibre Programme

Since it first began in 2012 at Imperial College London, the Calibre Programme has proved to be a huge success for hundreds of disabled employees in, both, higher education and the NHS. And it is still growing too.

Shaking the hand of a man as she received her certificate
Another successful participant receives her Calibre certificate

So far, Calibre has been hosted by five universities, while employees from another 10 institutions have attended the programme as well. The first NHS Trust to host Calibre was the North East London Foundation Trust in 2014. Since then many other NHS staff have taken the opportunity to attend the programme too. Overall, more than 200 people have receive their certificates after attending the programme, and this figure is increasing all the time.

This years Imperial College Calibre has reached its halfway stage, while another successful group of NHS participants have just completed their 2020 programme at the North East London Foundation Trust. Next up will be the University of Nottingham programme, which begins in March. It will be the university’s fourth year as a host. Finally, at this very moment, I am just beginning the planning for a London-wide Calibre programme that will be hosted by Brunel University from mid June this year.

What is Calibre and why has it been so successful?

The 20 years I spent in academia taught me two things. First, that universities do not know how to cater for the ways disabled staff work. Second, that disabled staff are not only victims of this lack of skill but are actors as well and, as such, have a responsibility to help their employers fix the problems they face.

From these two lessons has come this revolutionary programme that is transforming the lives of many disabled staff.

Can you say more?

Most employers struggle to manage disabled staff in ways that will provide them with the opportunity to perform equally to their peers. They end up wasting significant amounts of energy attempting to force disabled staff to work in ways that are actually impossible for them to do. As you can imagine, this is never a pleasant experience for anyone involved. I can remember watching my colleagues progress and succeed as academics while I was left stuck with my competence regularly questioned and my career stifled. Yet, it still took a while for me to come to the conclusion that my academic career was over. However, unlike many other disabled staff, I was able to reinvent myself as an equalities consultant in 2002 and build a new career. Had I been properly supported as an academic, things could have been very different.

What a lot of disabled staff fail to realise is that they actually have a very strong voice. They know far more than anyone else about the barriers they face and, importantly, they know how to fix them. Instead, by oblivious to this, many are forced to rely upon overworked and poorly trained managers to address their barriers for them. Not only is it in their interest to use their knowledge to suggest solutions to the problems they face, it is also in the interests of their employers as well.

There is another benefit as well. The barriers disabled staff face are actually shared by everyone in the workplace, as well. Removing them for disabled staff will, therefore, benefit everyone. In addition, this would help the institution meet its Equality Duties and become more Disability Confident. All of this can only make the workplace a better place for everyone to work in.

This can only happen if disabled staff understand the power they have to affect change and to create a better environment for all.

Calibre participant describing her plan for a more accessible working space
A plan for change

Removing disabling barriers benefits everyone.

The first lesson that all Calibre participants learn is that they no longer have to apologise for who they are. Not only does Calibre shows] them that are key to the successful removal of barriers, it teaches them how to negotiate this in inclusive ways. Not just for themselves, but for everyone else as well. This is at the heart of the Calibre philosophy.

A well designed and accessible office, electronic doors, accessible toilets, an enlightened flexible working policy, a non-punitive sickness policy; all these benefit disabled staff the most. They also benefit everyone else, too. And this is something we should not forget when thinking about disability in the workplace.

The Social Model of disability relevant or not?

Despite the ambiguity around this concept, Calibre is Informed by the Social Model of Disability to help disabled staff change the narrative about disability. I do agree with Professor Tom Shakespeare when he argues that the Social Model on its own is a rather blunt instrument, at best, to use to describe the experience of disabled people. Nevertheless, for Calibre, it helps disabled staff challenge the problem-focussed approach to disability in workplace, where people are seen as the problem and not their barriers. It provides disabled staff with a narrative that places them at the heart of the solution to the situations they find themselves in.

This is not to minimise the impact of an impairment on anyone. Indeed, at times it is very hard to distinguish clearly between the impact of an impairment, and the impact of social barriers. Nor does Calibre aspire to a barrier free utopia. Instead, its purpose is simple. To remove the sense of shame and victimisation that disabled staff labour under and help them to become the agents of change to ensure that everyone has a better environment in which to work.

After all, the only thing disabled staff want is the chance to contribute equally, and that is what Calibre is for, to give them the chance.

Join the Programme

If you think you or your staff would benefit from attending the Calibre Programme please feel free to contact me.

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