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‘Disability is not inability’

Author, journalist and amputee Ella Dove explains the importance of representation – in the workplace and beyond.

A few months after my amputation, I was in the supermarket with my Mum. It was the early stages after receiving my first prosthetic leg, and I was walking with crutches. Wobbly and anxious, I was wearing long trousers to ward off unwanted attention. We had almost finished filling our trolley when we bumped into the mother of someone I used to go to school with. I hadn’t seen her for years.

‘Ella,’ she said brightly. ‘You’re limping! Have you had an accident?’

Err, you could say that. When I explained I’d had an amputation, the poor woman was ashen.

‘Oh,’ she stuttered. ‘Oh, gosh. Well, I think you’re very brave.’

Many amputees, or indeed those with other disabilities, will have faced similar conversations. The fact is, very often, the awareness is such that people don’t know what to say when faced with disability. From a young age, children are taught by well-meaning parents, ‘don’t stare, darling,’ but lessons such as this only serve to create an unconscious shrinking away, a lack of understanding that those children may well carry with them into adulthood.

There are 14.1 million disabled people in the UK – and yet only 19% of working age adults are disabled. Disabled people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people. The reason? In my view, this is because the traditional workplace is not geared towards our needs. There are accessibility reasons, of course, but also day to day considerations that many employers may not take into account, such as the need for flexibility to attend medical appointments. Amputation, for instance, is not as simple as getting a prosthetic leg and striding into the distance. There are constant prosthetist appointments, physiotherapy, hospital check ups… I could go on. I feel very fortunate that I work for a company who allowed me this flexibility and understanding. Others are not so lucky.

Of course, the workplace – and the world - is changing. With the pandemic has come a new acknowledgement that working from home can be both productive and effective for many companies, and this is certainly a plus point for the disabled community. Flexibility for inclusivity, I believe, is key, as is an individual approach. Don’t treat disabled people like box ticking. If you don’t know something, don’t assume as an employer what that person wants or needs. With tact and sensitivity, ask them how you can help.

Here’s the thing: disability does not mean inability. We all have our talents, our strengths and passions. Last year, my debut novel, Five Steps To Happy, was published. The main character, Heidi, is a below knee amputee, who has the same accident as me – falling over on a canal path while running. I wanted to write a book with an amputee at its heart; to explore the real emotions associated with limb loss, the pain and the fear as well as the triumph and pride at taking those first tentative, shaky steps towards the future.

This book, I felt, was my contribution to visibility of amputees. There is so much about the amputee journey that remains a mystery to those who are not or have not met an amputee. I wanted to show what it’s like, from someone who has been there, to challenge perceptions and ultimately offer a sense of hope for anyone feeling stuck, lost or struggling to overcome hurdles in their own life.

There is a phrase often cited when it comes to diversity in all forms: ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.’ Never has this been truer than now. Disabled people want to be seen for what we can do, not what we can’t. In order to feel capable of achieving our goals and dreams, we need to feel included and accepted. This is why representation is so important.

Ella’s first novel, Five Steps To Happy, is out now.

Find Ella on Instagram and Twitter: @ellarosedove

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