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Diversity and inclusion case study: Katherine Toomey

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Katherine Toomey

I joined the Civil Service as part of the Summer Diversity Internship Programme (SDIP) in 2017. Prior to joining, I was expecting the programme to simply provide me with an insight into life as a Civil Service Fast Streamer and give me something constructive to do during the summer. However, it became clear very quickly that the programme would provide me with opportunities for personal development as well. I have been disabled for 20 years, and for much of that time the internal relationship between me and my disability has not been a particularly happy one. In spite of this, within a couple of days of starting the placement, I realised something that felt very different to anywhere else I had spent time at – it occurred to me that no one seemed to notice my disability.

Initially, I was so keen to be treated as ‘normally’ as possible that I tried to hide elements of my needs that I thought would single me out, and as a result I almost missed some great opportunities. Once it became clear that the unusually accepting attitude shown to me – not just by my unit or even my department, but by most of the Civil Service – was embedded within their culture, it became easier and easier to admit what I needed in place to make things work.

What I found most striking was just how easy it was to get the additional requirements I needed to carry out my work. Previously, I have waited long periods of time and had to consistently struggle to even get close to what I needed – but this was not the case here. Whether it was training me up on the specialist IT software I need to be able to read and write, or sorting out the logistics for my assistant to come with me to the away day, everything was done quickly, efficiently and with very little fuss.

“…the Civil Service is a pretty unusual place, where people appreciate me for the brain cells I have that do work rather than those that don’t.”

It’s actually pretty ironic; everyone who vaguely knows me knows that I absolutely hate the social model of disability (i.e. the idea that disability is caused by society, not your impairment), but it really does feel as if I leave my disability outside the office. It’s the only place I’ve been defined by just being me rather than my disability. It is surprising how quickly I have become accustomed to it. I’m now having to remind myself that the Civil Service is a pretty unusual place, where people appreciate me for the brain cells I have that do work rather than those that don’t, when the rest of the world sees my chair before they see me.

The work was the easiest part for me – well, at least easier than trying to accept that people actually meant it when they told me I had done well, or liked my ideas, rather than just saying that because they didn’t want to upset ‘the disabled girl’. The placement gave me a brilliant opportunity to test the boundaries of my independence in ways I probably wouldn’t have attempted otherwise. It has demonstrated that I can pass for a self-sufficient person – with help from total strangers to hold doors open or from colleagues who are willing to share their meeting notes. There have been times that I have tried things and it hasn’t worked, or they have presented too much of a risk to me, but the limits are much more infrequent and therefore easier to accept.

As weeks rolled by with lots of work alongside mini personal achievements, the more I didn’t want the experience to end and the keener I became to do this full time.

In conclusion, the programme I had originally applied for because I didn’t want to have nothing to do all summer became a light at the end of a very long tunnel. With that came an internal shift, where I have begun to accept that some things may always be limited by my circumstances, but that does not mean everything is.

Additionally, I have seen that the world I grew up in – one that portrayed disability rights activist, wheelchair athlete or ‘on benefits’ as my only career options – is no more. People who see your working brain cells before your disability will generally help you reach your potential; and people who view you the other way round are not worth your time.

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