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2nd October 2020

Identity and ability - one of the founders of Construct-Ability tells us about his career in construction

The biggest challenge I wrestle with almost every day is my Identity.  How do I see myself; how do I project myself and how am I being seen?  We all know we don't live in a binary world and that we are complex and multifaceted individuals.  So why do I struggle so much with identifying as being disabled?

I started in the construction supply chain in 2005 when Travis Perkins bought Wickes and I started commuting to Northampton on a weekly basis.  I already knew I had a rare form of Muscular Dystrophy, although outwardly was showing no signs at the time.  My condition is progressive, but the loss of muscle function didn't really impact me until I was in my early thirties.  I was married with our first child well on the way before I got the diagnosis and it was another five years before I started to be impaired by my weakness. 

I had a dream job at Travis Perkins, checking up on suppliers across the world as well as guiding the business towards better environmental outcomes.  Moreover, I had some great bosses and mentors during my time with the company.  Not every work challenge that came my way was welcome, but I was always empowered to tackle it, change it and make things right by the environment and people around me.

In about 2010, I started walking like John Wayne, I'd hitch my thumbs in my belt or trouser top and swing my hips - it was an awkward gait but I could still get around and even when I tripped and fell over, I could still get up again.  My colleagues and my boss took their cue from me and nothing was ever said.  When a good friend at work resigned because of their poor health and told me that he didn't want to lose the respect and influence he had by staying past his best, I doubled my resolve to keep control of my career by saying nothing to anyone.  It took another friend to help me out.  As the Groups Fleet Manager, he banned me from driving because I was no longer safe.  I had to ask my boss for help.  Three years later, I was in a powered wheelchair having had no significant time away from work and still feeling like I was making a substantial contribution. 

There were lots of differences in the situations of my friend and I, most important of all were our bosses.  Mine found the balance between support and allowing me to stay in control, my identity was never taken away from me and I worked at Travis Perkins for another two years and I continue to work full-time with the confidence to set up and run my own sustainability consultancy business.  I’m not sure others are as lucky as me.

Therefore, I know from experience what it takes to start a conversation. I’ve also seen what happens if that safe and supportive environment is not created.  That's why I decided to get involved with Construct-Ability, where we talk about normalising talking about disability.  I want to see an inclusive industry that values the skills individuals have to offer, rather than managing their disability.  I recognise we are some way from this but believe there are many people working in construction, making fantastic contributions and identifying, at least to themselves, that they have a disability.  Imagine how much better it would be if these people could trust enough that their impairment could be talked about normally.