When pharmacists with a disability told the Pharmacists’ Defence Association (PDA) they were having problems with suitable adjustments in their workplace, a campaign was launched to raise awareness of what employers need to consider. Liz Larkin reviews the issues.

When members of the PDA’s Ability Network named their campaign against disability discrimination, ‘Standing Up for Sitting Down’, this quite literally described the challenge experienced by some of our members, who have struggled to persuade their employer to provide a chair to do their work or were vilified for having one.

‘I was called a “lazy cow” by the dispenser for sitting to check prescriptions’, said one of our members. Another said: ‘I needed to sit down and check as my feet hurt a lot. But the manager would not allow this and took the chair away’.

Pharmacists with disabilities or long-term health conditions are talented, skilled individuals who want to do their job well. Being healthcare professionals, the same level of care we provide to patients should also be afforded to pharmacy staff.

That is why at the PDA we have launched our campaign: ‘It’s time to address discrimination: Standing Up for Sitting Down’.

This campaign is wider than ensuring people who need a chair have one, and encompasses all physical and mental health conditions, neurodiversity and impairments.

Regardless of their condition, employers have a legal responsibility to provide reasonable adjustments and take reasonable steps to protect employees from discrimination. Yet in a recent survey by the PDA, we found that 52% of respondents said that they had experienced disability discrimination at work, and 68% respondents said that their employer had not or only partially provided reasonable adjustments to accommodate the respondent’s disability.

This is why the PDA is leading an initiative that encourages members to assert their rights to ask for reasonable adjustments, calling on employers to make appropriate reasonable adjustments which are reviewed regularly, and working together to create a compassionate culture of dignity where there is zero tolerance to discrimination.

This would make a real difference to the disabled workforce, 40% of whom, in our recent survey, reported that they felt that they had been excluded from the workforce, underemployed or unemployed due to their disability.

We know that some members have good experiences of employers who not only make appropriate adjustments, but also have supportive colleagues.

This can make such a difference: with one person telling us: ‘I am very fortunate at work as my colleagues are always helpful to me. Particularly with opening heavy doors and running errands.’

However, the level of casework we see shows that there are too many employers who are yet to take their legal responsibilities seriously and only with PDA support have some members received the adjustments they need.

One member who faced sudden, irreversible hearing loss as a student said, ‘The PDA have been central in supporting me through the early stages of my career and still are a big element of my journey today as a pharmacist with a hearing impairment. I would truly recommend turning to them for any advice and support.’

These examples of good practice should not be the exception but should be the norm, where acknowledging difference creates an inclusive workforce, which enhances the working culture and reflects the patients we work for. Disabled pharmacists can show a greater empathy to patients because they themselves know what it is to be a patient or to have health or mobility challenges.

We support a social model of disability -- what makes someone disabled is not their medical condition but the attitudes and structures of society. In the workplace, it is the employers’ response that makes them disabled. By having the right policies put into practice, training, knowledge of reasonable adjustments and implementation of appropriate adjustments, all pharmacists should be enabled to do their job in an inclusive workplace without disadvantage, fear of discrimination or barriers preventing them.

By having a zero tolerance to discrimination and promoting a social model of disability, this will create the inclusive culture required.

The PDA’s call for change was summarised by one member, who said: I have considered leaving the profession due to reluctance and hostility arising from needing to sit down in the workplace. Despite this being a legal right, I am not hopeful that I will always be granted this accommodation and so can envisage a time when I will ultimately have to leave as in practice this depends on an employer’s goodwill.

A chair is a simple and inexpensive adjustment yet can be the deciding factor for whether pharmacists with a wide range of different disabilities are able to stay in the profession.

‘There is no legitimate or rational reason to limit the talent pool in this way. As disability is by far the most underrepresented protected characteristic, profession-wide change is needed to support and retain disabled pharmacists.

Liz Larkin is PDA organiser and co-ordinator of the PDA Ability Network.

Find out more information about the campaign and how to join the PDA’s Ability Network.