I began working at First Ark Group in 2014 as a governance administrative assistant, and three years ago my life changed completely. I went from going into hospital for surgery on my left eye for an inflammatory tumour, to taking a year off for more surgery. And then later my vision deteriorated completely.
For me to flourish in my role I needed many adaptations in the office to accommodate my impairment, not least adjusting to the fact I had a new partner in crime – my guide dog, George. He accompanies me to meetings and guides me to the kitchen to make drinks, and I take him for a walk every lunchtime.
I waited a year to pick him up and we began our partnership by both going on an intensive three-week course. His training was specifically adapted so that he could behave appropriately in an office environment. Working with our health and safety team, we installed a dog bed and water station in a suitable location, so he has a designated space and doesn’t disturb other staff.
My colleagues had my back from the word go, offering me emotional support, making me hot drinks and even taking George for a stroll in icy or snowy weather. They know that because of my visual impairment I find it tricky to cope in an office environment; for example, pouring boiling water is really dangerous for me and I often feel unsure on my feet when walking George at lunchtime.
The toughest challenge following my loss of sight has definitely been digital. I suddenly struggled with not being able to complete work as quickly as before and having to re-read emails. Finding the right equipment to help me back into my role was key.
My office space was adapted to accommodate my sight. Following advice from Access to Work, a government programme aimed at supporting disabled people to take up or remain in work, my employer was happy to fund the new technology and tools I needed to aid me in my role as a business support assistant. Software was installed on my computer that magnifies all text and has a talk-back feature, so that I can hear what I’m reading and typing. My computer also has a darker background, as I find it difficult to read on white screens, and my keyboard is non-reflective, with a black frame and yellow keys.
My employer is a social impact business that provides life-changing opportunities for its customers and inspires the communities it works in. Being an inclusive organisation and generating social value is at the core of everything we do. After speaking to friends and family about the core values and purpose of their workplaces, I know many companies could learn a lot from us and should replicate our model.
An encouraging employer is essential, and a person’s condition should not be a barrier to excelling in a role. Yes, adaptations may have to be made, but if an organisation invests in you and you receive support from government programmes like Access to Work, you’re more likely to commit to them in the long term.
Equality is key, and the housing sector has always been known for its inclusivity, which reflects our customers and the wider society. Different life experiences mean many of us can relate to a range of stakeholders.
Helen Brady is a business support assistant at First Ark Group