Dr Julie McElroy sounds like an ideal candidate for many jobs, and the kind of person with the right attributes to achieve in the world of business.
But there’s an extra element to the Jordanhill, Glasgow resident’s CV that she believes is hindering her – and thousands like her – from getting ahead. “I think there’s a taboo around disability,” she says. “There’s a lot of lip service where employers think they know what to do and how to do it, but they don’t really.”
McElroy, who has mild cerebral palsy and is profoundly deaf, has a wealth of personal evidence to stack up her claim.
“When I left university, I thought my PhD meant I would get a job quite easily, but never really got anywhere,” she explains. “I probably applied for 300 jobs in 18 months. In many cases I didn’t even get an interview.”
Of course, finding the right job with the right employer is a challenge for every single one of us. But despite employers’ claims of inclusion policies and increasing disability awareness, people with physical disabilities still lag woefully behind the able-bodied in the workplace.
The numbers seem to speak volumes. According to statistics from the Scottish Government, the proportion of able-bodied people in work stands at 81.2 per cent, compared to a total of 45.4 per cent for people with some kind of disability.
Charity Inclusion Scotland – which has campaigned on the need to close the employment gap between disabled and non-disabled workers – puts the number of disabled people of working age in Scotland at 3.5 million.
Its We Can Work project includes Scottish Government-funded internship opportunities for disabled people to provide valuable paid work experience, while it also provides resources for employers aimed at helping them make their workplaces more inclusive.
However, the yawning gap between the able-bodied in work and their disabled counterparts suggests to McElroy that there is a competent, talented and enthusiastic potential workforce out there which is just not getting a break.
And she warns that even those with an entrepreneurial streak who want to take seize e-commerce opportunities to run their own business from home, can find themselves battling for support and guidance to make a brilliant idea a reality.
“A few years ago, I had an idea for a business around fitness and people with disability,” McElroy recalls. “I remember pointing out that I needed a hand with a business plan, but there was no-one who could help me do it – I discovered I had to teach myself.
“I found there’s just not a big enough network of people who can support this specialist pool that I’m a part of, and I think the government should do more.”
As an example, she points to the Scottish Government’s initiative to inspire innovation and entrepreneurship. “The Scotland Can Do Action Framework, to get Scotland to become more innovative and entrepreneurial, has just one line in it that talks about people with disability.
“Current enterprise services could be more inclusive for people with disabilities. It requires a systematic change of culture, organisation and mindset of enterprise agencies to deliver and embrace.
“Now is the time to set clearly that physical impediment should not be in any form an inhibitor to being a part of Scotland’s journey towards becoming a world-leading entrepreneurial and innovative nation.”
The obstacles – many of which she regards as minor – that prevent the nation’s disabled workforce achieving their full potential, is hugely frustrating for a force of nature such as McElroy.
Determined that her disabilities should not stand in her way, she has accomplished a remarkable list of achievements that leave others weak at the thought.
Encouraged by her parents to pursue mainstream activities and keen to take part in the kinds of experiences as her twin sister Amy, she found an inner spirit to kick down barriers and prove that anything anyone else could do she would have a pretty good try at doing too.
“Having an able-bodied twin sister and friends singled me out from an early age,” McElroy remembers. “I wanted to do outdoor pursuits the same as her such as climbing in the countryside.
“The moment came when my dad gave me the opportunity to climb Ben Lomond, when I was ten years old. This laid foundation for the years ahead.”
But first there was a difficult spell at an additional needs school to overcome, where McElroy found herself in the grip of a battle between her spectacularly able mind and challenged body.
“I spent six years at school going through a ‘black tunnel’ and wondering what life would be like and struggling to come to terms with disability,” she says. “I left with very few qualifications.”
Change came in spectacular style when she encountered Garry McLeod MBE, a Duke of Edinburgh Awards licence officer at her local council.
“He was first to recognise my leadership potential and was the start of my self-belief leadership journey. Without Garry I may have never have experienced the self-confidence and self-belief to enable me to go on pushing boundaries.”
It’s fair to say that she went on to not just push at them, but obliterate them. And armed with her bolstered self-belief, McElroy embarked on a remarkable journey of self-discovery aboard one of the Tall Ships. A voyage which McElroy says transformed her life, and “put me on the right track after six years of being a lost teenager.”
Emboldened by the experience, she barely blinked when she was given the chance to trek across the Andes – remarkable for a woman whose parents were told she would probably be in a wheelchair for her entire life.
“It was one of the toughest expeditions that any team has attempted for some years, crossing from the Amazon, over the Andes to the Pacific Ocean in Ecuador. The 200-kilometre trek was punctuated by jungle, cloud forest, mountain, tundra, swollen rivers and marshland.
“The weather conditions were hostile with torrential rain, 100-per cent humidity, cold and searing heat. Two days before we reached the Pacific, I thought my body had reached its physical limit because I could barely move my legs. I was determined I wasn’t going to give up.”
Reaching the end was a physical and mental triumph. And the challenges kept coming – and being conquered.
McElroy led the first wheelchair challenge on the ascent of Ben Nevis, and four wilderness projects with the National Trust for Scotland, designed to encourage people with disabilities to access the outdoors. Her John Muir Conserver Award saw her trek in the Himalayas, join the Lomond Mountain Rescue Team on manoeuvres, climb Helvellyn – England’s third-highest mountain – and paddle the length of Loch Shiel.
But it was a trip to the slums of Delhi in 2011 to work on a community project with children with profound learning disabilities that left her reeling. “It was unbelievable. Poor sanitation, malnourished children. It truly opens your eyes to how these poor disadvantaged children survive. And I was constantly aware of people looking at me, because people with disabilities are not seen in public.”
Back in the UK, McElroy kept up appearances, not least academically. She recently completed a PhD in Assistive Technology, at the University of the West of Scotland, which probed how students with disabilities use the technology in their learning. She is now finishing up a Master of Law from the Open University.
Now having achieved so much – and experienced first-hand how difficult it is to find employment even with such an impressive background – McElroy’s focus is on helping others to achieve, whether as employees or entrepreneurs.
“The disability employment gap has not changed in the last 20 years,” she says, pointing out that simple changes in the workplace can be all it takes to make it more suitable for people with disabilities.
“For example, my manual dexterity means I find it hard to open toilet door handles – so it’s as simple as fitting a different kind of door handle.
“The focus should be on employers to enhance their commitment to widening access and equalities for all, ensuring that those who have the ability can potentially embrace opportunities irrespective of their background.
“But employment practices still have a long way to go,” she adds. “More needs done to enable and encourage people with disabilities into paid employment.
McElroy is also calling for action to help disabled people seeking to strike out solo. “People with disabilities still face barriers to entering and sustaining entrepreneurship,” she says. “They include lack of access to start-up capital, limited business knowledge and an absence of appropriate and supportive business advisers.”
McElroy concludes with a simple plea: “I ask people to put themselves in my shoes and see how they would cope with being deaf and trying to navigate employment challenges.
“I’m just asking for a bit of common sense.”
This article appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of Vision Scotland. A digital version can be found here.