A former leading civil servant has revealed that he was warned by Whitehall colleagues to stay silent about a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease or risk watching his career crumble because of disability discrimination
Andrew McDonald, the new chair of major disability charity Scope, told Sky News: “Just before I was about to tell my colleagues, two of my closest friends in the civil service said: ‘Andrew don’t do it. You will end your career if you do this. You will be put into a box marked disabled civil servant.'”
He said if that was the attitude in the civil service, which he considers a “liberal” employer, it must be much worse in other workplaces.
It comes as polling shared exclusively with Sky News by Scope reveals that 74% of disabled people believe they have lost out on a job opportunity because of the employer’s attitude towards their disability.
Mr McDonald feels able to speak out because of the seniority of his roles.
He ended his Whitehall career as the high-profile chief executive of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority – the body charged with clearing up the mess of the MPs’ expenses scandal.
He said he realised he had Parkinson’s when he was doing three of the things he most likes in life – sitting in Manhattan, drinking “good” coffee and reading the New York Times.
He realised that he couldn’t turn the page with his hand – and was diagnosed within a week of returning to London.
“In the fortnight or so that followed I thought my life was over,” he said.
But he soon realised it wasn’t. He thinks his colleagues’ warnings were driven by “the sense that I would be admitting a weakness”.
He ignored the advice and did reveal his condition, moving on to a role in which he looked into the experiences of other disabled civil servants.
“That was quite humbling, not least running focus groups… I remember hearing one colleague who had been placed on gardening leave for 18 months while waiting for a specially adapted computer mouse to be provided.”
He said things had improved in the civil service, but there was still a lot of work to do there – but more so in many other workplaces.
Mr McDonald, who was awarded a CBE in the New Year’s Honours, kept rising through the civil service but finally stood down in 2010 after a second blow, the news that he had “incurable” prostate cancer.
He hopes to raise the issue of disability discrimination while he is at Scope.
Polling shows that 43% of the British public do not personally know anyone disabled, while two thirds feel worried about raising the issue of disability in front of a disabled person.
A Government spokeswoman said disabled people deserved the same chances as anyone else when it came to work, and said policies had been designed to support people into work.
Labour’s shadow disability minister Kate Green said: “We are wasting the potential, the contribution of hundreds of thousands of disabled people who would love to be working, who could be working – or in some cases who are currently working but well below their skills or qualifications.”
She argued that there was not just an employment gap between the rate of disabled and non-disabled people in work.
“It is also the case that disabled people will typically work way below the level that they are actually qualified for,” she said.