Closing the disability employment gap

James Gower, UK

Manager, Cyber Security, EY EMEIA Financial Services

We sat down with James Gower, a Manager in our UK Financial Services business, to hear more about his journey to EY and his experience of living with a disability. James talks openly about the importance of challenging misconceptions about disability in the workplace.

I began working at EY as a graduate about six years ago and am currently a manager in our Financial Services Cyber Security team. I focus on client risk engagements. I also have cerebral palsy. I have had it since birth. I am proud of the things I have achieved in my life and particularly within EY. I suppose I am an ambassador for EY, both professionally and personally, as EY is an organization in which I have been able to thrive and succeed.

EY has supported me and so I have been able to achieve. However, it has not been easy. And I don’t mean to say that it is just because of the physical limitations I encounter on account of my disability. The difficulty has come from the discomfort that, from time to time, my disability is misinterpreted by those around me and people assume things about me because of it.

When people are visibly different, it is tempting to define them by that single aspect or perhaps operate in the belief that “all we see is all there is”.

For me, the struggle exists because I want to be known primarily as a good professional and not as the person with cerebral palsy. Looking back, I realize that at the beginning of my time with EY, I did not speak up when my disability was impacting me. It is generally physically more exhausting for me to operate in a working environment than others. It consumes more energy. So, at times, I was more tired than I would admit, even when I had been at my desk all day. A common misconception is that fatigue only kicks in when people with physical disabilities are on the move; actually, just functioning is tiring. 

For the people who have worked with me, having a colleague with a disability is also generally new to them and although everyone operates with good intent, we are all only still learning. In the past, colleagues have sometimes tended to approach things very pragmatically and perhaps less empathetically. Especially at the start of my career, the outcome has been that my disability was interpreted as an underperformance or a general inability to cope. 

When the approach to disability in the workplace is largely pragmatic, we can end up assuming a very binary view — for example, a physical disability will only impact a person physically, a mental health issue will only impact a person mentally. This is certainly not true for those of us with physical disabilities, and I would guess that this is not the case for many with mental well-being challenges as well. I can get very low and exceptionally frustrated at times. Mostly, I try to keep this out of work but it definitely does happen. We should remember that our disabilities don’t vanish. We just, hopefully, get better at adjusting to them. A physical disability isn’t cured by an ergonomic chair or flexible working. These just allow us to start leveling the playing field. 

When you look at me, you will see for sure that I have a physical disability. What you do not see is the strain of living with this.

For the most part though, I have received an excellent level of support to help me cope with some of my physical restrictions when at work. My disability does make me different, but it doesn’t make me any less of a person and it doesn’t prevent me from being successful. Suffice to say, I have learnt a lot since the start of my career — an open and honest conversation and dialogue is critical.

I am delighted that EY, and those with whom I work with, have encouraged me to give a voice to my disability. In doing so, perhaps I’ve enabled others to understand a little better about what it is like to be challenged in this way and to be different. If we want to make sure that we are creating a culture that embraces everyone, we need to be able to talk about disability with openness and empathy, and should feel comfortable in doing so. I would encourage all of us to be brave enough to start the conversation. I understand that it may feel awkward. There is also an underlying concern that somehow we may overstep or offend people in these situations.

Speaking personally, I would much prefer that someone spoke to me directly about my disability, asked questions and tried to find out more, even if the conversation perhaps feels a little awkward at first. The other outcome is that we will keep quiet and get nervous, or even worse, make assumptions.