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Jerry Hutchinson: Disability is missing from our diversity debate


I don’t pretend to be an expert on disability in all its forms. Nor do I know everything about all the issues it raises.

But as a longstanding chief executive with a visible physical disability since childhood I thought it might be helpful to share my thoughts. Actually, I think I’m obliged to.

I’m among the last and youngest people to have caught polio in the 1950s epidemic in Britain. Being 18 months old at the time, I don’t have any memories of it. I was told by my brother only recently that I was initially in quarantine in an iron lung, with a low chance of walking again.

But I improved, undergoing several operations before I was 16. Even so, I realised at an early age my career options would be limited.

With great family support I got my brain into gear and a law degree from Hull University. I then joined Hull City Council, qualifying as a solicitor before enjoying 42 successful years in local government in legal and managerial jobs in Hull, Nottingham (twice), Hambleton, Lancaster and North Warwickshire – five different and excellent local authorities.

I’ve had to live with my disability for 62 years. But I never thought of myself as ‘disabled’ or considered it a restriction. I probably got used to overcoming hurdles.

Yet as I’ve got older I’ve become aware that I haven’t come across another chief executive with a noticeable physical disability – save one who retired in 1996. As I’ve done the job for 26 years, and chief executives usually quit after three, this is hardly encouraging.

I have also become concerned that whilst there is a growing and healthy debate on diversity in top management in local government – which I fully support – the focus may not be wide enough.

There are many articles about the proliferation of pale males (of which I am one) at the top, and I am pleased at the increasing number of high-profi le top-tier women. But I worry that discussions and articles about diversity at senior and particularly top level rarely mention disability, even when research highlights the lack of disabled people at senior levels.

I sincerely hope the received wisdom for disability is not that the glass ceiling is broken just by getting a job. And if this is the case, why is it not being challenged?

As someone doing the top job I’ve tried to think about whether there are any key issues or barriers that might cause or accentuate the problem.

Perhaps there is a lack of aspiration. Potential applicants may look at the current profile of chief executives and wonder what the point is in trying for the job.

Similarly, there is a question of whether staff with disabilities are seen by employers as potential future leaders. Both employers and potential candidates might also worry the top job is too tough.

As I’ve got older and some of my childhood symptoms have returned, I have had to adapt more than in my early chief executive years.

As my walking has deteriorated I have more trouble travelling to meetings, particularly by train or even to places ‘within easy walking distance’ of a car park during cold weather. Many meetings are scheduled, even by public authorities, in venues that are not disability friendly.

There could also be issues about not being treated as disabled. I’ve been generally happy that people assume that I’m not, but should I be?

Rarely do organisations think in advance about disability as an issue. I can’t count how many networking events I have attended where there is an assumption that everyone can stand up for hours on end.

There is also a lack of commitment to closing the gap. When I retire next month, the national profile will be even worse. Despite all that my disability hasn’t stopped me managing the organisation through four changes of political control.

I’ve been in senior management since I was 29. For years I answered the ‘are you disabled’ question in the negative, but as I’ve got older I’ve answered positively, partly because I had a duty to do it and partly to see whether it was relevant. Where I didn’t formally declare I was disabled and an appointment was made, I was always successful. When I did declare that I was disabled I was never appointed.

There needs to be more emphasis on senior level disability in local government’s inclusion debate. It’s got to be better than if you are disabled and meet ‘essential requirements’ you will get an interview and a scattering of ramps around buildings.

The national profile for disability has never been higher thanks to things like the 2012 Paralympics, more coverage in the media for role models like Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, Jonnie Peacock and Adam Hills, and mainstream drama and entertainment programmes.

Local government needs to catch up.

Jerry Hutchinson, chief executive, North Warwickshire BC



Readers' comments (7)

  • Great read and article should be used as an encouragement to all to aspire

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  • Really good to see this brought up. As a disabled person I am put off trying to move any higher as its clear that's its difficult to get adaptations and senior officers are simply expected to be superfit and capable, and those that don't fit this model are disregarded. Who wants to work in this environment.

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  • Such an interesting and thought-provoking article. Thank you.

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  • Well done, Jerry, for raising this issue boldly and clearly. I can think of only one other serving chief executive with an obvious physical disability and another who retired in the last 12 months. That still means less than 1%, when the proportion of disabled people of working age is much higher than that (recognising that those with invisible disabilities are not covered by my non-scientific observations). And best wishes on your impending retirement!

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  • Thought-provoking, indeed. Thank you for this interesting, honest and 'challenging' article.

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  • Great article by Jerry. I started to become even more conscious of disability issues as my Father became older and less mobile;this awareness has increased with a friend having been made physically disabled by a major stroke and when with him having encountered poor toilet provision in a publicly accessible building. Jerry is absolutely right - we are not where we need to be either at junior or senior levels within local government but also in making "normal business" accessible to the public. More pushing , prodding and disruption required…...

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  • Interesting article and makes me wonder as a person with a largely hidden disability whether I am open enough about it? Perhaps the anonymous moniker answers that one. Perhaps having reached a certain level, I should accept that I am here because of my merits and be more willing to be open about the additional challenges I have faced.

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