“At First Direct I’m not defined by my disability; this has had such a positive impact on my wellbeing & productivity”


We’ve written about reasonable adjustments at length (such as this piece on new guidance) but there’s nothing more powerful than hearing a story told by someone about their personal experience, in their own words. 

That’s why we’re excited for MAD World’s forthcoming panel on this topic on 12th October featuring Kimberley Ward, Proposition Manager at First Direct, who is profoundly deaf – although interviewing her, I would never have known, due to how seamlessly adjustments have been made.

We talked to her about being a panellist, growing up with a disability and overcoming adversity at work and in her personal life.

I would never guess you’re profoundly deaf. Can you tell me how you are able to do this interview now so well, and what has enabled you to get to this point?

Yes. So, I use special equipment. I have a cochlear implant in my left ear, I wear a hearing aid on my right and I have a headset. 

My cochlear implant and hearing aid are bluetooth enabled so I can also stream sound/calls/music from my phone to my hearing devices.

Sounds seamless. But I’m guessing it’s taken time to get to this point?

Yes! Time and patience. With an implant like this, what your body is doing is essentially training itself to understand the different signals that come through. You basically have to relearn how to hear and identify sounds.

How long did it take you to relearn?

About six months until I was able to have conversations. 

At first, conversation just sounded like morse code for me. Then I started picking up on the syllables and words. 

Also at the start, background noises like an ambulance on the street would be so loud until I got used to using the equipment. 

It was a pretty amazing experience to go through but, of course, when you’re working as well, it’s really difficult because you’ve got all these communications challenges.

You’ve had some negative experiences in work and education, can you give any examples?

Before I got the cochlear implant, I had been wearing hearing aids. An example of how a work situation was difficult for me was when I attended an offsite meeting in a big hotel room. 

I spoke to the person who was going to be speaking at this event to talk me through the day. I wanted to know things like where he was going to be standing and whether he was going to be moving about. I asked him if he’d mind staying in one place so I could see and hear better. 

He refused. ‘I can’t just accommodate you!’ he said.

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There was absolutely no support. It was really upsetting. I walked out crying. 

I was quite emotional at that time because I didn’t have the resilience that I’ve got today and it was really difficult for me to open up and be honest about my needs and vulnerabilities. Because of the lack of support, I became ‘that’ person who sits in the corner, not speaking up in meetings and not taking part. So different to how I feel today, the change is phenomenal. 

You did try and get support, though. Tell me about this experience.

Yes I asked for support and a meeting was called with three senior managers, as well as meeting facilitators. It was really, really intimidating. I felt really scared and I didn’t feel comfortable talking about my disability.

In a previous role, the managers also weren’t happy with my performance at the time, because I wasn’t getting the help and support that I needed to do my job well. 

What kind of thoughts were going through your head in that meeting talking about what adjustments you might need?

Am I going to lose my job?

Are you actually really here to help me?

Why do I have to speak to five people?

Why can’t I just speak to one person that I’m comfortable with? 

You said the change in you today is phenomenal. What would you say was the biggest reason for this change?

Working for First Direct, definitely. 

I didn’t actually tell them about my disability in the recruitment process because of my previous negative experience. I was still very scared, but I’d seen lots of talk about inclusivity on First Direct’s literature, encouraging people to speak up and get help accessing resources.

What is the biggest difference you’ve experienced between First Direct, which has dealt with your disability well, and your previous experiences?

Inclusivity is simply built into the culture; it’s not an ‘add on’. 

You really get a feel for that when you’re talking to people. 

When I started working here, if I said something like ‘sorry, I didn’t hear what you said then’ people would respond something like ‘no problem’. Then they’d repeat what they’d said. I felt so much more comfortable. 

So much so that I felt confident enough to speak to my line manager about my disability and ask for help.

Tell me about how that experience asking for help with your disability was different.

First of all, I spoke to just one person – my line manager. I felt comfortable enough to open up and tell her that I’d been through some struggles in the past and felt really worried about the same things happening.

She was great. She instantly put me at ease by telling me she completely understood and that was not how it worked at First Direct.  

Then she made sure we had regular catch-ups asking me how I was doing from a wellbeing perspective. 

What was done in terms of adjustments?

She constantly checked-in with me to see if there’s anything I needed. 

We started putting captions on presentations and videos during team meetings and the other team members would ask me if there was ever anything I didn’t quite understand that needed repeated, or summarised.

I also had a reasonable adjustments assessment which is when my line manager sorted special equipment for me and my desk was put in the best position in terms of sound and vibrations, so I get the least distractions.

We’re at the point, now, where people don’t even realise that I have a disability!

How does First Direct create this culture where you feel comfortable to speak up?

It makes you feel like no one is thinking about you any differently. People understand that everyone has different needs and adjustments. 

We also have ‘speak up’ guardians along with people you can speak to about your mental health if you don’t feel comfortable talking to your line manager.

First Direct is also about to launch the ‘People Passport’. Tell me about that.

This is a single document detailing any needs of support that someone might need to operate at their best.

It means if an individual decides to move on into a new role internally they can give this passport to their new line manager and not have to go over old discussions and difficult challenges you might have been through.

It includes any scenario that identifies you may need help or support around, and something you may want your manager to be aware of that may mean the need for adjustments. For instance, in my case I’ve suffered anxiety/depression due to my dad’s suicide and also experienced postnatal depression.

What has been the impact on your productivity, wellbeing and loyalty as a result of First Direct’s proactive approach to your disability?

I feel so loyal, not just to the brand, but to the people that I work with. I’ve been asked to go and work in other roles and I’ve turned them down because I’m really happy where I am. I feel like I’m adding great value and getting so much reward because I’m passionate about the job I do.

If you look at the hours that I’ve actually worked, they are a little lower than what would be expected from a full-time employee because of attending things like medical appointments and counselling, which First Direct has been really understanding and flexible about. But if you look at my outputs and what I deliver, I exceed every target and am achieving above and beyond, which is reflected in my reviews.

That’s because I give back a hundred and ten per cent.

At First Direct I’m not defined by my disability, and that has had such a positive impact on my wellbeing.

Find out more about Kimberley Ward, Proposition Manager, at First Direct’s story at MAD World on 12th October in London where she will be talking about what employers should be considering when it comes to reasonable adjustments. 

Ward’s colleague Sean Tolram, Mindfulness Programme Manager, HSBC, is also speaking on a panel, on the top of embedding cultures of care. Ward says of the mindfulness programme: “It’s really fantastic.”

Come along on the 12th October to find out more.

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