We were recently delighted to welcome swimming Paralympian and apprentice lawyer Amy Marren to a Totum knowledge-sharing session. Here, we share some of the highlights of the conversation: Amy’s experiences pursuing sporting success and how she found the transition from a hugely inclusive world of para sports to a working world that in 2017 was only just waking up to the idea of diversity.
Amy Marren is only 24 years old but she’s already achieved more than many manage in a lifetime. A double Paralympian and World and European champion para swimmer, Amy had already hit peak performance as an elite athlete before she decided to retire from swimming aged 21 to focus on a whole new life: a career in legal. Her entry into the professional world from the sporting limelight provides an invaluable perspective on disability diversity in the workplace: one that is both inspiring and insightful.
Amy was born without her right hand in east London in 1998. Her family were instrumental to the development of Amy’s self-belief. From a young age, they sent her on summer camps run by Reach, a charity for children with upper limb disabilities, which surrounded her with people like herself, with whom she undertook numerous activities from rock climbing to dry-slope skiing. Nothing seemed impossible. Swimming lessons built on the back of this early confidence boost and from 10 years old, she describes life as a whirlwind of swimming training and competitions.
‘I saw Ellie Simmons on the TV winning the Paralympics in Beijing and I knew that’s what I wanted to do,’ Amy says. ‘I told my parents and they were hugely supportive.’ At just 14, she competed as part of the British team at the London Paralympics, before going on to win medals at both the European Championships and the World Championships at 15, and then winning a bronze medal at the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics when she was still only 18. ‘The whole journey is my proudest achievement – there were peaks and troughs along the way and getting through them all was massive for me,’ she says.
After all this, you’d be forgiven for thinking this wasn’t time to start all over again. As a Paralympian she’d enjoyed access to Paralympic villages where she says she was surrounded by people with every disability you can imagine in a venue where every adjustment had been made to meet all athletes’ needs. ‘There were many people like me as well as lots of people needing far more adjustments than I did. It taught me that society puts limits on those with disabilities but this doesn’t need to be the case,’ she says.
The environment was so inclusive, says Amy, that on the village buses, there were more wheelchair spaces than seats. ‘It was amazing and it made it so clear that disability is an umbrella term under which there is a hugely wide spectrum of individuals whose varied needs could be considered and met,’ she says.
So why shift to a business world, which was only just waking up to the idea of diversity when Amy started her first apprenticeship in 2017? Even now, many businesses can seem to prioritise every other aspect of diversity over disability, despite the fact that over 20% of working-age adults are disabled.
In a sign of the positivity ingrained into her by her sporting background, however, Amy describes the transition to the working world as ‘seamless as it could be’. She describes the most shocking element of the change as going from an environment where she was joking with people about disability all the time, and where it was totally normal for everyone to have a disability, to a professional working environment where there was no-one like her and conversations on disability can feel awkward.
She also had to experience the odd shocker. When she was first applying for apprenticeships at business-administration level, a firm invited her into the office to take a spelling/grammar test but on noticing she only had one hand, said she would have to do a typing test too as they were concerned her typing would be too slow.
‘This had never been mentioned to me before and I asked if everyone had to do it, and they said it was just me,’ Amy explains. She felt singled out and embarrassed. ‘I immediately felt like they were putting limits on me when they had no idea what I was capable of,’ she says. ‘I withdrew from the process because I felt they wanted a one-size-fits-all for their workforce and I wanted to work somewhere that could see the potential for a disabled employee to make an extraordinary contribution.’
Thankfully, her experiences since then have been far more positive and she says her current employer, the education provider BPP, has been fantastic. ‘They couldn’t have done enough for me. I had an assessment early on, in which I felt I could be very upfront about what I needed – from a slightly different keyboard with more widely spread keys to a left-handed mouse. They were very willing to do whatever was needed – they have a reputation for giving every employee the best opportunity to be themselves.’
And for whatever BPP has given, Amy offers massive potential in return. Her sporting background means that she brings a determination to the professional world and a high level of productivity due to her experience of working hard to achieve success. ‘I’m a stickler for routine too – because of my sporting background I have no problem with the office routine and I am much more considerate because I have experienced all of those peaks and troughs in sport. I know life isn’t always easy!’
Advice for firms and recruiters
Amy advises businesses to prioritise asking questions about adjustments that employees might need to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. ‘Some disabilities may require different or more adjustments over time too, so don’t forget to regularly check in and ask again,’ she advises. ‘Also ask someone if they’re comfortable to talk about their disability. In my experience, nine out of ten people will be happy to talk about it, but everyone is an individual and we must respect those who would prefer not to. We need to stop disability being the elephant in the room; it’s just another aspect of life.’
Amy is incredibly positive about her disability – for obvious reasons: it has been her superpower, as she describes it. But she sees that possibility for others as well. ‘To parents, try and find people with your child’s disability. Going on the summer camps with Reach was such a big moment for me. The sooner parents can find that kind of safe space, the better. It’s so important.’
She dreams of a time when all workplaces are completely accessible. ‘It breaks my heart to see someone struggling off a bus in town then having to enter their office through a back door because the main entrance doesn’t have disabled access. Or someone with cerebral palsy who can’t use the stairs because there’s no handrail. All lift button panels should have brail. I know it’s difficult in some of our old London buildings but every business should be considering the things they can do to open up opportunities for disabled employees,’ she says.
Of course not everyone with a disability is going to be able or willing to enjoy the sporting success that Amy has achieved. But when you think of the superhumans that have competed at the Paralympics – athletes that have blown away many of our preconceptions of disability – you realise that there really isn’t any excuse any more. We must work to make the changes to our businesses that accommodate our disabled working community, allowing everyone to contribute fairly to the betterment of our businesses.
Huge thanks to Amy for spending time with us to share her perspectives on disability and diversity in the sporting and professional worlds. We wish her all the best in her legal career and look forward to hearing her next success stories.