CONQUERING DISABILITY: Getting that coveted job in advertising is tough at the best of times, so imagine what it’s like when you can’t physically get past reception. John Tylee reports on why there are still so few disabled staff employed

Life can be a confidence-sapping experience for disabled people. If it isn’t Glenn Hoddle’s loopy remarks about paying for sins from a previous life, it’s the fine words that fail to match the deeds when it comes to employment.

Life can be a confidence-sapping experience for disabled people. If

it isn’t Glenn Hoddle’s loopy remarks about paying for sins from a

previous life, it’s the fine words that fail to match the deeds when it

comes to employment.

Leagas Delaney ran a campaign a few years ago to entice more physically

handicapped people into the workplace. However, few disabled people

would get past the stylish reception area of the agency’s offices in

London’s Shaftesbury Avenue. Not because of prejudice but because its

disabled facilities are non-existent. No lift large enough to transport

a wheelchair and its occupant to any of the six floors. No disabled

lavatories. A basement area accessible only via a spiral staircase.

Compare this with Leagas Delaney’s newly opened operation in San

Francisco where official approval for conversion of the building has

been conditional on several thousand pounds being spent on installing

specially adapted lavatories and wheelchair ramps.

Leagas Delaney’s experience illustrates how much more advanced the

legislative support for the disabled is in the US - fuelled by a

powerful lobby of Vietnam war veterans - than the UK.

There, laws enshrining the rights of disabled people are already a

decade old. Here, the provisions of the 1995 Disability Discrimination

Act, intended to put disability discrimination laws alongside those for

race and sex, will not take full effect until 2004 when all companies

with more than 15 employees must provide disabled facilities.

Leagas Delaney is far from alone among UK agencies in being ill-prepared

to cater for disabled people, be they staffers or visitors. Even St

Luke’s, which probably has the most developed social conscience of any

agency in town and has taken on its first jobless teenager under Tony

Blair’s New Deal, has no disabled access to its building.

Agencies also share the widespread ignorance among businesses about the

legislation and its implications. ’Disabled access? I don’t even know if

we have it,’ the chief executive of a top 30 agency confesses. ’It’s

never been top of mind with us.’ Nor, until his agency’s US foray, was

it with Bruce Haines, Leagas Delaney’s chief executive. ’There has never

been a requirement for us to adapt our London building and I can’t begin

to think how we could,’ he says.

According to the Government, business needs to adapt as much culturally

as physically if disabled people are to get a better deal at work.

That’s why the Department for Education and Employment is planning a TV,

press and poster campaign this spring to ’warm up’ employers and the

public to the changes.

That may mean no more than fitting a couple of bars in a loo or

providing a wooden ramp for a wheelchair. ’We don’t want companies

thinking they have to rip their buildings apart,’ explains Elaine

Bromberg, the campaign’s co-ordinator, who is blind.

In the case of agencies, the new emphasis on the rights of disabled

people is bound to provoke a new debate on why so few are employed by

them. The Leonard Cheshire Foundation, which is urging agencies to

consider hiring more disabled recruits, has a long way to go judging by

the results of a Campaign survey among the UK’s 30 biggest shops.

Although it shows that almost none employ a disabled person in a senior

position, the picture may be less bleak than it seems. The official

definition of disability now extends beyond the deaf, blind and

wheelchair-bound to include any illness that may involve long-term

interference with daily life. And that can be anything from depression

to flat feet.

’I suspect lots of agencies employ disabled people but are unaware of

the fact,’ Mary Budd, the employment affairs consultant at the Institute

of Practitioners in Advertising, suggests.

Jeremy Hughes, the Leonard Cheshire Foundation’s director of public

affairs, believes a large obstacle preventing agencies taking on more

disabled people is concern that they will not get on with other staff.

Some, however, blame prejudice within the ad industry whose

preoccupation with image is likely to ensure any handicapped staffers do

not get front-of-house roles.

The results of a recent CampaignLive poll suggest matters will not


Asked if agencies have the will to employ more disabled staff, 136

people said no. Only six voted yes. ’Advertising is a brutal culture

because of economic necessity,’ the executive creative director of a top

ten agency points out.

Budd insists institutionalised bias has never existed and points out how

an agency recently arranged a second interview for a job candidate after

he suffered an epileptic fit at the first one. Misgivings remain,

however, about whether the industry adequately reflects a UK population

of which one in seven is black and one in ten disabled.

’Agencies are still incredibly Waspish places,’ a leading ad industry

headhunter confides. ’It’s not that I encounter prejudice when I send a

black candidate for an interview. But it does attract some surprised

comment. I suspect the same would be true if I tried to place a disabled


The fact that this headhunter has never been asked to find a job for a

disabled executive is symptomatic of a self-perpetuating problem.

Agencies don’t consider disabled candidates for jobs because none apply.

Disabled people, seeing how few of their number have made it into the

business, see no point in submitting their CVs.

Rupert Howell, a managing partner at HHCL & Partners and the IPA’s

president-elect, says: ’I can’t remember any disabled person ever

applying to us in our 11-year life - and HHCL is about as right on as

it’s possible to be.’

Care must be taken that any initiative does not look like collective

conscience-salving. ’If disabled people aren’t applying should we make a

special effort to recruit them?’ Mark Lund, Delaney Fletcher Bozell’s

chief executive, asks. ’I’m not sure. It smacks of tokenism.’

Part of the problem is the fast-moving and entrepreneurial nature of the

business which relegates provision for the disabled to the lower rungs

of the agenda. ’If we had to make provision for disabled people we

would,’ David Abraham, St Luke’s chief operating officer, insists. ’But

we’re a relatively new company and, although we’ve discussed the matter,

other pressures have forced us to postpone any action.’

More sophisticated technology which opens up opportunities for home

working will provide more scope for disabled people in advertising.

Meanwhile, an agency board account director forced to work from a

wheelchair for a month after an accident provides an insight into the

daily difficulties a disabled agency executive would have to


His agency rallied round by providing transport to and from work and

adapting a lavatory for his use. The difficulties arose when visiting

clients where doors and lifts were too narrow for the smallest


Tables and chairs were set at impossible heights and sometimes he had to

face the indignity of being carried up flights of stars for


Howell believes the industry has to make itself more welcoming to

disabled people if only because the barriers are depriving it access to


Finding a way of doing it without being patronising is the hard



Nic Hutton thought that one day he might direct commercials or maybe

start his own agency. Those hopes were shattered in a split second under

a pile of bodies in a rugby field ruck.

Five years on, he remembers nothing of the accident that broke his


Neither does he recall the two weeks that followed it. Only after he

slowly emerged from his drug-induced dreams in an intensive care unit

did Nic Hutton have to face the truth that he would never walk again. It

was a wicked twist of fate for the former Leo Burnett art director - an

award winner at Cannes and the Creative Circle - who was only visiting

Britain for a month to collect some belongings before returning to his

new job at Bates in Hong Kong.

Accepting his old rugby club’s offer to play a few games has sentenced

Hutton to life in a wheelchair, no movement below his shoulders and loss

of the use of his hands. He is 34.

But Hutton, who once thought he would have to spend the rest of his life

on a ventilator, is back in a job. His lungs work only to a third of

their capacity and he needs 24-hour nursing care. Yet what was to have

been a temporary placement at Ogilvy & Mather has turned into a rolling

freelance contract and work on some of its most high-profile business,

including the Central Office of Information, Argos and Unilever’s


Hutton is well aware that, in a perverse way, he has been lucky. The

Spinal Injuries association estimates that only 15 per cent of people

with injuries so serious return to work. And although it takes him two

hours to get ready for the office and, sometimes, the long working days

leave him exhausted, the job is proving perfect therapy. As he puts it:

’I’ve no time to think of anything other than work.’ Hutton’s ’luck’ -

if that’s what it can be called - is that he has not had to learn new

skills but instead, after 15 months in hospital, find new ways of

utilising his existing ones.

His most important battle has been the one he has had to fight inside

himself. ’My self-esteem went out of the window. For a long time I

didn’t even think about getting on with life. It was only when I got

into the rehabilitation unit at Stoke Mandeville that I realised there

was still a life to be had. I was an art director with a track record

and I hadn’t lost my ability to think,’ he says.

A short stint at GGT ended what Hutton says were his feelings of being

’isolated and ostracised’, his lack of confidence and fear of rejection,

while fulfilling his need to be seen ’as a creative in my own right

rather than a hard luck case’. But it was Patrick Collister, O&M’s

executive creative director, who grasped the nettle.

Collister still winces at the memory of their first meeting. ’When Nic

was wheeled in to see me, I was everything disabled people hate,’ he

recalls. ’I knew he was courageous but I was so patronising. I gave him

a placement and he is still here on merit. Once he gets stuck into a

brief you forget he is in a wheelchair.’

Voice-activated software, a specially adapted phone and e-mail and his

copywriter, Rob Turner, all help Hutton to do his job. But he has to

endure the frustration of someone else transcribing his ideas on paper.

’Nobody else does it exactly as you envisage it,’ he says.

Leaving Canary Wharf to tackle the narrow doorways and staircases of

post-production houses in Soho is a bigger nightmare. ’It’s a case of

finding a ramp or using brute force,’ he says.

And the most frustrating problem of all? The fact that he doesn’t

actually get to see much advertising. TV is fine but newspaper and

magazine pages have to be turned for him and the restricted view out of

his specially adapted van makes it impossible to appreciate a 48-sheet

poster in all its glory.

Meanwhile, there are daily communication difficulties - people reduced

to flustered embarrassment at him having to decline their handshake or

being asked if they would mind lifting a bottle of water to his


Social life also has its drawbacks.

A trip to the pub with friends from the creative department is a major

operation because his body cannot regulate its temperature which has to

be controlled by lots of warm clothing.

Nor is it easy for anyone in a wheelchair to talk in a crowded bar when

most of the conversation is taking place above their head. But for

Hutton, these are prices he is happy to pay to be back doing what he

loves. ’I’m still testing myself to see if I can cope. But I’ve got a

taste for it. I couldn’t think of doing nothing ever again.’


Geoff Inwood’s favoured means of communication is e-mail. Profoundly

deaf since he was born, he is a presentation operator at J. Walter


From his computer in the presentation unit of Eric Studio at the

Berkeley Square agency, Geoff Inwood creates slides, overheads and

documents for new-business and client presentations.

’My parents were encouraged by teachers at Heston school who thought

that technical drawing might be a good job for me,’ Inwood says.

’Prospects generally for deaf children at that time were very


A technical drawing course at the North London Polytechnic led to

acceptance by Croydon College of Art and Design where he gained a

graphic diploma in art and design.

Disabled people, he believes, need a combination of tenacity and luck if

they are to break into the business. For Inwood, a well-received

portfolio has led to a 14-year stint at JWT.

Never during that time has he encountered prejudice - ’Most people

understand’ - although communication, often through lip reading, can be

difficult when the unit gets busy, he says.

Nor does Inwood’s disability isolate him at work socially. ’Advertising

can be fun,’ he says, ’but because of my disability, I haven’t had the

chance to do other things in it. But I’ll probably stay in the


The meagre numbers of disabled people working in advertising dismays him

and more should be encouraged to join, he agrees. But he adds: ’I’m not

sure how it could be done.’


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