Bouncing back in Paralympic sport and the workplace

Paralympian Claire Harvey, captain of the GB sitting volleyball team, says business could learn from her experience of disability sport


Since the dust has settled after the Paralympic Games, I have had time to reflect, not only on just how lucky I was to be part of such a once-in-a-lifetime event, but also on how much I have discovered about myself and how the world works.

The last four years for me could be headlined as “starting from scratch”. Before 2008, I thought I had done the hard work in my life and was reaping the benefits: a history of sport at high level to look back on, a solid reputation in a good career and a family unit. Then, one day in 2008 changed everything.

I was a successful international rugby union player and senior civil servant, but my Whitehall and able-bodied sporting careers were cut short when a bicycle accident left my right leg paralysed.

As always, time passes and life returns to some level of normality. I was grateful that my employer had found me a different role, but it reminded me every day what I couldn’t do anymore. And I began to realise what a hole sport had left in my life.

Looking back, it was a time when my sense of identity, self-worth and confidence were at their lowest. But I was lucky to have people around me who kept pushing me to go forward, otherwise I can see how easily I could have slipped into isolation.

My first experience in the sporting world, post-2008, was the people who were around to help and encourage me. Websites, my local sports development officer and the RFU [Rugby Football Union] Injured Players Foundation were all straight back in contact and keen to help me find a sport.

But the opposite was true for employment; recruitment and disability websites or services were all hard to find and left me feeling less than positive about what I had to offer.

In disability sport, people were keen to see beyond the disability to what I could do, what I had done before and what my interests were. In fact, my disability, alongside my skills and attributes, made me valuable and I was headhunted by a number of sports.

This wasn’t the case in employment; going into recruitment agencies and speaking to potential employees, the focus of the conversation was often on how brave I must be to get back to work and how important it was that I really thought about what I could do. It left me feeling that my previous experience of being a senior manager in a tough profession was worthless.

Eventually I found a great job, although perhaps a little predictably in the diversity field. And about this time I took up sitting volleyball, having never played volleyball before in my life, and was being fast-tracked into the GB training squad. So I found myself in two new teams at the same time.

Again, the two were very different. The volleyball team was a space to be free; once we were on the volleyball floor our disabilities were irrelevant and I think for many of us that was a first. There was an open and frank culture from both the team and the support staff; in-depth questions about effects of disability, history, practical points. I guess there had to be; the goal was to get the best out of us all and to find a way of operating as effectively as a team as we could. London 2012 was coming, ready or not, like a steamroller.

For me that was a breath of fresh air, especially compared to my initial experience in work where my disability was like the “elephant” in the room that no one mentioned. People tripped over words like “stand up for…” or “let’s walk over there”, not because they were cruel, but because they were trying desperately to do the right thing and make me feel included.

I found it frustrating that, in the working environment, there was always an element of “do your best”. I didn’t want to get a job because of my disability, neither did I expect to do anything less than anyone else once I had one.

Companies would do well to take the step forward even if they have doubts or fears, see the disabled population as the wealth of different talent and skills they are, and take a risk

I found myself fighting for the ability to be judged the same as everyone else; I wanted a job because I was the best person to do it and I wanted to be held to the same expectations as others. Of course, there are adjustments and conversations to be had about how I do things and what support I need, but once those things were clear, I didn’t want to be treated with kid gloves.

The fear element of getting it wrong is definitely a factor in the workplace that isn’t present in sport. Organisations, rightly, want to make a good impression and be as accessible as they can be. I see many times that organisations are scared to open their doors to disabled staff until they are sure everything is in place, which of course never comes.

Paralympians are not super heroes; to succeed you need to bring everything you have to the table, to have good people around you who believe in you and to exploit the “X factor” difference you bring to the team.

I would argue that the workplace should be exactly the same; companies would do well to take the step forward even if they have doubts or fears, see the disabled population as the wealth of different talent and skills they are, and take a risk.

That’s what someone did with me in 2009, with no history of volleyball, no talent and low self-belief, but a heap of transferrable skills beneath the surface, such as resilience, experience and problem-solving. And here I am, head of corporate responsibility for the financial regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority, and captain of the Paralympic sitting volleyball team.