Nine years ago Debbie Smith, who has a genetic autoimmune disease which affects her mobility and creates painful joints, was told by doctors that she would never work again. Smith was determined to prove them wrong. The former call centre manager decided to go to university and completed a part-time science degree, graduating with a 2:1. Then, by chance, she heard about a training programme encouraging disabled people to consider a career in housing.
“I knew nothing about housing and it was nothing to do with my degree,” Smith says. “When I found out more about it and the different roles available and discovered that disabled people were under-represented in the workforce, the more it appealed. It wasn’t just a job; I realised that I could become a role model, not just for other disabled people but for other people who want to get back to work, and also be a role model in the organisation.”
After completing the Positive Action for Disability Programme (PAfD) run by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH), Smith is now a tenant advice and welfare benefits team manager for New Charter Homes with ambition to develop her professional housing career.
“People tend to think that social housing is just about paying the rent and that’s it, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” she says. “We work in neighbourhoods, on worklessness programmes and financial inclusion. A lot of what New Charter does is pioneering – it’s all about providing the community with what it needs to be a sustainable community.”
Smith is one of 16 trainees who have completed the two year PAfD programme, run jointly with 15 host social housing associations.
There are no specific qualifications required but trainees, who are expected to complete a level three or four CIH professional housing qualification as part of their development, must be committed to the housing sector and prove themselves to be motivated. Trainees, who receive an average annual £15,000 salary, are either taken on by a social landlord to learn about a specific housing role or spend the time working in a variety of different jobs with their host organisation. So far, 11 PAfD trainees have taken professional housing roles.
Now the CIH, which is in the process of recruiting its third cohort, is expanding the programme, working with large housing associations to establish an in-house mentoring scheme for disabled employees.
The intention is that the mentees, who can be working in any role within the organisation, will be encouraged and supported to train to become professional housing officers. The mentees would become role models within their organisation and take over the mentoring responsibility to help other disabled colleagues progress in their housing career.
Graham Findlay manages the PAfD scheme for the CIH. He says: “The idea is to establish a mentoring network in the larger housing associations. The first mentors would be non-disabled people. I am going to be working with the organisations to help pair up a mentor with a disabled member of staff maybe somebody who is stuck in an admin job for example but has ambition to go further.”
Around 3% of the social housing workforce are people with a disability whereas 20% of social housing tenants are disabled, according to the CIH. It is these statistics which promoted New Charter Homes to become involved in PAfD from the outset.
“We were the first housing association in the north west to take part in the programme,” says head of HR Gary Sharp. “Six and a half percent of our workforce now have a disability compared to around three or four per cent a few years ago. I think that has happened because this programme is a visible programme in the workplace and gives a positive message to staff. I also think though that it’s all about providing our customers with a better service.”