Podcast: My employment journey with Ruth Owen OBE

The Disability Download

In our latest podcast episode, Jon Sim catches up with our CEO Ruth Owen OBE. In a candid interview, Ruth talks about her determination to succeed despite the yawning disability employment gap she faced as a young school leaver.


Ruth Owen: You know, first and foremost, I don't like it when people judge me on my chair.

I find it really irritating and I say to people, and I have said when I was in my tech job, it'll be a mistake if you judge me based on my wheelchair. Trust me, it's a mistake you want to be much more worried about what's going to come out of my mouth than you do about my wheelchair, and I see also it's our job and my job.

I always saw through my employment history, Jonathan, was to educate people.

Erin O’Reilly: Hello and welcome to The Disability Download, The Disability Download is brought to you by pan-disability charity Leonard Cheshire. I'm Erin O'Reilly and on this podcast, we respond to current topics, share stories and open up conversations about disability.

Hi and thanks so much for tuning in to another episode! Now many of you may know that in the UK there is still a clear disability employment gap, and that’s only been made worse by the pandemic in the last year. And last year we did some research that showed 7 in 10 disabled people who were employed in March last year had been impacted by the loss of income, furlough, unemployment or other damaging effects from the pandemic.

And our study showed that many young disabled people are understandably feeling pessimistic about the future. And as part of that we also surveyed employers and we found that a fifth of those surveyed said they were less likely to hire a disabled person overall. And you know there's lots of myths and misconceptions around this, with some employers assuming it could be costly to make reasonable adjustments to support disabled people, which isn't the case.

And someone who came up against challenges and misconceptions on their own employment journey is this episode's guest, Ruth Owen. Ruth recently joined Leonard Cheshire as CEO in February after being CEO at Whizzkids since 2004. Now Ruth’s had a really successful career, but came up against stigma about her disability at the very start of her journey. So on this episode she chats to my colleague Jonathan Sim, and they talk all about her employment experiences, the importance of closing the disability gap and why we need to see more disabled people in senior roles. So, let's go over to Jon and Ruth.

So huge thanks to Jon and Ruth for that really dynamic discussion, and so interesting to hear about Ruth's personal experiences and hear her observations on how things may have changed over time, but what else still needs to change too.

Jon Sim: Welcome to The Disability Download. It's fantastic that you can join us.

Ruth: Thank you so much for inviting me.

Jon: It’s a couple of months into the job as CEO of Leonard Cheshire. Can you briefly just describe how it's been so far?

Ruth: I think people have been incredibly patient with me as I, you know, learn about the organization and I've been in listening mode and I've been in a learning mode, and I've thoroughly enjoyed it. It's been a fantastic experience.

Jon: Good! You were with Whizz Kids for a long time - getting on for two decades; can we go kind of way back up on your employment journey, back to when you left school and were starting out 'cause I know that you did leave school. You didn't have a traditional kind of, you know, school, university profile - can we go way back and talk about when you first left school and started to kind of you know, dip your toes in employment.

Ruth: Yeah, we can go back even further than that really Jonathan.

I mean, listen people like me back then were not expected to go to the employment market. You know, if you were a disabled person, it was expected that you would you know, live with your family. Your family would provide for you, or the state would provide for you and. I never really thought that of myself. I know many people thought it of me, but I never thought it of myself.

My mother was absolutely instrumental in making me independent. And my mother saw, uh, had a vision for me. She always used to say to me, even as a young woman. You know, you're the eldest of my children. Like you know, she gave me a huge amount of responsibility.

As you know, I was an expat child. My parents were in Africa, and I came back to a residential setting in the UK for schooling as well.

So, my mother had always taught me to be very independent and with that comes a voice and with that came opinions, and that's a good thing or a bad thing Jonathan, but I was always quite opinionated about what I felt that I was going to do with my life.

And so, you know, I had a real struggle, Well I think I had two struggles really, I had a struggle about, you know there was a part in my life when I was a teenager where?

You had to accept that you're a disabled person. And that your life was going to be slightly different too from my siblings and people around me.

And then once you'd accepted that which I did with grace, and I accepted that I'd much rather be a happy person with a disability than somebody that was going to be a moany person with a disability - 'cause I felt that I wouldn't at the time when I was a teenager, I thought I'd have more friends.

If I was, I had a happier disposition than if I was a had a miserable disposition and then once I'd accepted that, and I accepted that my journey was going to be different, I didn't know how I was going to go to the employment market and I didn't have really a formal education, but I thought that I was capable of work.

I thought that I could work, and I also saw employment as my route to financial independence and I felt to be honest with you Jonathan I felt OK my legs didn't work and I used a wheelchair to get around, but I always thought my brain was pretty active.

It was pretty naughty at school if I'm honest with you.

I always felt that I could take care of myself, and I think boarding school taught me that. You know, I'm very grateful for that experience.

I know that's not always everybody’s experience, but my experience was, and I remember vividly when my father left me in that school. I knew then it was sink or swim and I was a young person, but I thought I've really got to sink or swim here, and this is going to be the making of me.

I didn't quite realize how much of the making it was going to be for me, for the challenges that I needed to face. The barriers to get to work. I mean I had a lot of people put barriers up in front of me. Things that were said to me; “Well people like you don't work”. “What will clients think of somebody like you”? ” Why would they employ you?” “You're a lame duck”! And I used to always fight back.

Jon: I read about the lame duck quote - that was in a jobcentre, right?

Ruth: Yeah, yeah, that was the jobcentre.

Jon: Can you talk us through the experience?

Ruth: Well, you know, I we lived in Surrey, and you know my family home was always in Surrey and you know when I went to the ….as encouraged....when I left school to go to the local job centre you know this person said to me, “Well you're a lame duck” and then that also I'd had that quoted to me again with another recruitment company.

Thinking, I mean I was with my mother at the time and I and I told this person when they said I was a lame duck where I said, well, “I'll be the judge of that”.

By the time I get a job I'm going to come back and tell you I've got a job and I and - not my proudest moment - I wasn't particularly pleasant to him! I was a little bit rude and a bit feisty and a bit spiky, but I I think I needed that drive. I think I needed somebody like that to tell me.

I was already pretty driven, but that just spurred me on. I thought I'm gonna teach you a lesson 'cause and also Jonathan, I never saw anybody in employment back then. I never saw, you know, I was always interested in boarding school.... I was always interested in the Stock Exchange. I asked to go to the Stock Exchange when we had our...I don't know what the equivalent would be, but you know we had to kind of like school days out and all my colleagues, my friends at the time wanted to go to the zoo.

I was like much more interested in stocks and shares! I was much more interested in commerce.

I was much more interested in business, so I asked for a trip to the Stock Exchange, which they actually facilitated which was amazing!

And that just you know that kind of window just inspired me that I was going to work in London. I was going to work in the city, and I was going to have my independence. Now, how I was going to do that was just, I mean, I didn't really know the how, but I thought I could work the how!

Jon: So, you became a kind of office junior right? With a gas/chemicals company?

Ruth: They were brilliant. You know, when I think back, they saw something in me that, you know, I was young, I was naive. I didn't really have... I had no work experience. I mean that's for most disabled people, that's still the same today. I had no CV. Anything on a CV I had no... you know when you're younger you go to work, don't you?

Back then, there was a paper round or whether it was working in the local supermarket or whatever it was... I never had that...I never had that because it was never expected that I would do anything.

So, when I saw the job, I applied for it and the guy that interviewed me obviously saw something in me and took me on as an office junior to do, you know tea and filing and admin and some data input and stuff like that. I was grateful because I thought, that was a foot in the door. Now, should I feel grateful today when I think about that?

You know, young disabled people today want to go to work now. Work won't be for everybody, and I never advocate that.

But you know, young people today don't see their disability as a hindrance, and nor should they, their disability is their skin. I always say that you know, my wheelchair is my skin. You know, I'm as comfortable in my wheelchair as I am in my Nike trainers or my high heeled boots or whatever shoes I've got on and I think you know that's how it should be.

So, for me when I say I'm grateful ... I sometimes take a bit of a... 'cause I, you know, back then I was because I thought if I get my foot in the door, I can demonstrate that I can do and you know clearly I was never going to be an accountant, 'cause I wasn't trained. But I could do a job that I could put my mind to, and I used to put my hand up for more responsibility and I did. I that boss back then had empathy.

He saw talent and I don't know if he was ever touched by anybody in his family with disability... that wasn't a conversation that people were had back then, but he believed in me, and he encouraged me.

And I'm I, you know, I will always be exceptionally grateful.

Oh, and I've had probably three really strong male mentors in my working life that have really helped me and propelled me on. And, you know, I'm lucky I. I think they saw the drive and the feistiness in me.

That was not going to take no for an answer!

Jon: So, do you think your equivalent now in 2021 you were 16 at the time, right?

Ruth: I just lost my sister. So I was, you know, I was 17, 18 coming on. I was young.

Jon: So, you did A levels.

Ruth: No, I didn't. I didn't do any A levels. I think probably the equivalent would be O Levels today and that's it I stopped. I didn't do any more than that because University wasn't, you know, University wasn't even on the agenda for somebody like that.

Maybe it was my siblings because I've got a sister. There was 18 months between us.

I mean, sadly, she passed away when I was young, but and you know that it was expected that she potentially would go, but not somebody like me.

In reality, it would probably be the other way around. She was much more practical and would do something different and very caring. And I was the one that probably should have had my brain stimulated and gone to university.

Jon: Generation wise, do you think young disabled people now of the same age are more aware of their rights? And do you think that something like university is probably more aspirational for them now?

Ruth: I think disabled people are definitely more aware of their rights.

I think society and talking about disability and inclusion is so important, but I think for many disabled people that's still a window that they can't necessarily see themselves looking through.

You know, when I meet lots of young disabled people, you know, unless they've got a really supportive family and they've got an extended, supported, extended family or a community it, there's still a perception that they might not have that level of, you know, aspiration.

I think it's changing. Don't get me wrong, I, you know, I've met many young people. All that have gone to university and have done amazing things, but equally I've met some young people that are still having those struggles.

And then equally you know there'll be some young people that with a disability that will.... actually, independence for them means going to the shop or going out in their community and doing something in their community. It doesn't necessarily mean going to university.

But I think it's got better Jonathan, but there's much more to do.

Jon: Because obviously there is in society in general, and I think when you talk about community, but if you've got a community that still has residual stigma about disabled people, it's always going to be a problem and we did some research last Christmas just before last Christmas. It did say that 42% of employers still have doubts about employing a disabled person or think that they're going to be adversely kind of hit in the pocket for employing disabled people during the pandemic because of the extra support they need.

Are you surprised with the amount of stigma that’s still at large in 2021 or not?

Ruth: I am surprised. Let me tell you why I'm surprised. Well, in some ways I'm not surprised, and, in some ways, I am, I mean. You know what's so frustrating is that in this day and age people still have that view of disabled people.

I can honestly say Jonathan in my working life, though I might be fortunate, and I've remained relatively touchwood healthy. I knew when I got those that those roles I had to be as fit and is willing to work hard, if not harder, than my colleagues.

Particularly when I went into a tech world because I knew if I said I needed time off for any adjustments, I would be probably sacked. Now, that's not right. Today we actually talk about what adjustments and how we can support disabled people in employment and continue to have really fantastic careers.

But the fact that there's still that stigma doesn't surprise me in the slightest.

I've had even in my, you know, wider network of people when they don't know me and they just judge me on my chair and then they say and not that long ago, ‘What do you do ‘? and I said, well, ‘I was a CEO of Leonard Cheshire.

I could literally see them go back in their seat like ‘Oh, OK’, or when I start to open my mouth about something that maybe they weren't expecting, you know?!

I think it's terribly, terribly frustrating, but I think what we can do at Leonard Cheshire and what many disabled people can do, and I'm so excited about the fact of having our customer voice at the forefront of everything we do and enabling other organizations to allow their disabled community to have a bigger voice about employment. You know, I think so.

If I look at myself, I can only talk about myself. Personally, I knew I had to work harder. I knew that. I knew the opportunity I was being given. I knew that I had to really demonstrate the value of somebody like me.

Business now I think things with you know like the purple pound and all of that good work that we do has just got to be more amplified because I think people have got businesses have got to look at people with a disability as talent.

You know, first and foremost, I don't like it when people judge me on my chair.

I find it really irritating and I say to people, and I have said when I was in my tech job, it'll be a mistake if you judge me based on my wheelchair. Trust me, it's a mistake you want to be much more worried about what's going to come out of my mouth than you do about my wheelchair, and I see also it's our job and my job.

I always saw through my employment history, Jonathan, was to educate people.

So that when I left that organization, they would know what I did?

Employ somebody with a disability based on the experience they'd had with me.

I had no adjustments from my working life. And I can tell you in my tech life if I had to be in Frankfurt, Paris, London or wherever I had to be there at the same time as everybody else, if not earlier, and then how I got there.

And the logistics were down to me, nobody else.

Jon: I guess these days, progressive workplaces and HR departments, you know in terms of their practices, you know for - never mind disabled people - but for non-disabled people it's only really become what you’d describe as progressive within the last kind of 10 years, really, so I'd imagine it, you know, we’re talking about the 80s here, right? I would imagine late 80s when you're in your sales role and a role that took you all around Europe, right?

Ruth: Yeah, in a role where in a role where I travelled in a role where I was responsible for other people. And you know, in in a role that I felt that you know, listen, I was lucky. Tech was really progressive. You know it didn't have many women in in that world, but I always. I was always interested in that kind of, you know, that world. I was always slightly interested in finance, so you know for me it combined both my interests and I didn't see traveling as being a barrier.

Don't get me wrong, super hard in London back then I mean, oh man, really hard, but I was determined and I thought yeah, I don't need to give it my employer any excuse not to have me do my job, and so even if I had to get up at goodness knows what time and it took me the most arduous route to get there, I got there and I think you know the workplace has got better but I think the pandemic has been interesting for disabled people. I think that removed the barriers. You know we've all....

Jon: Absolutely.

Ruth: Proves that we can work from home for a year. Plus, nobody would know Jonathan. I'm sitting in a wheelchair talking to you. I don't see my wheelchair. Yes, I move aside, and you probably can see the back of my chair, but you will know. I said I could do any role now couldn't I?

Jon: Sure, I think a lot of people have realized that the opportunities that the pandemic has kind of, you know, made clear to employees and employers alike.

Ruth: So, we talk about the pending the pay gender gap, we talk about women, we talk about Black Lives matters, we talk about LGBTQ - all really important conversations and fantastic that we're having those conversations - but disability? Isn't really there anymore, is it? It's gone down the agenda and I see it as my job as the leader, CEO of Leonard Cheshire but also, as an individual to make sure that it gets back up on the agenda.

Jon: Does it surprise you sometimes if I suggest that perhaps the disability rights movement still lags behind LGBT for instance, as an equal rights movement, and certainly of feminism.

Ruth: Yeah, I do, and you know what I admire the LGBTQ community, what they've done. They've done this amazing job of an everyday conversation, just as important Black lives matters. A conversation that we're having on diversity... we're having... we're doing... and will put in place, but disability is....

You look across, you know non exec directors' roles at board level. How many people? I mean there'd be hidden disability, so you have to take account of that. But you know, seeing people as non-execs or execs with, uh, that talk about their disability?

I think that would help enormously in changing some of the some of the you know, stigma around it.

And actually, I do think disability slipped down the agenda, yes, I do.

Jon: Interesting, I mean you are our second consecutive disabled CEO. When you took the job at Whizzkids, what was the scenario? How did it come about in the 1st place? You had your own business at the time?

Ruth: Yeah, I did and I, you know, listen, I'd had a couple of fingers in a couple of pies at the time and I always thought that I would do something in philanthropy 'cause my mother was, you know, my mother was very big in that.

You know, as I said to you when I joined Leonard Cheshire, she was in the nursing staff in one of our fantastic settings and so, Leonard Cheshire had always been part of my home life and for considerable years.

And I always knew that you know, my mother also supported other international organisations and my mother and father had foster children in our home and everything. I'm one of five. One of us would take on my mother's kind of mantle, so to speak. I didn't necessarily think it would be me, but it was, you know I spent a lot of time with her being ill as a child, so I suppose her influence rubbed off on me and I felt when I was in my tech world that I could do something more with my life.&

And so, I started to think about the third sector and, you know, a number of contacts.... I've been a trustee of Barnardo's and I just really thought right, I can. I can do something different and so the job at Wizz kids appeared. You know back then I think it might have been in The Sunday Times paper and I thought I'd might apply for it and not really ever thinking I'd get it. But if I was honest with you, it just seemed to fit for me. It was everything that...it was almost like going home. Does that make sense?

Jon: Of course, yeah.

Ruth: You know, it's something that I felt really strongly about. I love young people, you know, I just couldn't bear the thought of them having the same struggles that I'd had, and I wanted to do something different. So that's how Whizz Kids came about, and I think probably like, his role is the best thing I've ever done, and so when this role came up, I was like why wouldn't I? It was a no brainer for me. I thought I'm definitely going to put my hat in the ring. I'm definitely going to do give my very best and I'm going to do if I get the job. I'm gonna do my very best for the disabled community and Leonard Cheshire's cause.

You know, I think what we do is fantastic, and I think we can make our work even more relevant and even more appropriate for the next generation of disabled people.

Jon: Do you see yourself primarily as a fundraiser? I mean, certainly, since your third sector career took off, do you see fundamentally that at heart, you're a fundraiser.

And were you a fundraiser, a giver in your working life before the 3rd sector?

Ruth: Yes I was a giver before my working life in the third sector. And you know, as I said, you know my mother was... you know we were always givers as a family. It was always part of our family life. And you know, and expected others, and rightly so, to you know....My mother was always very much, you know, you've got to help other people.

You know, kindness was her. You know, if I had to wrap my mother up in one word, it would be her level of kindness to people and so we did as a family. We did. And I did. And then I, and then, you know, coming into this role....

Am I a fundraiser at heart? I'd like, you know, I listen...If I feel you're passionate about something, I have no qualms about asking people to help me. And I have to say I've had the most amazing support of my previous organization, and as I've moved into Leonard Cheshire, people have followed me. You'll see that on my LinkedIn yesterday. You know, supporters have come with me and want to do more for the disabled community and I, you know, I, you know listen, I'm lucky like.....

I think at the end of the day as a CEO, you're a storyteller, aren't you? And when you're talking externally, you're a brand ambassador, you're promoting our work.

And I feel really strongly about our cause, and I care and, without being too smooth or anything, I I've always wanted to make a bit of a difference to other people's lives. Of, you know, to have a more, you know, listen, I've been lucky. I've had a good life.

But how nice would it be for disabled people not to have those fights anymore?

Jon: What have you made of our own employment initiative initiatives - Change 100 and the campaigning work we do policy wise around employment?

Ruth: I love it. I absolutely love it. I think we need to do more. I think employment will always be a key theme of Leonard Cheshire, I think. You know, it is so fundamental to disabled people’s lives, you know - we all we you know, listen if we look at ourselves as human beings, what do we want for our families?

We want to our families to be looked after, don't we? We want to you know we want a good education. We want to have good house we want to have employment and we want to be looked after in our communities, don't we? And be part of the community? Disabled people want nothing different.

You know it's the same for all of us as human beings. So, I think our employment programs... I really, genuinely love it. I was on calls yesterday with our corporate partners that are supporting our employment programs and I want to do more, and I want to do more globally in that space as well, it's just not about the UK for me.

You know, we're a pan disability charity. We do amazing work in other parts of the world, and you know, I particularly feel strongly about women and employment and economic empowerment.

So, you know, yes, it's in my core, DNA, Jonathan, let's put it like that.

Jon: So, what's your ultimate ambition in terms of your future work with Leonard Cheshire, what immediately springs to mind in terms of what you'd like to achieve personally?

Ruth: Well, I guess you know our customers have to be at the heart of everything we do, and our customers have to be....and when I say our customers, I mean the people that we support.

You know when we support people in many various ways globally and I think they have got to be at the forefront of everything we do. And I think it's nothing.... you know we don't do anything without them.

There has to be an equal partnership and we have to listen. You know, it's important to listen. And one thing I really disliked when I was a young person and like you know, and I can say this. I used to have people that would come and see me that were you know I used to call the ‘walkiebees’ back then.

People that were walking, when I was a young woman, that would tell me how my life was going to be - and I'm like ‘Really?!You have no clue what it's like to face the world with a disability, and you're trying to tell me, and you're fabulous, you know, wherever you and your fabulous life where you've never faced any level of adversity, please don't come and insult my intelligence.

I used to say that to them, and actually I got rid of them Jonathan, I got rid of them as soon as I got...you know, I had my own voice. I got rid of them. Anybody like that. I sacked them, I said I'm never gonna see you again, so I was probably always destined to be a leader of some sort!

'Cos I just was like, you know, I'm not seeing you again because I cannot be listening to that. And I think for Leonard Cheshire, my biggest desire for the organization that we do, we do such amazing work, is that people recognize us?

Leonard Cheshire has been a disabled organization, Pan Disability, that champions the rights of disabled people for a fair and inclusive world.

Jon: To open doors for young disabled people like your 17-year-old self, that was called a lame duck at the Job Center?

Ruth: Absolutely.

Jon: What would you like to see Leonard Cheshire do to facilitate, you know a more positive start to their employment journey?

Ruth: Well, for a start they need to bloody well be more open minded, don't they?! I mean you know to say that to somebody that was very young sitting in front of them. I mean, you know it's terrible.

I mean, if I didn't have the fighting spirit that I had, that would have crushed me, and I probably would never have thought that I could go into the world of employment. And so, I think there is a whole education piece. I think there's all this conversation about an inclusive society that just needs to be even higher up the agenda and disability needs to be up there - right up there.

And people need to be open minded and see disabled people as talent and going into the employment market as talent. Now it won't be for everybody, but for the people that it can be for then it should be, and it shouldn't even be a conversation, should it? It should be as you go through the recruitment process. Look, you know you, you know. And if I look at my coming through Leonard Cheshire, the equipment part I wasn't even there! Wasn't even a conversation about that and that was good.

You know, it was based on my talents and my abilities, and I think that's where we've got to get to it as a society for disabled people facing, you know, wanting to go to employment. You know, the fact that they still have those struggles is not right.

Jon: Thanks very much, Ruth.

Ruth: Thank you, Jonathan.

Erin: Huge thanks to Jon and Ruth for that really dynamic discussion, and it was really interesting to hear about Ruth's personal experiences but also hear her observations on how things may have changed over time, but also what else still needs really needs to change as well. I've popped the link to our employment research in the show notes of our Simplecast site in case you want to check that out, and I've put Ruth's socials in there too if you'd like to give her a follow, she's @Ruth_owenOBE on Twitter! And you can follow us on Twitter and Instagram too @LeonardCheshire.

As always we want to know what you think, if you liked the episode, what else you want us to cover and who else we should interview, so please do email your suggestions to disabilitydownload@leonardcheshire.org and please remember to like, share and subscribe to the podcast.

Thanks so much for tuning in everyone, stay safe, until next time, I'm Erin and this has been The Disability Download.