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‘We are a human organisation’ – living, working and making a difference with a disability at Serco

In September 2013, several months into a new role leading the IT function for Serco UK & Europe, Annette Moody was rushed to hospital from the office with sudden pain and paralysis throughout her body.

An MRI scan showed spinal bleeding and there was severe damage to her nervous system. Initially paralysed from the neck down, Annette spent a year in intensive care and rehabilitation, recovering and strengthening limited movement, independent breathing and her speech.

Today, Annette plays a key role in shaping and delivering our future IT capability as Group IT Governance Director.

Here, Annette shares her experience of returning to her role in Serco and working with a disability.

‘Get me home and get me to work’

That’s what I spelt out, with help and a letter board, when they told me I’d be paralysed for life. That was the start of my mission to get back to work. I had my laptop in hospital, my manager phoned and visited regularly, and I joined team calls even though I couldn’t speak.

When the time came, returning to work in person was terrifying and electrifying in equal measures – I look so different from the old me, yet I feel exactly the same on the inside. I was thrilled to be back – I love working in IT and I’ve always been proud to be Serco, but it’s much harder being paralysed and working from a wheelchair than I expected!

Nothing has really changed, though, my job is as challenging and exciting as it ever was and I’m still good at the things I used to be good at, and bad at the things I used to be bad at.

When I’m focused on the job in hand, I forget that I can’t move

Luckily, not every job needs every bit of your body to work – the key is finding a match between what it does need and what can be managed differently.

I feel self-conscious because I can’t easily join in with normal things like shaking hands. Sometimes it feels daunting to enter a room full of people and navigate my way around everything and everyone.

I just take a deep breath and get on with it.

Most buildings are accessible by wheelchair, attitudes really are changing, and technology is my ally. Lots of technology is now addressable by voice. I have adapted my techniques as well. I used to use a whiteboard, now I prepare a PowerPoint slide. I used to make copious notes and lists, now I’m a fiendish instant messenger. My productivity hasn’t deteriorated.

My manager and colleagues are incredibly supportive

At Serco, our Values and culture are aligned to embracing diversity of all types at all levels in the organisation. There is always help if you ask for it, and most people are really happy to assist.

My manager is a good example of someone who lives our Values. He was very open to thinking differently about how I could do the global elements of my job and gives me simple practical advice if I’m ever in any doubt. He is also helping me to sponsor a new initiative we have launched, focused on Women in Technology.

Having a 24-hour assistant is probably the strangest part of my new life. I have a team of three on rota, living with me and my husband. They’re an adaptable group – they come to the office, help me do physio, help me travel and take care of all my personal needs (including my hair and make-up).

Above all, we are a human organisation. Disability is a part of everyday, normal life. It’s not exceptional, inspirational or even scary – it’s just life. If we follow our Values, why wouldn’t we take this seriously at Serco?

My ambitions for making a difference every day

My original objective was quite straightforward and modest – using my experience to make it easier for my colleagues, one person at a time. For all my colleagues with disabilities, my main advice is always this: grab hold of your situation and tell people what you need – they won’t know unless you tell them, and most people are keen to help. Also: don’t let your disability limit your horizons – look for the job you want and then work out how to do it to do it.

However, as SercoUnlimited and my own confidence have grown and strengthened, I have a broader objective – to make large-scale, structural and systemic change to Serco.

I am now more focused on helping my Leadership colleagues think actively about how we can embed sustainable change in our everyday life. I still work with individual colleagues and teams who need help to understand how to think differently, but my ambitions are more strategic.

Now is our time

Since becoming disabled, I’ve noticed a huge change in society. For example, when I first started back to work it was a nightmare to find London taxi drivers willing to take me. Those who did were rarely welcoming or considerate. Today, it’s better by far, and the huge changes in attitudes and behaviours are making me much more ambitious.

Another important change is the rising prioritisation of mental health – a staggering one in four people experience mental health challenges every year. The network’s focus has evolved accordingly and ‘hidden disabilities’ have come to the fore.

Covid-19 – a scary and challenging but exciting time of new opportunity

Perversely, the impacts of Covid-19 have been both very good and very bad. Shielding is challenging, and while an apartment in central London is a fantastic place to live if you’re in a wheelchair, it’s not ideal during a pandemic.

However, Covid-19 has helped to level the playing field. So many of my colleagues work from home now and meetings by videoconference are no longer the exception. IT has never been busier and more important to Serco.

For Serco Unlimited, it’s brought focus and energy from different areas of the organisation as many more people have had to grapple with the effects of ill health and mental wellbeing.

I’m really proud of all that we’ve achieved in the last year, including the Sunflower Scheme and our work to raise awareness of neurological diversity, but that’s just the beginning – there is so much more to come…