This blog is co-authored by Eurydice Cote from our Clinical Negligence and Personal Injury team and Dave Bracher, Vocational Support Manager at the Spinal Injuries Association (SIA)

The majority of spinal cord injuries are still caused by traumatic events, such as road traffic accidents or falls. Sports injuries and violence are also common causes of spinal cord injuries. A (so-called) non-traumatic injury can occur because of arthritis, inflammation, infections or disc degeneration of the spine that can cause compression and therefore damage to the spinal cord. The incidence of non-traumatic injuries is increasing, partly due to better reporting but also due to the impact of an increasingly aging population.

A spinal cord injury has life changing consequences. Significant changes in almost every aspect of life will generally be needed. In a context where mundane tasks present new challenges, a return to work can seem unfeasible. It is estimated that only 33% of individuals with spinal cord injury of working age are in employment.

However, there are tremendous benefits to engaging in vocational activities, whether it is through paid employment or volunteering, returning to education or sport. Studies have long demonstrated that individuals, whether or not they are spinally injured, who partake in vocational activities report increased life satisfaction and integration, reducing the likelihood of isolation and depression. These benefits are significantly enhanced for individuals with a spinal cord injury. Vocational activities are the best way to increase connections with others, and one can derive a strong sense of making a difference that has positive ramifications on psychological and emotional well-being.

That is not to say that it is easy – there are often a number of barriers, whether real or perceived, to be encountered when deciding to return to employment or to partake in volunteering. These barriers can take the shape of personal healthcare issues, such as dealing with pressure ulcers, incontinence, pain and fatigue. In addition, there are also concerns about environmental limitations, not least the lack of suitable transportation or premises that are not, or only partly, wheelchair accessible. Returning to work can seem challenging and daunting, hence why researchers have identified that motivation compounded by a strong support network are key.

From a legal perspective, an employer is under an obligation to make reasonable adjustments for individuals with spinal cord injuries. This includes for example providing certain types of equipment or allowing flexible working hours. The Equalities Act 2010 protects spinal cord injured people by preventing employers from discriminating when it comes to recruitment, pay and promotion, and dismissal or redundancy. There is also Government support available via the successful Access to Work scheme. This provides grants to help people with an impairment purchase the equipment, adaptations or even transport they need to enable them to work, thus ensuring they become taxpayers again and don’t claim benefits.

It is also possible to re-train to find new opportunities. Everyone’s life experience is unique which is why personalised support is key. For this reason, it beneficial to contact a vocational support keyworker who can help identify skills and needs to help you find a suitable occupation. The vocational support offered by the Spinal Injuries Association (SIA) is built on a strong culture of peer support and encouragement and offers practical assistance from people who have direct experience of spinal cord injury. There is a wealth of opportunities waiting to be seized – the trick is finding which one suits best.

The Government recently published a Green Paper ‘Improving Lives’, setting out ideas for a 10 year strategy to close the disability employment gap. This consultation document attracted much comment and feedback, but it’s encouraging to see the Government looking at constructive solutions to address the issues of disability employment and being prepared to listen to key stakeholders when deciding future policy. Innovative and creative solutions will only go so far however; the issue of individual negative bias by recruiting managers and companies remains a very real issue for disabled people and much more needs to be done to challenge and address this.