Confronting ableism : the experiences of employees with bipolar disorder within 'normative' work contexts
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In contemporary, westernized and industrialized nations, such as the United Kingdom, paid work is considered the foundation of political, economic and social order (Newton et al., 2007). As vital as it is, however, paid work/employment remains an area of disadvantage for individuals who are constructed as ‘different’, such as women and disabled individuals. Disabled people, in particular, have been found to experience exclusion and discrimination in the labour market. This is evidenced in employment indicators, which depict an uneven distribution in employment outcomes for disabled individuals, particularly those with mental health conditions. The reasons for these disadvantages remain the essence of substantial dissension. The current study aims to contribute to knowledge of why disabled employees, specifically those with bipolar disorder, may be disproportionately subjected to discriminatory attitudes and practices in the workplace and labour market. The overarching aim is to offer a theoretical background for understanding the experiences of employees with bipolar disorder in the workplace. The study conceptualizes disability as a social construct discursively produced within social relations. The research is informed by qualitative semi-structured interviews with individuals who have bipolar disorder, allowing for a detailed exploration of how participants interpret their work experiences. The data collected was analysed using narrative and Foucauldian analytical techniques. Fundamentally, the findings offer a nuanced and in-depth perspective on the experiences of a concealed, yet marginalized identity in the workplace. The insights gained point to how the experiences of work may be a product of the construct of work around the ‘ideal’ employee. The narratives collected also underscore that the social connotations attached to the label of bipolar disorder, when allotted to participants, constructs such individuals as ‘less capable’. It allows for the dissemination of meaning to participants’ experiences, and opens up positions of subjectivity for these individuals. The findings both affirm and strengthen the theoretical basis of the social relational model of disability. The study contributes to knowledge of the vital role played by ableist work contexts in the lived experiences of employees with bipolar disorder, a subject area that remains largely under-researched in the domain of work and employment. The particular emphasis on social interactions, and on problematizing work contexts rather than individual capability differentiates the study from previous studies on bipolar disorder, and generates pertinent considerations for disability studies. Essentially, the findings call for the modification of work to comprise inclusive strategies, which are suited to the individualities of employees. The implications, both for employees and employers, are wide-ranging. The analysis of the resistance of subjective positions in the study adds to knowledge of how the disadvantaged position of disabled employees can be confronted and altered. The findings also highlight the need for a shift in organizational and governmental policies/schemes from individualizing disability to querying the normative nature of work in contemporary workplaces. As such, the study does not only offer a nuanced analysis of the lived experiences of employees with bipolar disorder; it also offers suggestions on how prevailing discursive practices can be made accommodative of difference.