Embracing disability in your organisation through authentic inclusion

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Dominique McAll, Executive Search Partner in the HR Practice at Eton Bridge Partners, shares her insights from a pre-lockdown thought-provoking breakfast event with more than 40 business leaders and senior HR professionals held at the Wellcome Trust, London.

The session was co-hosted by Liz Johnson and Adil Ghani of The Ability People (TAP), a disability inclusion consultancy. Liz, co-founder and managing director of TAP, is a three-time Paralympic medallist, including gold in Beijing, and is a multiple world champion born with cerebral palsy. Liz was joined by Adil Ghani, who has limb-girdle muscular dystrophy, a rare combination of diseases which causes the deterioration of muscles over time. It is a condition which he believes has helped him to make the most of what he has and look beyond his limitations.

Drawing on their experience and knowledge, they delivered a powerful, compelling and informative presentation that illustrated both the challenges disabled people face and offered practical solutions to make the working environment a more inclusive place.

Normalising difference

No fewer than 20% of the UK population are registered disabled, with many more undiagnosed or not comfortable enough to declare their disability.

According to TAP, the world is made up of people who are all different. Sometimes you can see the differences; sometimes you cannot. Some people are disabled; some are not. Sometimes we understand the differences; sometimes we don’t.

All of us, whether we are registered disabled or not, face barriers in our lives. But the way those barriers are perceived differs. Nobody should be instantly judged by appearance or behaviour.

The inevitable corollary is that, if your talent pool is not sufficiently diverse and inclusive, you are missing out on a wealth of potential from a significant proportion of the population. It is a given that inclusion makes business sense. The ultimate aim should be to persuade all organisations to adopt the mindset that it is normal to be different.

The value of authenticity

Authentic inclusion, and the normalisation of difference leads not only to genuine diversity, but also to optimised performance and productivity.

This is the difference between fitting in and belonging. If people are encouraged merely to fit in, that equates to them changing a part of themselves to fit a corporate ‘norm’. Creating a sense of belonging, however, adds real value to your organisation.

Authentic inclusion does not focus merely on disability or questions of diversity regarding race, gender or sexual orientation. If your organisation deals with inclusion across the board, all those questions will be answered simultaneously.

The Three E’s: Education, Empathy and Exposure

Organisations that wish to move towards normalising difference and creating an environment of authentic inclusion can do so through embracing these three related imperatives.

Education means exposing yourself to the realities of situations you may not have experienced. This can make you more comfortable with questioning your own processes, making adjustments and ensuring your people are comfortable interacting with another person who is not just like them.

It is not always possible to understand a challenge you have not directly experienced, such as a disability. But by striving to empathise, and creating an empathetic environment, you can give confidence to those who have.

One of the best techniques for building empathy, and for educating people within an organisation to the potential of those with disability, is exposure to such individuals and the challenges they face. Such interactions build knowledge, understanding and the acceptance of difference.

Focus on accessibility

It is alarming to learn that more than 50% of people in the UK who are registered as disabled are unemployed. Given that many disabled people, discouraged by the challenges they face to access the world of work, remain in academia, there are some highly educated operatives available to augment the workforce of an authentically inclusive employer.

Organisations should ensure their workspaces are as accessible as possible. If a potential employee has the qualifications and personality to improve your team but there is a physical factor preventing them working there, that should be addressed. Look at your location; are the nearby public transport facilities optimised for disabled people? Does entering and moving around your office present challenges that can be removed?

But accessibility also covers your website. Most sites are not as inclusive as they should be and in 2020 it is sobering to reflect how few can be used by voice activation.

If you are unsure how accessible and inclusive your organisation is, ask your employees – all of them – to tell you. You may learn some valuable lessons.

Because when you build a reputation for being a genuinely inclusive employer, word will spread, and you will get priority access to a huge pool of potential talent.

Optimise your selection processes

Checking every stage of your process for attracting and onboarding new talent is a valuable exercise. There may be barriers of which you are unaware that are obstructing the best people who want to join your organisation.

For instance, it is worth making it clear that you welcome all applicants regardless of disability and include on job descriptions the support you are able to offer.

The overall aim should be to create an environment of comfort where people can bring their whole selves to work and be the best they can be.

Normalising difference should cover more than merely those with disabilities. The intention should be to create a flexible, understanding and supportive environment.

Many companies have made efforts in recent years to increase inclusion with regard to age, race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. It may be perceived to be more challenging to apply the same efforts to disability because of a lack of understanding but with the right guidance and support, you can become authentically inclusive and reap the benefits of that change.

For further information on Liz Johnson and The Ability People, please follow this link to their website. We are also working with Liz around her advice on embracing the new normal during the Coronavirus pandemic. We look forward to sharing this follow up article with you soon.