Interview: Mike Adams, CEO of Purple, on changing the disability conversation
Mike Adams, CEO of Purple, shares with Lysanne Currie his mission to change the disability conversation from disadvantage and inequality to one about potential and value.
Mike Adams has a useful exercise for leaders to try with their own company website. He calls it the no-mouse test. When you go home (or if you’re working from home, as you may well be), log on to your website, unplug your mouse – and see how far you can navigate your way through the site just by using the keyboard. How far did you get? Now imagine the obstacles a person with a disability might face. As Adams says: “It will give you a real indication of how accessible your online assets are. For example, do you have a sitemap? Do all your landing pages start stylistically with the first line all in caps? If you’re blind and using a screen reader, ‘WELCOME’ will read as an acronym.”
Flagging up such issues and providing solutions is what Adams does at Purple – a disability charity-turned-commercial venture that aims to bridge the gap between disabled people and businesses. Says Purple’s mission statement: “We believe that by bringing disabled people and businesses together we can change the conversation from one of disadvantage and inequality to one about potential and value, recognising people with disabilities as consumers, employees and valued citizens and finding new ways to unleash the Purple Pound for the benefit of both.”
That Purple Pound was estimated to be worth some £249bn in 2017. And yet just 10% of businesses have a strategy to access this huge market. Meanwhile just 4% of companies are focusing on inclusion initiatives in this area. According to the Office of National Statistics, in 2018 the average disability pay gap in the UK was 12.2% – for those fortunate enough to be employed. The charity Scope discovered that fewer than half of the 1.3 billion people worldwide with disabilities are in employment. As Caroline Casey, whose Valuable 500 drive aims to get 500 firms to place disability inclusion on their agenda, puts it: “We don’t need to fix disabled people – we need to fix the business system.”
Adams spent the first 16 years of his life at a special school, learning “not only to be myself but also important skills such as independence”. It taught him to see challenges as opportunities. “In order to prove I was just like everybody else, I rose to those challenges from a very early age,” he says, “which I think has helped me with my leadership skills now.”
Historically, he explains, disability was seen as being about vulnerable people: “It had been an issue about welfare, and an issue about charity. Purple is about shifting that dial and making disability resonate for businesses. We wanted businesses to see disability as an opportunity, as a contribution, as a talent pipeline – and as a consumer pipeline.”
For Adams, disability is – or should be – a real commercial priority. “It can really impact and benefit the bottom line,” he says. “That has been a huge narrative and story to tell businesses who either hadn’t thought about it, or had, but only in a corporate social responsibility sense.”
He thinks it’s partly a perception problem. “The international sign for disability, the wheelchair, is known all over the world,” he says. “But wheelchair users only comprise 8% of the disabled population – 80% of disabled people have hidden disabilities. It also encompasses mental health, neurodiversity, cancer and those recovering from cancer and other long-term health conditions. And it’s amazing how many people even with cancer, or who have recovered from cancer, don’t know they had rights under disability.”
If, traditionally, disability was seen as a bit of a PR risk and placed in the “too difficult” box, the conversation has, thankfully, improved – and it’s getting louder. There are significant reasons for this. “Covid has shone a really bright light on society, and what we think or what we believe,” says Adams, who, during this age of WFH, is keen to highlight how poor the state of online accessibility is. Just 3% of the top one million websites worldwide have basic accessibility standards. Meanwhile, globally, lockdown adversely affected disabled people, who were “disproportionately isolated as they weren’t able to access really basic information that was not being given elsewhere”.
Many people with disabilities were unable to book slots for supermarkets to get even basic food. Meanwhile, the Click-Away Pound Survey in 2020 estimated the loss to UK businesses from online customers dropping off a website due to poor customer service or accessibility at a huge £17.1bn. As Adams says, those businesses bouncing back from the disruption of the pandemic “cannot afford to write off 22% of the UK population who have got disabilities and rights under legislation”.
The other issue, he points out, is the exponential growth in recognition of mental health. “People who never believed that they would be affected by mental ill health have, either themselves or their family, been touched by it through lockdown. Post-lockdown, hybrid work and the wellbeing of staff will be an absolutely key issue. Suddenly, disability is moving up the corporate ladder.” And, as Casey has pointed out, the business community’s reaction to Covid-19 has indeed demonstrated it is possible to make changes almost immediately – no more excuses.
If managers have perceptions about disabled talent not being able to do the job, then they’re going to lock themselves out of a talent pool of up to a million people, who could have a brilliant role within that company
Purple’s Pact is a series of modules that provides a framework for leaders to “think smarter”. “It’s about getting the board or senior management team to understand the issue with a bit of training, and by creating a set of metrics that they can look at and monitor progress,” says Adams. “They don’t have to be difficult metrics. It could be: ‘Look, we have a known percentage rate of disabled people at 3%. However, 80% of disabled people have hidden disabilities. So we’ve got a problem that people aren’t disclosing. What is it that we can do anonymously to enable staff in our organisation who don’t currently disclose their disabilities to feel that they can?’” Frontline staff, too, are vital: “They are the physical front door to your business.”
So, what key measures would he like to see addressed in 2022? “The big issue,” he says, “is about redefining accessibility.” While many assume catering to disability is “all about ramps and lifts, in the modern world accessibility is also about access to online assets. Digital assets are the new gateways to your shop windows.” He points out that 50–60% of improvements to website navigation “can be made overnight, at little or no cost, by web developers or your own internal web team”.
Ultimately, there’s clearly a wealth of talent out there that business isn’t tapping into – and that needs to change as soon as possible. “If managers have perceptions about disabled talent not being able to do the job, then they’re going to lock themselves out of a talent pool of up to a million people, who could have a brilliant role within that company,” he says. “There’s a group of people who are ready, and who are being totally and utterly ignored.”
And, as he points out, they are people to whose strengths hybrid working plays extremely well. “We ran a webinar a few weeks ago with young disabled consumers – what they want and what they’re looking for,” he says. “The quote that came out was, ‘One day, we are going to run this town.’ And by that, I think they meant, “We are the next generation. We are going to have leadership positions, and we’re going to need to influence where our society is going.’”
What he doesn’t want to do, he says, “is frighten people: we don’t want people to say ‘Oh, no, that’s just too big. It’s going to cost too much. We won’t do anything.’ So be smarter. Look at the things that can be easily done overnight – and then do them. And then you’ll start to build traction, to realise it’s not actually all that expensive and that you’re potentially opening up your market to some 22% of the population. [At Purple], we’ve always said, we’re not creating a disability ghetto – we’re creating a brilliant marketplace.”