Meeting of minds: How accessibility unlocks ability
Disability seldom gets the attention other areas of ED&I do. But in the UK, more accessibility would open up a talent pool of 2.8 million. Two advocates with first-hand experience, Liz Jessop CA, KPMG’s WorkAbility Chair, and Valuable 500 founder Caroline Casey, explain how progress is being made
Liz Jessop CA: Disability has a habit of not fitting easily into the corporate ED&I space – and it has always had to fight for oxygen. Gender and ethnicity have been visible as issues for a long time, but disability still has a habit of being left out or treated as an afterthought. They also have a collective use of language and experience that we don’t necessarily have. Disability is a word that’s meant to encapsulate every type and diagnosis, but even if you do have the same diagnosis as someone you would both have had very different experiences.
An individual might also not self-identify with that word either, nor believe that it explains their unique position. Either way, I’m passionate about ensuring that people know that they have legal protection against discrimination under the Equalities Act. In general, though, there’s a lot of fear or misunderstanding around the word – people think that it focuses on the things that you can’t do. But it actually means that under the social model you are disabled because our society is built for non-disabled people.
Caroline Casey: Data from the Valuable 500 trend reports in 2019 and 2020 showed just 3% of corporate communications around D&I had the word “disability” in them. That’s a startling reality. There is still a real gap in understanding the value of this community and the insight and innovation we bring to business. Most companies believe that they only have 2–3% of staff who are disabled, but we know the numbers are far higher. And we also know that 7% of business leaders have a disability, but four out of five don’t identify as disabled. People feel disinclined to disclose or identify as disabled —and, indeed, I didn’t for a long time.
LJ: Depending on which survey you read, somewhere between 17% and 21% of the UK have a disability. Companies have disabled staff; they just don’t know that they do because 80% of them are “invisible“. People don’t have to disclose it legally and perhaps they aren’t in a workplace where they feel comfortable to do so.
It’s easy to say, “it’s fine to disclose,” but I can’t say people with disabilities aren’t discriminated against, because they are. Research has shown that within 12 months of getting a disability diagnosis, 20% of people drop out of the workplace, so there are reasons people don’t say anything.
CC: Do you ever come across the situation in a meeting where someone will say, “We really like to call it ‘differently abled’”?
LJ: I do. And I react viscerally to that because I’m not one of the X-Men! Calling someone “differently abled” moves the conversation away from empowerment. You’re basically saying, “We’re going to ignore the things you have problems with.” I can’t do certain things and that’s fine [Jessop has a connective tissue disorder], but in order to be able to participate equally in society I need adjustments, and that’s what this conversation is about.
CC: Yes, I can’t see very well [Casey is registered blind], but that doesn’t mean I’m not capable, I’m just not as capable of seeing as you are. Andreas Heinecke’s Dialogue in the Dark experience is about understanding “the norm”. It poses the question: in a dark room, who is disabled, the sighted people or the blind people?
I’m also concerned that, when we talk about disability business inclusion, it’s through the lens of forcing companies to employ people with disabilities without them understanding the value we have for the market. Why is the conversation about disability only about employment and not about value in the supply chain, innovation or as customers?
LJ: An example is having someone consulting in the design team who can make sure that when you’re building something, you’re building it for everyone. People with a disability are more likely to point out things even if those things are not around their own disability.
CC: And then we could design out these barriers and have a world where everyone can co-exist. I’ve never felt more blind than I do on Zoom during the pandemic, for example, because I can’t see the chat function. I’m always putting up my hand to say, “sorry, guys”. I think that companies that had previously engaged and empowered employees to work remotely were best set up to thrive, because they’d already seen work requirements from different perspectives.
LJ: Some areas for me are actually better since the pandemic – I have got a genetic condition which means my legs and joints don’t work properly, and not having to travel definitely means less pain. I think it’s going to be hard for companies to justify everyone going back into an office full time when we’ve all seen that you can run a business from home successfully. Flexible working means getting to choose where it makes most sense for you to work. We’ve now proved that homeworking works, and it makes me happy to think it could open up jobs to people who have been excluded. At the same time, though, I am angry, because people have been fighting for this for years.
CC: The business system flexed because it had to with the pandemic. My hope as we move out of the pandemic is that we turn around as a community and demonstrate the benefits. I actually no longer believe we should make the business case for disability and inclusivity, because we’re making the case for human beings. The market is estimated at £249bn for people with disabilities, but more than that, we’re talking about futureproofing. This community is loud, and it touches so many people. Businesses cannot turn their back on that any more.
LJ: Sometimes data gets a great response, though; it says powerful things in a simple way. But at the same time, disability inclusion is the right thing to do and, by doing it, companies are becoming places where people want to work and magnets for talent. And, again, if you’re doing inclusion and diversity well, you’re automatically going to be producing a better product for more people, which is going to enhance your bottom line and make you a stronger brand.
CC: It’s an ever-evolving journey and the companies getting it right are constantly questioning or willing to fail and to put money and effort behind it. Their CEOs and board members are accountable – it’s not just the Chief Diversity Officer – they’re strategically integrating diversity and inclusivity across their company, and, importantly, admitting that they don’t know it all.
Disability metrics need to be integrated into performance tools – we can’t have sustainability indexes without disability metrics, we shouldn’t have online communication without accessible communication, and I’m also compelling organisations to understand the truth of their employee base around disability. I’m interested in an intersectional approach where we create cultures in which people show up in all the expressions of themselves. How can we put that in an action plan? Well, companies should go and ask their employees, because the intelligence is within the business.
LJ: Those doing it well also have clear, publicised action plans and targets. Because it’s easy to say, “we’ll do this,” but you need to say how. Companies are trying, but they haven’t made much progress because it’s complex. It takes a lot of collaboration to get any change, as well as patience and the humility to say, “The language has changed, let’s start again”. I want this to be a conversation that’s embedded in every company’s processes and policies. We need employers to recognise that disability is always going to be there.
CC: The ownership, pride and tools in the hands of the younger generation make me hopeful for the future, though. There is great creativity and energy, and for the first time a sense of collective energy and voice. Blending that with the Valuable 500, which is 80 companies away from being the biggest CEO community in the world, gives us real power to hack the system and integrate disability business inclusion.
LJ: People also have language around their disability and a confidence that I definitely didn’t have when I was younger. When others are being called out where they are wrong or being discriminatory, I also see more people saying, “okay, how can we change?” rather than being defensive – which is exciting. For me, that’s proof that all these years of shouting and fighting haven’t been in vain.