I’m Too Busy to be Disabled: Why (mis)perceptions of disability are limiting employers
“We’re too busy to be disabled…” That’s something my wonderful friend (and disability rights and advocacy guru) Rosemary Frazer said recently, and it taps into something I’ve been thinking for a while. When I consider who I am as a human being, my disability isn’t part of that definition. In the same way as when able-bodied people consider themselves, they don’t define themselves by their moles or the shape of their eyebrows or the amount of hair on their head. I’m a human living the only life I’ve ever known. My disability is something others focus on more than I do.
Maybe employers are reluctant to hire people with disabilities because they are too focused on the “disability” part to the exclusion of the “people” part.
Disability is often seen as a negative, particularly when it comes to work, and can often result in misguided feelings of pity. As Rosemary said later in the conversation “pity never solved shit!” And I think it’s safe to say businesses have as much use for pity as people with disabilities do themselves – which is to say, none at all. So if companies are only looking at the disability, and not the person, of course hiring such a person would be seen as a liability, rather than a boon.[clickToTweet tweet=”“Pity never solved shit!”” quote=”“Pity never solved shit!”” theme=”style6″]
According to Scope “disabled people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people,” yet despite this, “life costs you £550 more on average a month if you’re disabled.” To top it all, you have to overcome the perceptions of disability to gain employment. That’s a wall that’s twice as high for people with disabilities to climb than it is for those without disabilities – more than often based on perceptions rather than reality. The reality is that people with disabilities are people. We have the same range of talent, feelings, personalities, flaws, and anxieties as any other community – but offer several advantages as a potential workforce that the majority of employers are missing out on:
There are roughly 7 million people with disabilities of working age in the UK, which amounts to about 17.5% of working age adults. There are over 3.4 million people with disabilities in employment, and just a “10 percentage point rise in the employment rate amongst disabled adults would contribute an extra £12 billion to the Exchequer by 2030.” Recruiting those with disabilities not only gives your business a wider pool of talent – it’s also good for the economy.
In sickness and health.
This is compounded by evidence that shows people with disabilities are less likely to take sick days and more likely to be loyal to an employer that supports them. This loyalty is because “many disabled workers have had to overcome significant barriers to enter the job market and have developed a strong work ethic, commitment to succeed and job loyalty.” The key part of that is that this is the case when employers make an effort to adapt to the needs of the employee. But this upfront effort will pay off in the long run. It’s worth being flexible in a way that makes sense to both you and your employee – don’t be resistant to changing working methods to accommodate and retain a person with a disability. This flexibility is rare among employers and would make anyone reluctant to move to a different organisation, where they might not be greeted with the same inclusivity and flexibility. For example, just because it’s not physically possible for me to sit in my wheelchair in an office for 12+ hours a day every day and I may need to work in a different way from home a few days a week, it doesn’t mean I’m not as productive or creative. It just means I don’t end up in hospital from fatigue, as someone who happens to have Muscular Dystrophy.
Points of view.
Having a workforce that is diverse with people who happen to have a disability including those who are on wheels, blind, or have an invisible disability is a good business decision because it not only allows organisations to make use of as yet untapped potential talent. It also encourages them to expand their modes of operating and ways of thinking. In creative industries such as advertising, there is a marked lack of diversity. Even at the most creative of organisations, simply being imaginative won’t provide the same advantages as garnering the perspectives from a diverse workforce.
The Bottom Line.
By fostering inclusion, an organisation is more likely to be open to business from a customer or client point of view. Effectively, inclusion gives organisations access to a larger pool of talent as well as a larger pool of customers. Disabled people and their families have a spending power of £249 billion as of 2015 (up by £37 billion in the preceding year). A business’s attitude towards inclusion can have a significant positive (or negative) impact on their bottom line, and if their workforce does not include those who have disabilities, then they cannot represent that huge demographic or market, which is only set to increase. To cap it all, having a reputation for being inclusive and diverse signals a company that is forward-looking and sustainable rather than backwards and blinkered – as long as that company believes and acts upon these values.
Make do and mend.
People with disabilities are often inherently creative and resourceful on a daily basis as well as being innate problem solvers. This skillset spurs from the fact that society creates so many barriers that we very often have to find ways and means of adapting and being resourceful with what we have. This adaptive resourcefulness can include finding a way to get into a building that has no wheelchair access (as I’ve had to do many times), or engineering a way to make sure that you’re able to cook when you can’t see. Or navigating your way through a city that can be loud, stressful, and unfriendly (particularly scary for those who don’t have visible disabilities). The creativity, resourcefulness and innovation demanded of us on a daily basis is a USP that non-disabled peers can’t match (for the most part), so why aren’t employers taking advantage of this?
Personally, I struggled for three years after graduating to find any work, particularly in the advertising industry where often I cannot even gain physical access into agencies and even if I can, the agencies are often inflexible with regards to ways and hours of working. After unsuccessful and demoralising attempts to fit into the existing creative workforce, I’ve started a new consultancy, ThisAbility, sustaining the best creative disabled talent.
With my background in advertising, I’ve also been working with several organisations to increase the diversity of this demographic in the creative industries. D&AD, The Great British Diversity Experiment (GBDE), and Creative Social’s Creative Super Powers initiative are all examples of good practice. Some practical steps these organisations are taking are D&AD Impact Award, GBDE’s report on greater diversity for the advertising industry, and Creative Social’s plans for building up skill sets of “Creative Super Powers” in a new age of creativity (skill sets that many people with disabilities have already or could easily learn with the right support). There need to be more practical steps to remove barriers to work for talented people who happen to have disabilities.
While the individuals in these industries are on the whole kind and well-meaning people, I’ve had a mainly challenging experience in trying to find a lucky break. It would have been easier to give up and go into something else. Instead, I’ve chosen to stay connected with these industries to not only push myself but also make sure people like me aren’t invisible. This non-passive decision is my small way of challenging them (and myself) to do better and move out of our comfort zones towards a more inclusive, creative, and sustainable future. Listen up, employers: if you don’t take the time to include those of us who don’t fit the mould, we will find a way to include ourselves, and if that happens you’ll have missed the boat. Doesn’t it make more sense to set sail together?[clickToTweet tweet=”People with disabilities aren’t inherently brave or objects of pity just for getting out of bed” quote=”People with disabilities aren’t inherently brave or objects of pity just for getting out of bed” theme=”style6″]
If this now convinces you that your business needs to be more inclusive, then I’d like to stress one point: people with disabilities aren’t inherently brave or objects of pity just for getting out of bed. Behaving otherwise by employing a “good for you!” or “poor you!” attitude towards your disabled employees creates a barrier to interacting with them and can be unintentionally rather dehumanising. It’s very easy to undermine a person’s dignity through over-the-top pity or by turning them into unnecessary “inspiration porn” (a term coined by the legendary Stella Young). Understanding that a person with a disability will have a unique perspective that may or may not immediately fit with your company’s culture but if you’re serious about being forward-looking and diverse, that perspective is an important one to consider. Listen first. If you treat your employees with empathy, not sympathy you’ll make sure you’re looking at the person, not the disability.
You can see Sulaiman in action right here in this fantastic BBC piece about ‘Things Not To Say To Someone Who Uses A Wheelchair’:
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