• Managing people

Diversity, Inclusion and Disability

Thom Dennis and Jane Hatton offer 12 ways to stop tokenism and break the stigma of disability in the workforce


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McKinsey's 2020 study, Diversity Wins, confirms the robust business case for inclusion and diversity at work and reports that "the relationship between diversity of executive teams and the likelihood of financial outperformance has strengthened over time."

Diversity to be effective goes beyond creating racial and gender balance. It is about fostering diverse thinking and varied perspectives in the corporate culture. Despite the strong business case, let alone the moral case, for diversity, the McKinsey study shows that overall progress towards widespread inclusivity is slow.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the recruitment and promotion of disabled and neurodiverse people. Approximately 15% of the world’s population live with some form of disability but only 2-4% have disabilities which cause significant difficulties functioning, yet disabled people are over a third less likely to be employed than non-disabled people. The business case for diversity is a case for inclusion of the disabled too.

Thom Dennis, CEO of Serenity in Leadership, argues that exclusion of the disabled is due to fear and misunderstanding. “Businesses are missing opportunities to be ethical, open and inclusive and have access to some serious talent. The additional life experiences disabled people bring often means they are extremely resilient, good at looking at different ways of doing things, good communicators, and problem solvers. They are also more likely to be loyal to a business that appreciates their talent…. Disabled people are more often than not an incredible asset.”

From FDR to Stephen Hawking, individuals living with disabilities tend to have extraordinary resilience built out of working through adversity and taking difficult decisions. Jane Hatton, CEO of Evenbreak, adds that “Neurodiverse people―e.g., people with autism, dyslexia or Tourette’s―are sometimes seen as ‘different’ or ‘aloof’, but actually a diversity of thinking styles means that better, and more creative and innovative decisions are made.” At a time of transformative change in the business world, when resilience and innovation are key to sustainable success, these skills that disable people bring can be uniquely beneficial to organizations.

“What the disabled want is to be seen and recognised for their skills and abilities, all the positive things they bring,” asserts Dennis. “Management need to ask themselves; are they really recognising the strengths of disabled candidates and employees, some of which have been gained as a result of their disability? What positive effects could promoting that disabled person bring? Are you actually seeing beyond disability?”

Hatton reports that at Evenbreak, “We find that many of our candidates are experienced managers. Some may have been born with their impairments, and others may have acquired a long-term health condition during their working lives. Both can find it difficult to move up the career ladder sometimes because of misguided preconceptions by their employers about what they can achieve.”

“We worry we might get it wrong and offend someone when we try to be inclusive," she adds. "The onus then falls on the disabled person to make it easier for the non-disabled person and we spend a lot of time reassuring rather than relaxing into work relationships.” 

 “The way we see disability is complex and the questions that need addressing are endless,” declares Dennis. “Are we disabled because we are different? Are we disabled by the steps that block the wheelchair for example, if a ramp would in fact enable us to reach the same place? Does that therefore mean we are impaired rather than disabled and actually just need to be empowered or enabled….. In fact we are disabled by society and people’s lack of education and experience, and their fear, and the only way to fix that is through education towards inclusion.”

Thom Dennis and Jane Hatton, suggest 12 ways to reduce the stigma around disability at work:

  1. Change the narrative. Most people perceive disability as a ‘tragedy’ and that we should feel sorry for someone who is disabled. Disabled people are not objects of pity, frightening and helpless, but potentially resourceful and skilled people who have different challenges to other people.
  2. Educate, educate, educate. Most misconceptions are built on myths and inaccurate presuppositions and lack of experience or willing. Replace myths with the facts and encourage warm inquisition.
  3. Open communication. Disabled people are often happy to be asked questions and are appreciative of others taking an interest in their story. Likewise, if you want to help a disabled person, ask them what they need. Make it ordinary conversation. Replace fear with curiosity and understanding until there is no need for further questions and the disability just isn’t ‘a thing’ anymore.
  4. Be inclusive. Not having disabled people as part of a diverse workforce means there is a strong danger of lack of innovation and creativity; instead the group may develop the same mindset and goals, and simply agree with each other, rather than stretch the possibilities in thinking. Break down the barriers.
  5. Remove the fear and stigma. We are all different and difference is to be celebrated. That makes us interesting. See the fear, feel the fear, and work through it instead of projecting it onto someone else.
  6. Avoid tokenism at all costs. Disabled people don’t need charity and they certainly don’t want to be the token disabled person in the workplace when they are as talented as the next person.
  7. Designing inclusion from the beginning is easier than retro fitting it. Don’t allow disability to be something you have ticked a box for. Design for inclusion from the outset.
  8. Collaborate with disabled people. Invest in their good advice for meaningful input and to avoid tokenism. Don’t second guess what disabled people need. Disabled people are crucial in educating about disability―ask them.
  9. Leaders must model positive behaviour. People emulate the behaviours of those they admire so leaders need to model by encouraging open, inclusive and curious behaviour. This makes them an ally and a part of the legacy of enabling, not disabling.  
  10. Recognise disabled candidates are premium candidates because they are often extremely resilient, good communicators, loyal to a business that treats them well and excellent problem solvers. They’ve had plenty of practice!
  11. Stop disabled people from limiting their own expectations. Giving equal opportunities to disabled individuals will directly lead to greater quality of life and control over their own lives. Offer opportunities to reach for the sky.
  12. Just care a little more about people. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes for a moment and consider how you would you feel if people were clearly embarrassed or awkward around you, if you were segregated and isolated, or if society told you it would be better if you were someone else. Being aware of how we are behaving and how it can make others feel can have a monumental impact on each other’s self-esteem and confidence. It’s time to take the fear out of disability.

Thom Dennis, CEO of Serenity in Leadership, and Jane Hatton, CEO of Evenbreak

Thom Dennis, CEO of Serenity in Leadership, and Jane Hatton, CEO of Evenbreak

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