If you read this question and your honest gut response is yes, then you’re not alone. 67% of the British public feel the same way. 21% of 18-34-year-olds admit that they have purposefully avoided talking to a disabled person. They weren’t sure how to communicate with them.
The media representation of disabled people doesn’t help. Perform an image search for diversity and you’ll see images of colourful, happy people. Search for disabled people and you’ll see Paralympians or people in wheelchairs. Sometimes just a wheelchair itself.
If you are lucky enough you might spot a disabled person on the television. They are often depicted as an inspirational superstar or weak, defective, a ‘character’. Disabled people are massively underrepresented everywhere. White, non-disabled, heterosexual males still dominate our screens and advertisements. We don’t see our society reflected on screen. And we rarely see it in our workplaces either.
Does your workplace reflect society accurately?
Despite this, 1 in 6 people of working age is disabled. And only 8% of disabled people are wheelchair users. The majority of impairments are simply not visible. So, you will be talking to disabled people without realising it. The trouble is, for those with invisible disabilities, experience has taught us it is far safer to remain invisible. Keep quiet. Find ways around the barriers faced and cross your fingers that you’ll be able to keep it up. And people often do.
Living with a disability breeds strength. It builds resilience, problem-solving, innovative thinking, different perspectives, determination. All of which are massively valuable in the workplace. All are qualities employers tell us they want to see more of.
So how do you get your employees to be open with you? It starts with you and the culture you’ve built in your organisation. Do senior leaders in the organisation talk about their health conditions or challenges openly? Have you found ways to encourage flexibility? Do you have employee networks? Are your sickness policies fair or do they penalise those with long term health conditions or people who care for others? Does your workforce represent the customers and community you serve? Building an inclusive culture takes time, commitment, courage. But the dividends are far reaching…