Disability: When leaders are open, everyone can be open
By Jo Faragher on 21 January 2020
A recent survey by the TUC found that the size of the disability pay gap means the average disabled employee effectively works for free for the last two months of the year, and earns around £3,000 less annually than their non-disabled peers. A recurring theme when discussing disability and pay inequality is the existence of a “progression gap”, too – so there are not just barriers around getting into employment, but also for those with disabilities being able to further their careers at the same rate as their non-disabled colleagues.
There’s a much-quoted saying surrounding D&I that “you have to see it to be it”, and this is just as true for disability inclusion at work as it is for other strands in the diversity agenda. Being able to see leaders in organisations with either visible disabilities or being open about disabilities that are hidden can really support a greater sense of inclusion and help employees with disabilities to see there is a career future for them in that organisation.
At last year’s Disability at Work Summit, a number of the sessions highlighted how this openness is often easier said than done. Caroline Casey, founder of the Valuable 500 disability initiative, said she was “in the disability closet” for many years when she worked at Accenture: “I was worried that if they found out I can’t see [she has ocular albinism and is registered blind] they wouldn’t want me,” she said. Disability, she added, was often positioned as part of the corporate social responsibility agenda but did not receive as much attention on the inclusion agenda.
Likewise Jenny Lay-Flurrie, who is now the accessibility lead at Microsoft, did not disclose that she was profoundly deaf to colleagues at first. But when she did disclose, HR supported her through an introduction to the company’s deaf network and she is now chair of the disability resource group. Her openness has not just helped colleagues at Microsoft: she launched a support department for customers with disabilities that now takes around 200,000 calls per year, and she has been the driving force behind many of the accessibility changes made to the company’s software.
Sharing stories is the crucial element for Iain Wilkie, an executive coach who stutters. Last year he founded 50 Million Voices, which has so far brought together stammering networks and leaders from across 15 countries. He worked as a partner and member of the UK leadership team at EY, and feels that opening up about his stammer may have helped others who felt less confident about sharing their own vulnerabilities. “As a leader, they see that I got to a senior level and am happy to speak out about it. When we tell our stories, it’s important we show vulnerabilities because that’s an invitation for someone to respond – either with their own story or with empathy,” he explains. “We’re all looking for that human to human connection. But it has to be authentic, people can smell inauthentic humility a mile off.”
One movement that is all about stories is the #ThisisMe movement, where people from around the world share their stories of difference so that others might be inspired. Many companies, such as Sainsbury’s and M&G, have found that this has been embraced from the ground up – with junior or shop-floor employees using the hashtag and senior leaders catching on and adding weight. Sharing stories can take on a life of its own: at M&G, for example, head of D&I Mark McLane found that asking colleagues for stories around their disability was the best route to it becoming a board-level agenda item.
Even the way leaders deal with disability issues, despite not experiencing those challenges themselves, can be a huge factor in building an inclusive culture. Educating managers about the rewards of working with disabled people at electrical supply company SB Focus has helped overcome preconceptions that “there would be lots of red tape, there would be high sickness and it would cost a lot of money”, according to HR manager Jo Cloute. “I am pleased to report that [our managers] have embraced this challenge and as a company we are moving forward to a more inclusive and diverse workforce,” she says.
Opening up about disability can be tough, as it shows vulnerability. But at the same time it builds trust, connection, and the knowledge that the organisation will be supportive.
d&i Leaders is a global community of senior diversity, inclusion and HR focused professionals, looking to collaborate, network and accelerate their workplace inclusion strategy.