Meet Inclusion Activist:
By Wura Obisesan on 3 November 2022
Q. Tell us about yourself, in particular what led to your interest in advancing equity and inclusion?
A. I’m a South Asian woman and at the age of 16 I experienced my first harsh life lesson. Growing up I went to a special needs primary school, then I went to a mainstream secondary school, and when I was aged 16
I started applying for jobs. It wasn’t until I removed any mention of my condition from my job applications that I got an interview and then I got a job straight away.
People question, why did you share that you had a condition? It’s not a part of my identity that I can hide or that I should hide as I was trying to be as upfront as possible. I have a short stature, I am 3 ft 10, so I’m about the height of a four-year-old and I was being honest, open and just being me, I had no idea that it would backfire on me.
So I learned a very harsh life lesson at 16 years old that people were judging my ability, either based on me writing I have a disability or my appearance. I’m a woman in a big South Asian community and disability faces a further sense of stigma in my community. I would say the work that I’m doing today is driven by my own personal experiences and wanting to create change.
I’m now 35 years old and I met a South Asian man who was disabled and 10 years younger than me. He was going through the exact same experiences that I faced, and I was really disgusted that in 10 years, nothing had changed.
I’ve been on a bit of a journey to get to where I am today as I’m now one of the UK’s highest profile and most influential disability activists. I work for global companies and I have worked with over 200 clients, right from Google to Virgin right down to smaller companies as well. What has led me here is when I was really struggling to get a job and that made me feel hopeless. I wanted to contribute to society rather than sit at home and do nothing for the rest of my life.
My family talked to me about going to university and I never thought I was clever enough to get in. I just chose a subject that I enjoyed, which was event management and I had a career in events for over 10 years. Some of my clients included Anthony Joshua, Tyson Fury, Floyd Mayweather and other really high profile clients and big organisations.
What I really loved is that I was challenging people’s perceptions about disability just by doing my job, doing something I was really good at, because I live in a world that isn’t designed for me. It made me a really good event manager, because you’ve got to think outside of the box and be creative.
Q. What outcomes are you wanting to achieve and why do these need to happen?
A. I want to change people’s perception and the mindset when it comes to disability, because disability is the largest diversity strand in the world. It’s the largest minority group that anyone can be part of at any time but it always seems to be lowest on D&I agendas. When you’re disabled, your life outcomes are pretty bleak, unless you’re privileged or you’re a millionaire. Twenty seven percent of disabled people live in poverty, disabled people are twice as likely to be unemployed and have to apply for 60% more jobs, according to Scope. These are statistics I have been speaking about for years and years, and they’re only getting worse. We need to get people to stop thinking about disabled people as a burden and as a drain on the economy. I’ve contributed to society since I was 16 years old and I want to, but everyone’s making it hard to do that.
I help people change their mindsets, and that’s why I work with businesses and brands to help them transform their experience on inclusion; especially disability inclusion. We don’t have good disability representation in our media. People are focusing their efforts in the wrong place as they are focusing on fixing and diagnosing people, I just want to make life more equitable for disabled people.
Q. How is your work helping to achieve these outcomes above?
A. It’s helping people have uncomfortable conversations that they might not have the confidence to discuss. I think a lot of the topics that I talk and campaign about, whilst they might not affect me as a disabled person necessarily, I can’t gloss over the fact that I’m a very palatable version of a disabled person and opportunities that I get, other disabled people may not get because of the nature of their condition. I have clear speech, I can communicate very clearly, those things are a privilege to have. There are so many other disabled people who are so much more educated than me that would love to have these opportunities, but because of the nature of their disability no one will ever consider that. Although it’s activism it’s also allyship for my community as well.
Q. Who or what inspires you to do what you do and how do you keep focused and energised in challenging times?
A. I’m motivated from my faith, I’m Sikh and Sikhism is a religion that is based on equality. So that’s how my parents raised me and they are baptised Sikhs, and we’ve always been taught to give back, to help others, to give a 10th of your earnings to charity and to do selfless service.
My dad is a big activist for Sikhs around the world so I grew up with him as an example. It would be very normal for us to go to protests on a weekend. I just thought that it was normal until I realised that nobody did that. So those have definitely taught me things as well as having faith in my religion and when things get tough because not only am I experiencing this oppression, but I’m also fighting within the system.
It does get tough, it does get exhausting, it feels like there isn’t any escape. I think what keeps me motivated is that change is possible and I know it’s about winning people’s hearts and minds and I think when you do that, it’s much easier to reach your goal. There’s still a long way to go there’s still a lot of conversations we need to have about disability for example, there’s so much white fragility in the disability community but nobody wants to talk about that. Nobody wants to address that so we’ve got a long way to go inside the community as well as outside the community itself.
Q. How can individuals support your work?
A. Individuals can support by making inclusive and accessible decisions. That means there’s less work for me to do, and less calling out for me to do, but people can support by helping to amplify my voice. I face lots of different oppression and although I have a lot to say, although I have lived experience, although I have lots of professional experience, my voice doesn’t always travel to the places where I really need to get to so change happens. I really appreciate when people are signposting other people to me, my work, my services and booking me as a speaker. That’s all great – but what will really help me is by people making inclusive and accessible decisions.
Q. How can employers specifically get involved?
A. Employers need to do better when it comes to recognising and acknowledging their disabled employees’ needs. Obviously, that’s something I can help with but creating a genuine connection with them and not just saying a particular person is disabled, because we need to fill this tick box in. It is a good start and I just think recognising that this journey to inclusion, is a journey. It’s not that you do X, Y and Z and you’re done. Employers should be constantly looking at ways to improve, constantly thinking who are we excluding? This is because I think by default how we operate as people we make decisions based on our own bias and our own knowledge.
Q. What is your desired outcome with your campaign, your work and your activism?
A. I’m enjoying lots of different broadcasting opportunities as I am a panellist on Loose Women, Rip Off Britain and Jeremy Vine on Five, so I’m really enjoying bringing these topics to a much larger and mainstream audience. I always wanted to be part of the change that I wanted to see across society and slowly I feel like I’m infiltrating all the broadcasters, so that’s probably what I would say is next for me, and that’s what’s been keeping me really busy, but I’m still doing my consulting and speaking engagements and there is lots happening behind the scenes.
Find out more and get involved:
- Diversability – Exclusive discounts for disabled people
- Asian Woman Festival
- Asian Disability Network
- Follow Shani on Linkedin
- Follow Shani on Twitter
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