In this extended episode, host Julia Streets is joined by Yasmin Sheikh, Founder of Diverse Matters and James Melville-Ross, Senior Managing Director in the Strategic Communications segment of FTI Consulting to discuss disability.
During the episode they explore how organisations can empower their workforce to be disability confident through the use of technology and by broadening the diversity discussion. Through their personal stories and experience, Yasmin and James highlight why disability is still perceived as the poor relation in the diversity and inclusion family. Mindful of how working practices have changed as a result of Covid-19, they discuss both the imperative and opportunity of why organisational practices must not and need not return to the way they were.
Yasmin is the founder of Diverse Matters which helps organisations empower their workforce to be disability confident through her consultancy services, workshops, coaching and disability focused events. She worked as a lawyer in the City for 12 years before setting up her own consultancy.
Yasmin also helps organisations become more inclusive thereby increasing profitability and improving the retention of staff.
Yasmin is also a multi-award winning international speaker, TEDx speaker, 2018 winner of the Asian Women of Achievement Awards (in association with Natwest) for her work in tackling pre-conceptions about disability, LGBT and ethnic minorities, Vice-Chair of Lawyers with Disabilities and Council member at the Law Society. She also recently won Changemaker of the Year awarded by the Professional Speakers’ Academy for her work in changing cultures in organisations.
James Melville-Ross is a Senior Managing Director in the Strategic Communications segment of FTI Consulting and is based in London. He has extensive strategic communications experience, gained throughout a 25-year career that has included work in Europe and the Far East.
He has built a strong track record in providing senior counsel to companies in areas such as reputation management, financial communications, employee relations, issues management, media relations and capital markets transactions. Acting as a senior counsellor to some of the world’s best-known companies, particularly in the Telecoms, Media and Technology sectors, he has extensive investor, media and employee relations experience in connection with many high-profile situations.
James also brings wide ranging experience in the field of Crisis Communications, having handled many situations on behalf of companies whose reputation is under attack, including product recalls, investor activism, public protests, cyber breaches and more. He has co-authored a number of papers on the topic of crisis, including the ‘Anatomy of a crisis’ series and ‘The rise of the antagonist’.
He is a strong proponent for equality at work and in society and leads the Group’s Diversity and Inclusion efforts in EMEA. He is an ambassador for the disability charity Scope, speaks and blogs on the topic of disability and his book about his disabled twins, Two for Joy, was published in 2016.
You can follow James on Twitter @JMRoss.
Series Eight, Episode Two Transcript
Julia: Hello, my name is Julia Streets, and welcome to DiverCity Podcast, talking about equality, inclusion, and diversity in financial services. On the podcast we seek to shine a light on positive progress, call out areas requiring further focus and offer lots of ideas to help drive change. Today, I’m joined by Yasmin Sheikh, and James Melville-Ross.
Yasmin Sheikh is the founder of Diverse Matters, which helps organisations empower their workforce to be disability confident. She helps organisations become more inclusive with a very keen focus on increasing profitability, and improving staff retention. She offers a wide range of consulting services, delivering workshops, coaching, and disability focused events. Her career has included working as a city lawyer for some 12 years, she’s an international speaker, and in 2018 won the Asian Women of Achievement award for her work in tackling preconceptions about disability, LGBTQ+, and ethnic minorities.
Yasmin, welcome to the show.
Yasmin: Thank you, Julia, pleasure to be here.
Julia: James Melville-Ross is a Senior Managing Director at FTI Consulting, providing senior counsel to companies in reputation management and financial communications. Based in London, James’ 25 year career has included work in Europe, and also across to the Far East. He is a strong proponent for equality at work and in society, and leads the group’s diversity inclusion efforts in EMEA. As an ambassador for the disability charity Scope, and his book about his disabled twins, Two For Joy, was published in 2016.
Julia: James, welcome to the show.
James: Lovely to talk to you, Julia.
Julia: Wonderful. It’s 2020, fascinating year for everybody, clearly. Yasmin, I’m going to come to you, first of all. Tell us what you’ve been focused on. I’m also really keen to know, has anything changed since the COVID-19 lockdown?
Yasmin: Thank you, good question. My main focus in 2020 has been really building an online training programme for my clients, so HR line managers, disabled people, about how to be more confident around disability issues in the workplace. A lot of my work was face to face training, workshops, live events, and obviously given the situation that we’re in, actually, the timing was good in a way because it’s forced me to sit down and really build that online training, provide webinars, in a suitable format so people can access those in a different way.
I’m also pregnant, I’m expecting a baby in June. Well, beginning of July. That’s exciting, but also, I tick another diversity box now in that I’ll probably need some flexibility even though I’m self-employed. I will need some flexibility, and having online training is probably the way forward to fit around the baby, and work part time. That’s really sharpened my focus. COVID-19 has just forced me to sit down and build this programme, which I’ve been meaning to do for a very long time.
Julia: It’s interesting, because I think flexibility is the watch word at the moment, so it’ll be very interesting to see how this year evolves, and plays out all the way through. Congratulations, by the way, exciting times for you, for certain.
James, how about you, what’s been your main focus for this year? The same question applies, really. What’s changed, of late?
James: Well, congratulations, first of all Yasmin, that’s very exciting news, wonderful! Also, I should point out I think you introduced me as the lead for D&I at our firm, I’m actually co-lead. I don’t think that they would entrust responsibility to a white, straight man with two surnames in its entirety, just to be clear about that.
Focus 2020 for me is the same, really, as every year, an awareness for disability, and understanding. I think it’s still the kind of poor relation of diversity, it’s too difficult, it’s too awkward, it’s too unfamiliar for so many people. I think Valuable 500’s DIVERSish video, if you haven’t seen it, is absolutely brilliant on this topic. 90% of companies claiming to prioritise diversity, and yet only 4% prioritising disability. I think people still see it as a niche consideration, even though there’s over 1.3 billion people, worldwide, with some form of disability.
I think the commercial imperative is still missing from the conversation. Together, with friends and family, that 1.3 billion people account for a spending power of $8 trillion. Not enough organisations are recognising that, I think there’s still more clothing lines for dogs than there are for disabled people, which I think is a wonderful stat.
As for lockdown, I think pros and cons, really. Disabled people are feeling, I guess in certain respects, a little bit more included because work is made more straight-forward, social lives easier to access without the transport issues, and access to venues that normally cause problems. In many ways, isolation is a permanent state for a lot of disabled people, in some cases this really isn’t anything new. I think the virus has also sparked a wave of public empathy, which has been positive for the disabled community.
That said, I think there’s a bit of a fear factor here, a worry about the virus itself. We had this hideous news early in the process, here in the UK, about “do not resuscitate” advisories coming from the British Medical Council, which made those in the community feel very, very worried, indeed. Of course, the economic impact, life is three times more expensive for most disabled people. The budget cuts for local authorities, suspension of critical charities that we all rely on, and the irritation of, still, not having British sign language at the government daily summaries is still causing consternation for some of us. There have been pros and cons, I’d say.
Julia: Thank you, James. There’s certainly a lot in that, that we’ll unpick for sure.
Yasmin, if I may just come to you. You described yourself, when we’ve been doing our preparation of the podcast, you described yourself as a full-time wheelchair user. I would love it if you could share some of your insights into your personal experience.
Yasmin: That is a massive question. Well, initially, when I was first injured, I had a spinal stroke back in 2008, so I was 29 years old. It came as a huge shock, because as somebody who never spent any time in hospital whatsoever, I fell into that category where 86% of disabled people actually acquire their disability whilst a working age. I was working, at the time, as a lawyer in the city, as you said in your introduction, in a big firm. Ironically, I was practising personal injury law. You can’t make this stuff up, can you?
It’s the shock of having a different body, because when you have a spinal cord injury it’s not just the not walking. In fact, you realise that’s almost the least of the issues. Your bodily functions change, your skin, everything, bladder, personal care, the way you wash, dress. Then, it’s the huge psychological adjustment that you have to make about how you see yourself differently, but how you identify now, and how other people look at you as well.
When I came out of rehab, I was off work for about a year, what struck me was, obviously, the way I move around is different, the lack of accessibility. I was 29 years old, in my prime. All the pubs, clubs, favourite places to go, restaurants, hugely inaccessible, and I live in London. I was shocked that hardly any train stations were accessible, and, if they were, pray that the lift was in order.
Once you get more familiar with where you can go, and boring things like where to find a functioning disabled toilet which hasn’t got a load of rubbish, used as a store cupboard, which is another issue. Or, they put a table in front of the disabled toilet, and you’ve got to disturb lots of guests. Sometimes, it’s the little things that really bug you. Quite frankly, sometimes it’s exhausting being a disabled person, and that’s just a small insight.
What I realised, in terms of the workplace, is when you’ve navigated the travel, the lack of accessibility, you have to get a taxi to work instead of the train, because my usual route wasn’t accessible, is how work looks at me, how my bosses looked at me. Now, a lot of this is not all bad. I mean, I had a good boss and a bad boss. There’s a lot of, I call it, misplaced paternalism. Where I have a visible disability, obviously I look different now, and people are trying to do the best. They probably make huge assumptions about what I can’t do, mostly, not what I can do. People are afraid, and as James said, there is still a lot of awkwardness around disability, it is the poor relation. We are frightened to talk about this subject, and have a dialogue with disabled people about their career ambitions, and aspirations. I had all of that, but I felt that that conversation wasn’t really happening when I went back to work.
There is very much a soft bigotry of low expectation, and when you feel that, when your bosses communicate that, or don’t communicate, in that they may overlook you for promotion, they may not have a conversation about what it would be like to get involved with this presentation to a client, all of these assumptions can play out in the workplace, which can undermine your confidence and make you feel that “I don’t really belong here,” and, “maybe I don’t really add value, what am I doing here?” And this awful sense of gratitude, I’m just grateful to have a job, which I was, obviously. I needed familiarity, I could go back to a desk job, I was in a firm which was catered for me, in terms of accessibility.
But then, my passion for helping clients, and getting the best out of me, it had died in a way, because I felt that nobody was really talking to me in the same way as they did before. The barriers can be both attitudinal and physical. That’s a very long answer, but it’s quite a minefield.
Julia: I’m fascinated about what you were saying, you had a good boss, and you had a not so good boss, I think that was the way you described it. Talk to us about some of the behaviours and attributes, and considerations of your good boss. I’m intrigued to know whether there was anything, over time, that organisations began to do which impressed you, which enabled your daily abilities, but also your appreciation of being a high performing individual within an organisation as well?
Yasmin: My good boss was the Global HR Director, and he saw that I was really interested in diversity, and inclusion, and disability inclusion. As James said in his introduction, we weren’t really talking about disability at our firm, back then. We were talking Black, Asian, minority, ethnic, LGBT+, gender equality, mainly gender equality, and that’s all great and I tick a lot of those boxes. But, nobody was talking about disability. It was a huge misconception, they just thought sticks and wheelchairs, probably. 97% of conditions, or impairments, however you identify, are actually non-visible. Mental health, cancer, diabetes, dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism. Everybody has been touched by those conditions, directly or indirectly, at some point in their lives. No one was talking about that.
My good boss, he saw that I was blogging about this issue, I was talking about unconscious bias, unintentional misplaced paternalism, and he then said, “I would like you to set up a disability network at work.” People started coming out of the woodwork, we started having conversations about what it felt like to be disabled in the workplace, what adjustments were not in place, what initiatives we wanted to put forward, which policies were potentially discriminatory. It was a very emotional meeting, actually, the first meeting we had. There were a lot of tears because some people had never, ever spoken about this stuff at work. It was really quite moving as well, and there was a community spirit, we all had very different impairments and health conditions, but in some way we could bond together where we had felt marginalised previously.
If you don’t talk about something, sometimes that’s even worse because you think, I don’t belong anywhere, nobody’s talking about me. I always say to companies it’s so much better to start a conversation, people are very wary about disability, but just do something, get things going.
Onto your second part of the question, what’s impressed me about how organisations are taking this seriously, and putting disability on the agenda is they are starting a conversation. You know what, you might get it wrong, but that’s fine, that’s how we learn, that’s how we get feedback, that’s how we improve. We aren’t perfect. I’m a disabled person, but I don’t know everything about disability. That’s leadership, when you come to place that you don’t know everything and that’s okay, be led by disabled people who will teach you, who will guide you, who will give you feedback on some of the policies that you may think they’re equal to everybody, it’s not discriminatory, it applies to everybody. Well actually, potentially they’re discriminatory to a particular group, member, disabled people, but because you operate in a world where you might not think about accessibility, or different needs, you have blind spots, we all have blind spots.
The best organisations start a conversation, they listen, and they learn. The thing I will also say is they embed disability in every aspect of the business, it isn’t just an HR issue. They look at it in terms of how accessible is our website, does it have subtitles for the hearing impaired, do we have messages about disability, do we have role models? What about recruitment, do we ask everybody in an interview, do you need an adjustment? Not just disabled people, it’s how you ask the questions. The best organisations normalise disability, they don’t make it into a special status, or something different to isolate people. They normalise it, so that it’s part of everyday life, and embedded in every aspect of the business. That’s what I’ve seen, anyway, that’s been my experience.
Julia: What’s wonderful there is you started a conversation, and I think the word that really bounced out for me was when you talked about the importance of listening. Then, to think about some really practical things, so thank you for that. It’s enormously helpful for our listeners to go, “We should immediately start doing some of these things,” which is wonderful. Yasmin, thank you so much for that.
What I’d love to do now is talk to you, James, you’re a disability champion, and how this has come about for you. I know this is also a very personal story for you as well.
James: Yes, similar age to Yasmin, really, when all of this started for us. The twins were born at 24 weeks, they were a pound and a half when they first arrived. The doctor told us they had a 20% chance of surviving. I think pretty much everything that could go wrong in that situation did at the start, heart operations, brain operations, collapsed lungs, hospital superbugs. But, they made it, miraculously, and after nine months, they came home to a huge celebration.
The celebration was slightly short lived because, soon after, we had the diagnosis of severe quadriplegic dystonic cerebral palsy, obviously words we weren’t massively familiar with at the time, but effectively were told that they would be entirely reliant on adult support for every aspect of daily life. Since then, my wife has given up work all together, and I juggle my work responsibilities by day, with my nighttime duties as a slightly crap Florence Nightingale. My eyes have been opened through my experience with Tommy and Alice, there’s a level of uncertainty in disability, a lack of confidence, as we’ve been talking about and speaking about this.
I think it’s talked about in slightly fearful and deferential terms, by a lot of people, somewhat taboo. I’d really love to see that change. For me, personally I’m really just very eager to tell our story, to raise awareness, partly a desire for the twins to make a social contribution. We have, as a family, relied really heavily on state support from the health, from education, from social services, since they arrived. It’s unlikely these kids are going to make a significant economic contribution once they reach employment age, so telling their story, we hope we can shine a light on the challenges they face, and other disabled people face, and make our own small contribution to the discussion.
Julia: It’s wonderful that you’re such an advocate, and such a champion, but clearly with such a personal story behind you as well.
I’m intrigued to know, when you’ve been in your organisation, and also talking to other organisations as well, have you witnessed any moments of awakening, or any corporate breakthroughs almost, where people have really woken up to the contribution that people with disability, visible or invisible, can make? Also, that have benefited people with disability in the workplace as well?
James: For me, there have been a couple of really interesting campaigns recently, in the last few years. Scope and Virgin Media have been working on the Work With Me Pledge, which is aiming to close the UK’s employment disability gap. If you’re disabled, you’re 30% more likely to be unemployed than non-disabled. It’s really good practical guidance, and also highlighting the positive attributes of disabled people, resilience, communication skills, adaptability, those kinds of things. They’ve been tremendously successful, 60 or so companies signed up there, including the likes of Ford, JCB, and Philips, they’re doing a great job.
The other one is Caroline Casey at the Valuable 500, who is waging a one woman war on big business, to sit up and pay attention here. She’s absolutely fantastic, and she’s trying to persuade 500 of the world’s biggest companies to commit to talk about disability at board level. When you talk about breakthrough moments, seeing her on stage last year at DAVOS, alongside the CEO of Unilever and the Chairman of Bloomberg was such a big signal to me that our community was finally being taken seriously by big business.
Julia: It’s so important, isn’t it? We’ll make sure that links to all of the videos, and all of the research we’ve talked about today as well, on the website for everybody as well.
I can’t help but wonder, let me come to you first of all, James. I can’t help but wonder whether at the moment, when we’re talking about COVID-19, we’re adapting to new ways of working, and more flexibility around working practises as well, is whether this is a greater time for organisations to think quite differently, and also to properly engage the full potential of people with disabilities. And, what organisations could be thinking about, could be learning right now, I’d love your thoughts on that?
James: Yes, I really hope so. It’s fascinating, isn’t it, how things are changing, and how quickly they’re changing.
If I think about my daughter, Alice, and the context of her. She’s 16 now, starting to get to the point where she will be working at some point soon. In order for her to access the workplace, there would need to be extra space made available for her, and her two carers. The IT system would have to be reconfigured to allow for her eye gaze computer to be used. Her employer would need to allow a degree of flexibility around working hours, she gets tired very easily.
Two months ago you’d have said there’s absolutely no way an employer is ever going to make those kinds of allowances because we’re having enough problems, just in terms of trying to make it work for returning mums. It’s really interesting to note some of the adjustments that are being talked about now, as we start to think about a return to the normal office environment. Extra space in offices, things like flexibility with hours, more working from home, trains that have two metre spacing. The disabled community has been looking for allowances and changes to the office, and to the travel, for years and years. Now, some of these things will be happening potentially, as a result of COVID.
I’m happy this might make life easier for disabled people, but also slightly miffed that these things are only happening now that they affect everyone.
Julia: We’re recording this, actually, in self isolation, over a particular platform. We can see each other, through video cameras and web cameras as well. While James is talking there, Yasmin, you were nodding along, smiling. Love your thoughts to the same question, really, which is what can organisations learn right now, and what can change? But also, how do we avoid the risk of returning to the way that things were before?
Yasmin: I do agree with James, that the disabled community have been saying, “We’ve been asking for adjustments, and flexibility, and non-traditional ways of working for a very long time.” But, the feeling is you always feel you’re accommodated, and you’re fitting into a mould, and organisations have to do something different for you, which can make things difficult. Suddenly, we’re all in this situation where a lot of people have to work from home, adjustments have to be made, we’re looking at non-traditional ways, imaginative ways of communicating, and working in an agile way, which can benefit disabled people.
I’m hoping that after we’ve come out of this that we will learn lessons, I sound like a politician now. But, learn the lessons from all of this, and take the good bits. I think to avoid people going back to the old ways that, again, it’s having an analysis, and listening to disabled people. Actually, not just disabled people, but people who need flexibility in the workplace, working parents, people who’ve got dependants. People who probably didn’t say they had a health condition before, but they have to now, because they have to shield or work from home, because going into the office potentially could be dangerous for them, in terms of getting the infection. Maybe they’ve had to out themselves, and now for the first time, declare they have a disability or an impairment of some kind.
What has worked well during this lockdown, during the time that we’re working from home, what equipment is working well? A lot of the time organisations may think, oh it’s too expensive to get this equipment, or it’s just not possible, or this job really doesn’t allow flexibility. Well, people are being productive and efficient, and they’re making it work, even on top of homeschooling, sharing a room with a partner who can be very annoying, we’ve all got these distractions.
What I’d like people to learn as well, and I think we are more mindful a bit, is people’s mental health and well being during this crisis. While we’re working from home, there can be some great benefits as well, but it can be isolating, we can miss our colleagues. I think employers are checking in more with their employees, make sure they have all the equipment they need, they have the support that they need, the emotional support. If we could keep that in place as well, that would be fantastic. I think what would be great as well, is that leaders remember that workers are multi-faceted human beings, we don’t live in a vacuum outside of our professional work.
We found that we’re doing our Zoom calls, and a child may walk in. Or, we’ll check out people’s books in the background and think, “Oh, what are they reading?” It starts conversations, we’re learning how to be human again. I think that is actually a good thing. Leadership, for me, is showing some vulnerability, showing a little bit of yourself, and that goes an awfully long way. Where leaders feel that they can be a little bit vulnerable, and show a little bit of themselves, other people feel much more comfortable sharing their own vulnerabilities, and sharing their own aspects of their personal life, which sometimes do encroach on the way that you work, on the way that you show up, on the way that you feel that you can belong.
If we can learn to continue that, a lot of good has come out of that, I think diversity inclusion will be firmly kept on the agenda, particularly disability inclusion as well.
Julia: I think that’s a wonderful moment to turn to Cynthia, and ask her for some research to support today’s discussion.
Cynthia: The UK Department for Work and Pensions, and the Department for Health and Social Care have produced a 2020 report, with data up to 2019, called The Employment of Disabled People. The report highlights that employment is increasing for disabled people across a range of measures, and the increases in the number of disabled people in employment are linked with increases in the size of the disabled population and overall employment rates, as well as a narrowing of the disability employment gap. There were 4.4 million disabled people, aged 16 to 64, in the last quarter of 2019.
Julia: Thanks, Cynthia. The links to the research can be found on our website, divercitypodcast.com. That’s where you can find all our episodes and sign up for early notifications of future recordings. Please do follow us on Twitter @divercitypod, and DiverCity Podcast is available on BrightTALK and all good podcast channels. We’d love a rating because it all helps to promote the show.
It was really interesting there, before we went to the break. You were talking about humanity, Yasmin. I want to come back to that point, in a second. James, before we do that, there’s a really important point which you made earlier, about disability networks, and how organisations can structure themselves. You’re a disability network champion, and co-lead various networks as well. I’d love your thoughts about what organisations can do to improve the networks themselves?
James: Yes, I think we’re all learning a great deal about new areas, and new groups as a result of this crisis. My big hope is that we harness some of that level of understanding to make an appreciable difference for disabled people after this.
I suppose a couple of things which I think have worked well for us, is just sharing stories, and talking to people who are in a similar boat. A friend of mine, Rose Pollard at Fresh Fields has set up a group of city workers who are parents to disabled kids, and we meet, and we talk about experiences within our workplaces, and provide thoughts and ideas to one another, to encourage each of our employers to be better at the work that we do.
I think technology is a really interesting area, in all of this, actually. I think people need to think carefully whether the technology they’re using works for everyone. As Yasmin mentioned earlier, are we using video technology that allows for lip reading, are we using captioning, for example, Scope’s Big Hack Project has got some great data on which video technology is best to use.
Then, it’s about awareness, I think. Our organisation had a wheelchair day last year, to raise money for the wheelchair charity Whizz-Kidz. Different people have different views about the effectiveness of these things. As a wheelchair user, I’d be interested to know Yasmin’s view on it. But, we had 20 partners spend the day in chairs, and I think it moved everyone’s understanding forward a bit. Even my own, as somebody who is very used to pushing wheelchairs with the twins, I didn’t expect to learn much that was new, but I was wrong.
I had one experience where I was getting off a train, and somebody said to the colleague who I was with, “Does he need help getting off?” I’d heard about this happening to other people, but to witness it first hand was quite an affront, the assumption that I wasn’t capable of answering that question myself by virtue of me sitting down rather than me standing up seemed a bit of an oddity. Lots to do, and lots of different ways in which I think we can improve the way that we think about this topic.
Julia: Yasmin, what are your thoughts there, in response to what James is saying?
Yasmin: Well, funnily enough, I run my own wheelchair challenge, where they get to spend time in a wheelchair, you know, it has different reactions. The whole point of the initiative, it is so in your face, so confrontational. That, firstly, senior leaders spending a day in a chair, it gives visibility to disability. We are not saying, “You know what? You spend a day in a chair, you know everything about disability.” No, you don’t, you have a mere glimpse. But, it literally gets people not in their shoes, but in their wheels if you like, to think about it in a different way.
It’s funny you picked up on, James, how it feels when you are the person in the chair, and you have a comment directed at somebody else. I remember when I did the initiative at Thomson Reuters, one guy was in the chair, and another guy just started pushing him, without even asking. That happens to me, probably, once every two months. The guy who was in the chair was just shocked, he said, “I just felt that he’d taken my autonomy completely away, he didn’t even ask me. The assumption was I just needed help. I felt that sense of achievement, I was just getting there to the other side of the road, it was gone, just like that.”
Until you experience it yourself, I can tell you stories all day long about my experiences, but if you spend a day with me, or if you spend a day in a chair, you just have a mere glimpse and insight into what it’s like. You’re not going to know everything, but sometimes it’s the only way for people to really get the message. What it does as well, people in wheelchairs are a very small minority in the disability community, however it gives visibility to disability.
I found, in the organisations who do the wheelchair challenge, they then start having other conversations about all kinds of impairments and disabilities, that just would not be talked about if it wasn’t for such a confrontational initiative. If people don’t like it, and they see it as patronising, or insulting in some way, I understand that. Again, it starts a conversation, there’s usually something behind that, and that they’re disgruntled about how work has dealt with disabled people. Or, the fact that they don’t feel included. It starts an uncomfortable conversation, we need to get comfortable being uncomfortable, that’s what I say.
Julia: Yes. You were talking earlier about the importance of organisations starting the conversation, and of course, this gives a way to having a slightly different conversation, or perhaps a more sophisticated conversation based in the reality of using a wheelchair during the day.
I can’t help but wonder whether, particularly now in these COVID-19 related times, is whether we see greater humanity around the conversation, and, whether or not we have expectations of that changing the way in which people lead organisations, as well. Yasmin, I’d really love your things on that, and then James, I’ll come to you for yours.
Yasmin: Yes, I touched on this a little bit earlier, but I think what it’s shown is not just disabled people, but we all feel a little bit vulnerable right now. There’s a lot of uncertainty, we’re all working in very different ways, it’s unsettling. We don’t know, when we do come out of lockdown, how things will be, two metres all apart, and how things are going to happen on public transport.
Our personal lives have really been brought to the fore, which makes us vulnerable as well because we’ve had to have conversations with leaders, with managers, about some of the aspects of our private life, and how we navigate those as well. Whilst still trying to work effectively, and produce good quality work, it’s forced us to have these conversations. Also, for managers, they’re dealing with a stressful situation, they’re dealing with their own issues. But, they’re also trying to manage a team remotely. It’s shown a great level of humanity, this crisis, in that people have had to have conversations they probably have never had before, which can sometimes be a good thing as well. As I said, it shows that we are multi-faceted human beings.
I think, in some ways, it’s increased our level of communication, our dialogue, and made us think about the simple things. Like listening, checking on someone’s well being, having a conversation not necessarily about work, but just saying, “How are you juggling all of this, is there anything I can do? What else can I do to support you?” Maybe we didn’t have these conversations pre-COVID, maybe we’re having them more because we have to, because this is an unprecedented situation. I think leadership involves all of those qualities, being able to go there even if you’re uncomfortable, but we’ve got to shine a light on it, otherwise, it’s going to cause more problems, I think.
Julia: I think it’s proven that, in this whole conversation about empathetic leadership – arguably before – it was seen as being those softer skills. Everybody wants to hone on the hard skills, but the softer skills, we’re not quite so good at those. But actually, those leaders who are being very effective at the moment are really tuning into flexing those softer skill muscles, arguably.
James, I’m really keen to hear your thoughts on this as well. I’m really, really keen to make sure that this stays high on the agenda about diversity inclusion, so, wrapped into the humanity of leadership, but also other things that we should be doing to make sure that this conversation stays high on the agenda.
James: Yes. I think the leadership point is fascinating to me as well. I think the conversations that I was having prior to COVID with CEO’s, about prioritising this topic, nine out of 10 of those conversations I think CEO’s were saying to me, “What’s everybody else doing?” There’s a stunning lack of imagination and, well, leadership really, on this particular topic. They’re just keen to know that they’re not being left behind, rather than wanting to lead, which is a shame.
As for keeping diversity on the agenda, I do worry that it becomes deprioritised, I was a bit worried to see the decision to allow companies to delay gender pay reporting come through, as a result of the Coronavirus outbreak. I think that, then, has a knock on effect for those of us that are waiting, and hoping for mandatory reporting on BAME and disability, and those other topics. It’s going to be even longer now, I think, for those things to happen. I think it’s really incumbent on those of us in the community to keep the pressure up, to keep thinking about clever campaigns, and banging at the drum for diversity. I think also to be creative about the way that we’re thinking about making adjustments.
A lovely story: I met with a chap from the Department of Transport a few years ago. He’s a dad to a severely autistic, teenage son. The first few hours of his day sounded horrific, getting his son out of bed, feeding him, getting him dressed, getting him on the bus, and then, to school. Highly stressful experience, at the beginning of every single day for him. His colleagues understood this, and understood that they weren’t to put meetings in his diary until 10 o’clock in the morning so he had an hour at the beginning of every day to decompress, calm down, and get to a point where he was ready to face the day. I like that creativity from colleagues to show we understand your situation, and we want to adapt to make it work well for you.
Julia: It really feels to me, now more than ever, I talk to people all the time, and they’re like, “Actually, I need to carve out my day differently, I need to work very differently.” As an extension of that, everybody should be having that conversation about how does your working day work for you, and of course, then the benefits of that would be just enormous as well.
I can’t believe – I say this at the end of every episode – how time just flies, it’s incredible. I’m really keen to hear what you’re optimistic about, particularly in these really extraordinary times, as we look ahead. Yasmin, let me come to you, first of all. What are you optimistic about, at the moment?
Yasmin: Well, what James just shared with us, that gives me hope as well, that we are not being wedded to traditional ways of working, thinking, people have to work a strict nine to five, we’re becoming more imaginative, more empathic towards people who have different needs and different requirements. It’s not saying to them, “We’re giving you an easier time, and you’re coming in later.” No, they have different circumstances, and it doesn’t mean that they’re less efficient or productive, it’s just putting people on a level playing field.
I’m optimistic about the fact that accessibility, because we’ve had to make the adjustments for people, by and large it’s proved that it was possible all along. COVID-19 has just forced us into this situation. I’m hopeful and optimistic that some of those arrangements, which are working perfectly well, will stay in place. It will be harder for employers to say, “You know what? This isn’t a job where you could have flexibility, or you really need to be in the office.” Actually, we’re managing okay as we are, and in some ways, even better. I’m hopeful that those arrangements stay in place, and we can get more disabled people contributing, feeling more valuable, and thinking about actually, possibly promoting, hiring, being more ambitious when it comes to disability, because sometimes people need an example of how it works well.
Because other people are fearful, or ignorant really, about what disabled people can and cannot do, so if you’ve seen it work well where people are working effectively at home, or in a different way, it might, hopefully, give you proof that this can work in the future, for other people as well.
Julia: The words you used earlier, about the soft bigotry of low expectation, lets all just aim higher because there’s so much potential, there’s so much opportunity. You’ve been using words like efficiency, and productivity, and of course a flexible model can really achieve that.
James, I’d love to hear your final thoughts about what you are particularly optimistic about, at the moment?
James: Yes, funnily that phrase is one that I scribbled down as well, because I think it really chimed with me. Since the twins were born, I think they’ve been dealing with that. Every time we’ve had an expectation for them, we’ve had sidelined looks from medical staff so yes, that really appealed to me, that idea.
I’m really optimistic about what technology can bring in all of this, really excited about that. I think being part of some really interesting conversations at the moment with Scope, particularly around their big hack campaign, helping big tech to think about how accessibility gets designed into technology products and websites right from the start, rather than as an afterthought.
I’m also kind of interested to see where we go with this gear change in public perceptions, whether it sustains us. I think we’ve all learned, over the course of the last few months, just what’s important in terms of families and friends. Also, we’ve learned to value those people who are working in the shadows, to bring so much value to our country. I really, really hope that we can sustain that in future years as well.
Julia: It’s been the most wonderful conversation, I can’t tell you how grateful I am for you both taking time out of not only busy days, because you’re both incredibly, exceptionally busy, but also just sharing your stories about your personal journeys, and your personal backgrounds, and your familial circumstances.
Yasmin, we wish you every success. It’s an exciting year for you, for sure. And James, thank you for sharing the story about your twins as well, it’s been a wonderful conversation. As always, to all our listeners at DiverCity Podcast, thank you for listening.
James, Yasmin, thank you.
Yasmin: Thank you Julia, it’s been really brilliant being here.
James: Thank you for a wonderful conversation.
Kieron: This episode of the DiverCity Podcast was produced by me, Kieron Yates, on behalf of Julia Streets Productions. Thanks to Cynthia Akinsanya for her insights. You can find out more about the guests on this week’s show on our website, divercitypodcast.com. Whilst you are there, you can also sign up to our newsletter for all our latest updates.
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