The Independent recently reported that “disabled people need to apply for 60 percent more jobs than non-disabled jobseekers before they find work". And, according to Scope and Virgin Media’s #WorkWithMe campaign, over one million disabled people can and want to work, but are currently being overlooked.
#WorkWithMe aims to reduce the huge disability employment gap over the next three years, against a tough backdrop of austerity policies. But, while there is a glaring amount of work to be done by employers and interviewers to ensure all candidates are given a level playing field, the attitude of low expectation of those with a disability is the real problem.
At a Sainsbury’s Bitesize talk this summer, Kate Nash OBE (Purple Spaces) talked about “the soft bigotry of low expectation” from work colleagues, going on to explain that “building and maintaining the personal resilience to manage the reactions of others takes a lot of work.”
A culture of low expectation is a very damaging thing. It tells disabled candidates to apply for roles they are overqualified for, and it tells employers to view a candidate for their disability or impairment, not for what they would bring to a role. When talking to clients about inclusivity, we often talk about role models – making them visible, and championing their achievements in the business. Better still if they’ve overcome adversity to get there.
But here is where we need to tread lightly. In her TED talk “I'm not your inspiration, thank you very much”, the late Stella Young said “I want to live in a world where we don't have such low expectations of disabled people that we are congratulated for getting out of bed and remembering our own names in the morning. I want to live in a world where we value genuine achievement for disabled people”.
I think that this is something we can all learn from, as employers, colleagues, and human beings. Inclusive employers empower their people to bring their whole self to work, whether that is physically through reasonable adjustments, or culturally. And, while there is some brilliant work going on to make workplaces more accessible until we stop calling employees an inspiration when they are just doing their job, it’s going to be very difficult to reach a place where we are all truly inclusive.
As Stella said, “Disability doesn't make you exceptional, but questioning what you think you know about it does.”
And life as a disabled person is actually somewhat difficult. We do overcome some things. But the things that we're overcoming are not the things that you think they are. They are not things to do with our bodies. I use the term "disabled people" quite deliberately because I subscribe to what's called the social model of disability, which tells us that we are more disabled by the society that we live in than by our bodies and our diagnoses.