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Opinion piece

International Day of Persons with Disabilities: a day for listening not just speaking

Disability Inclusion,
International Day Of Persons With Disabilities

By Angela Matthews, Head of Policy and Research

International Day of Persons with Disabilities (logo) £ December

3 December is UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Angela Matthews, Business Disability Forum’s Head of Policy and Research suggests that employers should use the day to really listen to their disabled employees.

As disabled people (“people” rather than “persons” is my preference), we are used to being told a lot. Told what we need, told what’s good for us, told what ‘category’ we do or don’t fit into. Told we can or cannot walk X amount of distance in our disability benefits assessments. Told we are too disabled to leave a building on our own in an emergency but not disabled enough to get financial help to make our homes accessible when our conditions develop. Told to ‘declare’ our disability to our employer and told to be ‘open’, but then told we are complaining or talking too much about our own situations. How impossible, and how exhausting.

Whose language?

As someone who is autistic, I am often told I am “neurodiverse”, but I never use that term myself. As someone who has had strokes, I’m told I have a “health condition”, but having had strokes doesn’t mean I am unhealthy. As someone born with a metabolic liver condition, I’m told I have a “non-visible” condition, yet I have never understood why it is at all acceptable for someone to describe me from the perspective of what is visible to them instead of what is visible to me.

It fascinates me that other people – employers, services, education – desperately want to separate different parts of me into categories that come from them and not me. It perhaps somehow makes parts of me ‘easier’ or ‘more comfortable’ for others to accept or deal with, or maybe it helps them choose which processes or procedures should be ‘done to’ me based on which ‘group’ they put me in. Yet when I’m talking to disabled employees in our Member organisations or with my disabled friends, we can rarely separate our multiple difficulties or conditions into categories as other people and our employers do. I can’t (and don’t need to) separate my autistic related thinking patterns from my cognitive functioning due to my frontal lobe brain damage, or separate my parkinsonism from my stroke related weaknesses. In fact, the best and most beautiful description for the experience of all of those things is simply just ‘Ange’.

Whose day?

The desire to place categories ‘onto’ one another is instinctively human; it’s how we organise our world. But categories also often then determine which processes are followed and they influence behaviours that occur. Therefore, categories matter – really matter – because they determine the experience someone has. Disability awareness days started, in part, as being the day voices of people with that condition or with experience of a specific situation can tell their stories to help others understand more about their lives. Now though, it seems as though they risk becoming days that are solely for other people to talk about disabled people. The listening has gone, and too often these days have become louder with what employers are doing ‘about’ rather than “with” people with that condition or in that situation. This is why I stubbornly call the title of today “for” disabled people, not “of” disabled people. “Of” removes us from it and makes us ‘subjects’ of the day without us really needing to be involved or our voices needing to be present. “For” gives us, disabled people, ownership of it again. It’s our day for our voices.

Listening, not speaking

Therefore, employers, on International Day for Disabled People this year, hold back from just speaking. Hold back from ‘marketing’ everything you are doing ‘about’ disabled people. Hold back from trying to highlight how much ‘you’ have done. Today is not for that. Instead, listen. Listen to the language, listen to experiences, and listen to what’s not working for disabled people in your workplaces.

Here’s how you can start. Three key phrases you could ask, not tell, your staff with disabilities this IDPD:

  1. As someone with a disability or long-term condition, what do you think we currently do well as your employer?
  2. What two things would you change to make working at this organisation with a disability easier?
  3. What would help you love your job more than you do now?

Ditch the “requirements”, “accessibility”, “needs”, “adjustments”, “visible or non-visible” words and categories for the day. Let disabled people lead with their words. The above questions are about amplifying the good stuff, changing the bad stuff, and showing that your aim is ultimately to get disabled staff to love being part of your organisation.

Ask in a survey, ask in a live internal social chat session (such as Teams, Yammer, or live stream), ask in a ‘face to face’ session led by the most senior people in your organisation. However you do it, asking these questions will mean you will gather a rich range of insights from disabled staff to help you work on improving their experiences of work between now and the next International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

The metrics that matter

Real inclusion is not about ’proving’ what you’re doing. It’s not about targets, and it’s not about Board reports. That’s governance and reporting. The only measurement that really matters – or should really matter – to our disability inclusion agendas is how our disabled staff feel about working in our organisations. And the only way we will know that is if we consciously listen.

Of course, International Day for Disabled People is not the only day for listening to disabled people. But if you find your tendency as an employer has been to speak more than to listen, make today the day you start to rebalance that – and let us at BDF know if we can help.

In the meantime, happy International Day for Disabled People.

Disability Inclusion,
International Day Of Persons With Disabilities

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