Practical Law recently spoke with Yasmin Sheikh, founder of Diverse Matters, a consultancy that helps people have confidence around disability, both visible and non-visible. She is also Vice-Chair of the Law Society’s Lawyers with Disability Division.
Across a series of three videos, Sheikh discusses diversity and inclusion in the workplace, breaking down what disability means and providing practical tips for employers and employees on how to address and normalise disability in the workplace.
Giving visibility to disability
According to Sheikh, disability is often misunderstood as only being something visible (or, as she puts it, “sticks and wheelchairs”). But it is much broader than that and includes both visible and non-visible disabilities, such as diabetes, cancer, some forms of depression, and dyslexia. As workplaces are microcosms of society at large, this general misunderstanding of disability often results in it being overlooked by employers and the negative connotations associated with the term mean that often people do not relate to it.
“The word ‘disability’ starts with a negative prefix ‘dis’,” says Sheikh. “I think language is central to our understanding of it. In society, we think of disability as [meaning] weaker, vulnerable. It does not, for example, share the shame connotations as: LGBT, BAME (black, Asian, minority ethnic), women networks.”
There are lots of ways that employers can raise awareness of disabilities issues, including presentations by external speakers and training on different disabilities. Panel sessions on disability-related topics are also useful, creating a dialogue and a safe-space within which people can ask the sometimes awkward questions regarding how disability affects individuals at work. For Sheikh, setting up a disability network with a defined purpose can be very effective for promoting awareness and inclusion. By enabling members to liaise with HR as a consultation board and to draw upon their lived experiences, employees with disabilities can use their expertise to influence policies that directly affect them.
It is important to make employees comfortable with sharing their disability. To be open about disability in the workplace, employers need to create a culture where disability is normalised, meaning that it is not even a thing that people should be worried about. This culture of inclusivity should be company-wide, starting with building accessibility and how front of house staff treat employees with disabilities, to senior managers being able and willing to share some vulnerability, disability or health condition with their employees.
According to Sheikh, developing this dialogue helps you because “if you see it, you can be it.” In other words, when people in senior positions share some vulnerability, disability or health condition, junior members of staff are encouraged to feel that they can be open too.
Sheikh suggests that “This is me” campaigns, where employees create videos sharing a disability-related fact, are a simple, yet effective way to make people feel open about their disability. Storytelling is compelling and engaging; and allowing people to share their story is the best approach to giving visibility to disability in the workplace.
For more information, see Video, Giving visibility to disability .
Unconscious bias is a term often used in the diversity and inclusion space and firms are increasingly providing unconscious bias training for their employees. According to Sheikh, however, unconscious bias is sometimes being used to describe what really constitutes prejudice:
“Using the term unconscious bias, sanitises the language, and I understand why this is being done, says Sheikh. “In a lot of cases, it is unintentional and can be the result of deep-seated prejudices or people just being unaware or ignorant about certain issues or people different to themselves.”
Using a more sanitised term such as unconscious bias, does, Sheikh accepts, enable people to challenge individuals about their biases without them feeling threatened.
“Words such as racism and sexism are sometimes loaded with judgement and can be very hostile, and I have found that if you use those words to people, they are more offended at being called a racist or a sexist than the comment they made to the person in the first place. Therefore, [using a more sanitised term] is a way of easing into a dialogue with someone.”
Having said that, however, Sheikh feels firms need to do more than deal with unconscious bias at the individual level. They need to look at the infrastructure of their organisation and the structure behind the biases. This includes the company’s recruitment practices and whether it adequately accommodates individuals with disabilities.
For more information, see Video, Unconscious bias .
Fostering an inclusive workplace
For unconscious biases to be properly questioned and for disability to be given visibility in the workplace, it is important for companies to foster a culture of inclusivity. According to Sheikh, to engage people about diversity and inclusion, firms must first change the language and the drive for change must come from the top.
Some people may become disengaged from a training session on diversity and inclusion as soon as they see the title. This resistance to learning and engaging with disability makes it difficult to bring people into the conversation and to change behaviours and biases. If conducting such a training session, Sheikh suggests using a different title, such as “Getting the most out of your team”, to ensure that attendees are not switched off from the start.
There are many sides to diversity and people should not be afraid of starting off a dialogue from an alternative angle. As when people properly participate and engage in dialogue, it can take discussions into different directions.
“Diversity doesn’t always have to be serious; it can be something that people learn through humour. Abnormally Funny People, is a group of comedians who have various disabilities and talk about their experiences. It is a great way to learn, to laugh, and to ask questions in a safe environment,” she says. “Humour is a great way of smashing through barriers, of challenging peoples’ stereotypes and assumptions; and it makes it much easier for people to listen to and engage with the topic.”
For Sheikh, to be an inclusive leader you must bring in individuals from different backgrounds, listen to other peoples’ experiences and be flexible in your approach. You do not have to know everything, rather it is important to have a willingness to learn and the humility to say, “I got it wrong”. Calling out bad behaviour is also key, as it sends a message about the values and priorities of your organisation. Behaviour and biases start from the top and trickle down, so it is important that managers consciously create an inclusive culture.
Finally, being an ally for people from diverse backgrounds is vital element of fostering an inclusive workplace. To be an ally involves having the courage to call out unconscious biases and poor behaviour. Being an ally is also about engaging in the diversity and inclusion dialogue, listening to others’ experiences and learning more about them.
For more information, see Video, Fostering an inclusive workplace.