In celebration of the International Day of People with Disability, disability advocate Hannah Diviney writes about how we can all practice allyship at work.
There’s no denying that 2020 has been a strange and unsettling year for all of us. We’ve had to face a seemingly never-ending torrent of challenges that have made ‘outside the box’ thinking and rapid adaptation essential. These are skills people with disabilities have been perfecting since birth. Our ability to thrive and positively contribute to a world that isn’t built for us depends on how well we can adapt.
One incredibly valuable thing that has come from the chaos of this year and the implosion of what feels like every societal system that then has its flaws exposed, is the increased priority given to and hunger for knowledge around effective and meaningful allyship. I feel like it’s this change in attitude, this sudden realisation of needing to pay attention, that is giving me the opportunity to write this article. To have my platform expand. To see people paying attention to my voice. And so, here I am, ready to unpack exactly what needs to be done if you want your workplace to reflect an accessible and inclusive environment for people with disabilities, who are often the forgotten minority left out of opportunities, conversations and spaces.
Let’s start with the obvious stuff. The things that popped into your head as soon as you read the title of this article. Physical barriers to accessibility. Here are some of the questions I would have for you as a prospective employee: Can I get to your office? Is there accessible parking or accessible public transport? Do the streets around the office end in gutters or kerbs? Can I get in the door? Are there stairs? Ramps or lifts? Does the layout of the office allow me to move around comfortably or am I stuck? What’s the evacuation protocol and plan if I’m in the office and there’s an emergency? It’s best to be thinking about and forming answers to these questions not as a ‘we’ll deal with them if they ever come up’ but more as a “this is necessary for us as a business if we want to be taken seriously in 2020.”
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen significant shifts and transformations in the way work is done. It’s not safe to be face-to-face, so much of the workforce has moved online, allowing employees to work from home or otherwise remotely. If they haven’t, they’ve risked getting left in the dust of a staggering economy. Interestingly, this is a concession and adaptation that people with disabilities have been asking for, since long before the pandemic. Many employers have not previously been willing to offer that option, citing it as too hard, too time consuming to set up correctly or too technologically challenging. Some have simply said they couldn’t do it – the pandemic has revealed that to be less a case of ‘can’t’ and more ‘won’t.’ It’s my hope that even when the world has shifted to a post-pandemic workforce, that people with disabilities are still afforded the choice and viable option of working from home in an environment perfectly suited to their needs and accessibility. It’s all about flexibility and freedom of choice for us. Make sure your company has an open dialogue with employees around any assistive technology they might need in order to do their jobs to the highest possible standard.
Beyond the physical, there are a few other participation barriers I’d like to draw your attention to. These will also benefit your customers/supporters and make your business or organisation more accessible to them as well. Have your website meet the criteria to be read by a screen reader (the technology people with vision impairment use to navigate the Internet). Have closed captions available for all videos, both internal to your employees and external to your customers. Also, watch the language you’re using. Much like you would make sure to refer to someone with the correct pronouns, having a conversation about whether they prefer person-first language for example is a great way to make someone feel at ease. Offer learning opportunities for your employees around ableism and inclusion but DO NOT put the burden of that emotional labour solely on the person with the disability. There are plenty of resources out there – you just have to be willing to do the work.
Now, I want to take a step back for a minute because I realise that all of the things I have mentioned so far are pieces of advice given in the context of you and your business already having disabled employees. That’s an assumption and I would be remiss in my place as an advocate if I didn’t bring attention to it, because the numbers tell a different story. According to the Australian Network on Disability, there are 2.1 million Australians of working age with various forms of disability (both physical and intellectual). Only 47.8% of us are employed, comparative to 80.3% of our able-bodied counterparts. Approximately one in five of us aged 15-24 has experienced discrimination of some form, with half of those cases reported connected to employment. We take 61.5% longer to find full-time employment than other graduates.
None of the advice I gave earlier means anything if we don’t have a seat at the table. So, I want to finish this piece by asking the most important question of all: Are there people with disabilities working for your business, company or organisation? And if the answer is no, then a follow up question: Why not?
Diversity of lived experience in your company will only ever be to its benefit. By not having us work for you, you’re doing not only our community but your business a disservice. We are adept at adapting to any situation with learned and necessary proficiency in time management, multi-tasking, discipline and a billion other things that make us brilliant employees. Diversify your hiring process! Give us the fair opportunity we deserve to show you what we can do and then put all of that other stuff into practice, OK? Be better. Lead by example. Make a name for your company by championing equality, opportunity and inclusion. It’ll win you a great reputation and a lot of business, I promise.
Hannah Diviney is a twenty-something writer and disability advocate with Cerebral Palsy (CP). You can find her online @hannahthewildflower on Instagram or @Hannah_Diviney on Twitter. Hannah is also pictured (top left) above in our gallery.
Follow the International Day of People with Disability on social media using the hashtags #IDPWD and #IDPWD2020.