By Yasmin Sheikh
According to the Diverse Matters website you are a disability consultant, coach, public speaker and mentor. Please can you elaborate on each of you roles.
Disability consultant – I advise organisations about how to create inclusive cultures for people with disabilities and health conditions (both visible and non-visible) so that they retain and recruit from the widest talent pool.
Coach – I provide one to one coaching for people with disabilities so that their confidence is increased and they can thrive in the workplace. I also offer bespoke group coaching and workshops for line managers, HR staff and others on how to create inclusive workplaces for people with disabilities. I also coach people on how to be effective and impactful public speakers.
Public speaker – I am a member of the Professional Speakers’ Academy and recently won female speaker of the year. I also did a TEDx talk about disability and inclusion.
I deliver bespoke talks at organisations about diversity with a particular focus on disability issues in the workplace. I have delivered many talks to launch disability networks and spoken about how to create effective networks. I have also spoken on many panels and facilitated panel discussions about my thoughts on disability issues in the workplace and unconscious bias.
Mentor – I am Vice-Chair of Lawyers with Disabilities Division at the Law Society and I mentor people with disabilities who wish to enter, rejoin or advance further in their career in the legal profession . I also mentor for City Disabilities and am an Ambassador for The Back Up Trust where I mentor other women who have also sustained a spinal injury.
What was the hardest part about getting back to ‘real life’ after your illness?
Once I had adjusted to the physical challenges it was dealing with, the hardest part was dealing with people’s attitudes and awkwardness around disability. I also had to increase my confidence and get to grips with my own identity as a wheelchair user. 10 years later, I am still working it out and trying to perfect my responses to people and situations. I am always learning!
When you returned to work, were you supported?
I was supported as what made it easier was the fact that I had “keep in touch” days whilst I was still in hospital. I visited the office about 3 times to see people before I officially returned to work a year later, which was helpful as I was nervous about being seen using a wheelchair. It also gave me the opportunity to get familiar with the office using a wheelchair.
Access to Work also provided taxis to and from work and also carried out a workplace assessment on my return to work.
You said you lost your passion for being a lawyer. Could that have been resolved by your company offering more support?
Possibly although I don’t regret taking the path I have chosen now. I love running my own business and the flexibility it has given me which suits my lifestyle. I have a lot of passion for what I do and
so one of my bosses although he could have been more supportive, I now thank him for ultimately making me think differently about what I actually wanted to do and how I could have the greatest impact and give meaning and purpose to my experiences.
Do you feel UK businesses offer enough support for disabled staff?
I think UK businesses are engaged with certain aspects regarding diversity although disability issues are very much behind the curve. A lot of businesses would benefit from training their staff on what “disability” means under the legislation. It includes both visible and non-visible disabilities – cancer, diabetes, dyslexia, mental health etc.
There is still a big issue with disabled people feeling reluctant to share their disability at work for fear of judgment and lack of understanding from their managers and so there is a lot of work still yet to be done in workplaces to improve that culture so that disabled staff can have the support they need.
Workplaces are also microcosms of what goes on in general society. There is still a lot of unconscious bias, prejudice and a lack of understanding about disability out there and so businesses would benefit from training to support their staff whether or not they have a disability to create awareness and a better understanding about the issues.
Disabled people are after all the biggest minority group in the world plus 86% of disabled people acquire their disability whilst of working age, which means that it makes good business sense to address these issues.
What more can be done?
I am a firm believer that culture doesn’t make people, people make culture.
We can improve cultures by:
. Training staff about disability issues for both people with/without disabilities and how to also be an ally.
. Disability networks to be created so that people are able to offer support and also be a sounding board for HR when disability policies are looked at.
. Disability focussed events to increase confidence and understanding around disability issues.
. Encouraging senior leaders to share their own stories about disability and health conditions. The power of storytelling is immense.
Has there been progress in recent times for disabled people in the workplace?
Mental health has been a big focus for a a lot of organisations which has pushed the disability agenda to the forefront of people’s minds. The fact that disability networks are also being formed alongside LGBT, BAME and women networks is progress in itself as it is an acknowledgment that disabled people do work in organisations.
On the other hand, the reality is that today’s figures show the disability employment gap – the difference in the rate of employment of disabled people and non-disabled people – has stayed stubbornly at around 30 per cent for a decade.
Many disabled people face an unnecessary struggle to get into and stay in work, largely due to employers’ outdated attitudes and inflexible working practices.
What does the future hold in terms of visibility of disability?
As I am writing this, Lost Voice Guy (Lee Ridley) just won Britain’s Got Talent. Lost Voice Guy’s victory wasn’t just notable because he was the first comedian to win in the show’s history – but also because he has cerebral palsy.
Disabled people now have much more control in representing themselves and challenging people through the use of social media. This will undoubtedly change the way people see disability.
We still have to be visible to tell our own stories and our own experiences of disability rather than what the perceived view is of what it is like living with a disability. Often the reality is very different to what is peddled by some of the media. I am neither a so called “benefit scrounger” or Paralympian. I live an ordinary life and I am not a hero for doing so just because I use a wheelchair.
For this reason, I am hopeful about disabled people being visible in all aspects of society – fashion, media, work, politics etc. so that disability is normalised rather than a tragedy or plucky hero story.