“Honey, I’m going to start my own company…?” I started.
My wife looked at me all ‘glassy-eyed’ and said, “What? Why? How…?” The usual questions when a husband comes up with another bird-brained idea.
“Because I want to change things…!” I said as excitedly as a kid seeing a puppy.
“Well there’s still plenty more things to add to the list dear. How about world peace, the meaning of life and a carbon-neutral planet.”
“No, not the whole world. That’d be too ambitious. I mean getting more people with a disability included in society, especially in the work place.”
She snorted. “You are already immersed…”
“But that’s the point. I’m viewed as something special and I’m not. Or I shouldn’t be…”
Now, everyone believes they are special. I’d like to think I am and I’d like to think everybody else does too. That’s the beauty of diversification and equality. But the question of inclusion has started to increasingly consume my mind. What is wrong with the world? What is wrong with our corporations and our corner shops. What is amiss with our prime ministers and our local councillors? Why can’t society see how big this latent potential is?
Is the problem so huge it presses on the brain shrinking it to bird-size? Is that why we all act like ostriches sticking our hands in the sand hoping it will simply all go away? Or is it my head stuck in heaven seeing a world that isn’t there?
The numbers are quite staggering.
Depending on which country you look at, of the potential working population around 75% have a job. But persons with a disability are only around 40%. Some 20% of persons actively look for a job, whereas for persons with a disability, it’s only 10%.
‘Gadzooks’ I here you say. ‘Well there you have it. Less people with a disability can work, or in fact want to work’. Did you know that in Belgium you could forfeit your disability benefit for ever if you worked? Why take the risk? Though a benefit is higher than minimum wage, did you know that a person with a disability in the EU is 70% more likely to be poor?
Now I know that there are quite a few unable to work. But I refuse to believe that more cannot be gained from the vast talent and abilities they many can still apply. Imagine if we, as a society, could bring the 40% employed up to 50%. Imagine what this would mean. Less costs of government benefits, greater economical power, improved spending, more tax income to the state. And to think that various studies show that persons with disabilities show higher loyalty, lower absenteeism and over 90% of employers are satisfied with the work of employees with a disability.
I am convinced that the start is the most difficult. Once abilities are proven, once talent is unearthed, the value will often be clearer. I remember when I attained my masters degree in 1993 and being a Paralympic athlete with employer targets of 5% persons with a disability, surely landing a job would be easy. It wasn’t. Hundreds of letters. Employers were seemingly unwilling to make the effort. In my case, Philips in Eindhoven, a forerunner of diversity and inclusion, formed the exception. So after an open letter expressing my talents and desire to apply them they invited me to see them. After that it was downhill. Mind you, it was at minimum wage and for 12-months only, but I was determined that when given the chance, I’ll prove what I can do.
Today, I still think the start is just as difficult. With all the stress, the busy agendas, the complexity of tasks, people want it as easy as they can in their jobs. Recruiters too: The best CV’s, the most blinking suits, the knights in shining armour galloping into the boardrooms. I know that as a regional CEO, that’s what I wanted. But I can honestly say that in all my years tenure, never did I see an applicant with a disability. And when I spoke to the HR Director of L’Oreal who have a great inclusion program, he told me the same. Despite all best efforts, he doesn’t see them either.
There are reasons of CV’s without disabilities: The first is often an unwillingness to disclose an impairment. I know I would experiment with this. With, or without? Small letters or large? Sports achievements or not? And through all my experience I’ve concluded that the recipient is just as important as the person’s CV. The man from L’Oreal, myself, would probably welcome a CV where it’s mentioned. Others will throw it in the bin without thinking. At the end of the day,the CV is a door opener. A means to get at the table.
The second reason is that statistics show a lower education rate. There are more persons with a disability without an education (twice as high), which may be logical given that some handicaps are too severe. But there are also half as many that have a university degree. Given the fact that often manual labour will be a challenge for many persons with a physical disability, education would seem to offer a key to the job market.
So why is the education level of persons with a disability lower? I believe there are a number of reasons. Over-protected children, accidents/illness disrupting youth’s and young adult’s lives, persons of lower education felled through manual labour, etc.
But much also has to do with fear of the unknown, from both the applicant as the recruiter, which unfortunately is a natural human behaviour.
A UK survey, held as recently as 2012, stated that 65% of people avoided persons with a disability and 38% considered them a burden to society. In the European Union, 50% of all persons with a disability experience ‘ablism’; meaning the privileging of able-bodiedness. Not that ablism always refers to mistreatment, sometimes a person with a handicap can be smothered in care and sympathy which is not what they (should) want, unless it’s the Charlie’s Angels feeding grapes dipped in chocolate while watching the Champions League.
There are also physical barriers to work. I read somewhere that 75% of all companies are not suited for persons with a disability. Can you imagine football players playing on just one quarter of the pitch? Without goals? Who’d want to play?
And folklore is both rife and amusing. There’s nothing better than getting drunk with a wheelchair basketball team and warmongering. One owner was asked why his shop wasn’t better accessible. He asked ‘Why should I adapt? People in wheelchairs never come to my store…’ the proverbial chicken and the egg. On the hand you have people that would love to cater better for persons with a disability. A bar owner expressed the wish to build a larger toilet so wheelchairs could go in. The response from the local authorities was that a space of 5×4 metres was required as well as alarm bells, adaptable mirror, self-flushing toilet and full-time nurse to wipe one’s arse. I’m exaggerating of course, but there was no way the man could comply, both in terms of space and money, so he became discouraged.
But it’s not just about social inclusion and corporate responsibility. What will really turn heads is economic inclusion. I for one, will not spend my money in places where I cannot enter. And I will not stay long (and spend much) if I cannot use a toilet. Including the elderly, almost 20% of the population have a disability with some 10% of these having an ambulant impairment. Though slow, inclusion of persons with a disability is increasing, and with it spending power. Ostriches will undoubtedly miss out on good views and favourable pickings if they don’t adapt.
In an ideal world, a wheelchair is as relevant as glasses, a white cane as relevant as a pen and deafness no more disassociating than baldness. Why can we not all work towards the ideal world? Or is it that some view disability as a temporary state, waiting for the miracle cure. I can tell you, over the past 35 years of been hearing how we will walk again, see again, hear again and it will undoubtedly happen. But we can’t wait for it. Of course there are difficulties and challenges, but aren’t we human to overcome them? Otherwise we’d just be a pack of wolves eating the physically weaker for breakfast. All it takes is communication and an open mind. A disability need not be such a big deal if we focus on the ability.
The fact that I’m in a wheelchair automatically seems to put me in the same category as Christopher Reeves. All due to respect to superman, but he could no longer breathe without aid and required 24-hour nursing care. Whereas I can do everything except climb stairs. Hardly comparable!
Interestingly enough, BBC Inside Ouch asked the question ‘Would you ditch your disability given the chance?’ on the 18th of April this year and this raised quite some debate. In fact it goes against the grain of what I was advocating earlier, as this forces a ‘yes I’m disabled, no I’m not’ debate. I am convinced everyone has a disability. Is my paraplegia any more inhibiting than claustrophobia? Is someone with gross obesity any more challenged than someone who has just lost a child to illness? It’s not the disability, but the environment and the people in it that determines if this can be overcome. If I cannot take the stairs, but I can take the elevator, is it relevant how I get to the first floor? If I visit a company and people are more than willing to carry me up the stairs, does it matter? Of course you’d like the latter to be different, but it’s not. You adapt. A handicap is part of who we are and we are masters of adaptation.
So if our brains are so evolved, if we are so smart, then why are we wasting talent and wasting money?
“Look…” my wife said with impatient sobriety, “…For 25 years you’ve made a point of mitigating, even ignoring your wheelchair during your professional career. And you’ve been successful at it. Now you want to make it your career?”
“But the wheelchair’s not relevant is it…?” I replied.