BY Kate Nash OBE
Kate Nash Associates
If you had asked me, 25 years ago about how I felt about talking about my disability at work, I would have said ‘not much’ and run to the hills.
However now, having worked with some of the most gutsy employers and disabled employees across the UK, and beyond, and seeing the amazing networks being created across business and the public sector, I sense a change in individual confidence.
It is still hard to be yourself at work. It is still tough when deciding whether to share information with your employer whether that is formally in a monitoring exercise or just with your line manager when you need to get an adjustment. Over the last 7 years we have created and worked with 300+ disabled employee networks and resource groups across the employers’ community and it’s still one of the hottest topics.
In our two-year project, ‘Secrets & Big News’ we surveyed the views of 2,500 disabled employees from 55 employers. The research revealed that 60% of respondents who had not shared information about their disability with their employer were worried about future repercussions. Employees in the public sector are more fearful of repercussions (68%) than staff in the private sector (50%). The majority of respondents (57%) said the main reason they chose to share was that they needed their employer to make an adjustment for them. We used the research to have zillions of conversations with employers and across the workplace networks we work with and came up with 15 Big Ideas for employers and employees to try.
I worked with a wonderful advisory board with individuals from different businesses. We liked the suggestion to ease up on language that doesn’t suit all disabled people and to lighten up a bit on the word disability. We liked the suggestion to use the language of purple talent (a bit like when we use the language of the ‘pink pound’ when we talk about LGBT folk or ‘silver pound’ when we refer to older people). We liked the tips about how to avoid being an inspiration. And we liked how disabled people are sharing advice about how to rehearse for ‘chair envy’ i.e. when you get an adjustment at work and others ‘want’ your fancy kit rather than ‘need’ it. And I particularly like the way employers are encouraging their purple talent to be themselves at work. You must look at the Shell campaign ‘Be Yourself’.
The main reason I wrote the book was because I get irritated by the language of ‘disclosure’ of disability that employers often refer to, like we have some kind of secret. And I am not fond of ‘declaration’ either, like it is some piece of big news. We wanted to throw all the ideas in a pot and stir them and see where they all land. It’s been an extraordinary journey and I was astounded by how much people wanted to share the reasons why they find it hard to share information about disability and ill health. The book is really the summation of their views.
I am getting excited about how the book is triggering a wave of new conversations between valuable employees and UK and global businesses. We chose not to focus too much on medicine, politics or disability rights: it’s about what it means to be human and how employers can retain their talented people through periods of ill health and disability. It is about how people can be themselves at work and ask for the adjustments they need.
I see a purple wildfire going on across the disability networks and resource groups in the business and public sector. The networks we work with, and coach, are driving new and purposeful conversations about the experience of human difference and how employers can retain disabled people at work. Exciting times ahead, me thinks.
Secrets & Big News: Enabling People to be Themselves at Work is now available in the Really Useful Shop
Secrets & Big News is available on RUS