Don't disable me: how language, organisational culture and equipment enables inclusion

Two women sitting at a table, talkingOn Tuesday 18th of October, three experienced AbilityNet accessibility and innovation consultants shared their lived experiences of disabilities: 

  • Adi Latif, Accessibility Consultant shared his experiences of being blind
  • Ghizzi Dunlop, Digital Accessibility Consultant at AbilityNet and Learning Technologist at the University of the West of England shared her experience with hearing barriers 
  • Adam Tweed, Innovation Consultant for Education and Workplace, shared his experience of mental health and the ways adaptations can remove barriers.

The webinar focussed on the experience of how language, organisational culture and adaptive equipment can make a huge difference in removing the barriers in the workplace to the entire workforce, including disabled people.

Don't disable me - AbilityNet webinar slides via SlideShare

Get a further deep dive into disabilities by attending our Don't Disable Me Lived experience training courses:
- Removing physical barriers - on-demand recording available
- Removing mental health barriers - on-demand recording available
- Removing hearing barriers – on-demand recording available
- Removing visual barriers - on-demand recording available
- Removing neurodiversity barriers - on-demand recording available

In the webinar, the panellists discussed:

  • Language dos or don’ts
  • Organisational culture
  • How to approach employees
  • Reasonable adjustments
  • Equipment to remove barriers
  • Challenges with online platforms

Meet the panellists:

Adam Tweed is facing the camera and smilingAdam Tweed, Innovation Consultant for Education and Workplace, AbilityNet

Adam is a lover of all things tech, and he firmly believes "if you can break it; it's been designed badly" and that “the best tech is the stuff you shouldn't need to think about.”

In this webinar, Adam discussed his mental health-related experiences and shared tips about some of the tech tools available to help manage mental health conditions.

Adi Latif Accessibility Consultant at AbilityNetAdi Latif smiles face on into the camera with an office in the background

Adi graduated in Scotland with a business degree and went straight into website accessibility which was relatively new at the time. With experience working for a large management consultancy, he brings a wide range of skills and workplace experience.

Ghizzi Dunlop smiles at the camera, she has pink tinted glasses with a bright orange wall behind herGhizzi Dunlop, Learning Technologist

Ghizzi Dunlop is deaf/Hard of Hearing in her left ear. She is also Neurodiverse with Dyslexia, Irlen Syndrome, Audio Processing Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). She works in Higher Education as a Learning Technologist in a STEM faculty, with a specialist focus on Open, Digital Accessibility and Pedagogy.

Amy Low smiles directly at the camera in front of a teal backgroundAmy Low, Service Delivery Director at AbilityNet (Host)

Amy leads the workplace, education and free services teams. Having spent 15 years working in a variety of leadership and transformation roles within serviced property and IT services, Amy joined AbilityNet in 2016, drawn by the opportunity to leverage technology to remove barriers to participation for disabled people and create a better digital experience for everyone. She works with a wide range of institutions and organisations providing services and support to ensure their digital practices are meeting the needs of the widest audience.

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The slidedeck, recording and transcript is now available on this page.

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This webinar lasted 60 minutes and included an opportunity to pose questions to the guests. The panel were able to answer some questions from attendees during the live session, which you can find by watching the webinar playback or accessing the transcript. Please find below the questions and answers from Adam. Adi and Ghizzi's Q&A responses will be available on this page soon. 

Q: I have recently found myself disabled which led to me losing job due to co-workers who couldn't comprehend I needed extra support (reduced/Flexi hours) so now looking to set up my own inclusive business. All that was offered was a visit to occupational health to try out a new mouse/ standing desk. In a nutshell, what is needed from stakeholders to enable/empower the millions missing from the UK workforce?

Adam: We still hear this sort of thing far too often and sorry it appears to have forced you out of your job, but what a fantastic, proactive response to setting up your own business. I think this begins with education and myth-busting as well as what Adi was saying about curiosity and a comfortable environment to ask questions. The onus is still (unfortunately) on disabled people to educate others on the fact that having a disability does not mean you no longer can be or want to be a valuable employee. We also need to help employers to make their working environments inclusive so that the environment adjusts according to the individual, not the other way around – something we are trying to do through our employee journey training.

Ghizzi: An open, truly inclusive working experience. From job role advert, application, interview, hiring, induction, PDRs, to continuance, promotion, to CPD. More flexibility, and adaptability to personal preferences, whether that be the tech used in the role, hybrid, in-person or remote, part-time, fulltime, flexi-time etc. All optional for all staff, happy, relaxed staff are more creative, better problem solvers, want to be in work and solve challenges and collaborate.

Q: What are your thoughts on companies having diversity/inclusion panels?

Adam: A bit like ‘disability passports’ I feel like they’re a positive necessity on the journey to becoming truly inclusive at which point they would no longer be needed. A bit like AbilityNet – our ultimate goal is to get to a place where we put the charity out of business!

Ghizzi: I always wonder what they’ve been doing. That’s because as an advocate for greater diversity and inclusion, I’m very impatient to impact on the ground.
That said their existence is evidence that we are on the path to a more inclusive (at least in the workplace) society. They won’t be needed once we are truly inclusive.

Q: Are there any resources you can recommend on communication between different types of neurodivergent people? For example, anxiety disorder and Asperger's Syndrome.

Adam: There isn’t really a one-size-fits-all answer here, the best advice is to provide choice. I personally hate how email is used (I don’t hate email) I do like teams and slack ‘chat’. I’m not a fan of phone calls, but will happily take a video call. I work with other people who are the complete opposite. The issue is really to make sure no matter how people communicate, the information they need can be accessed and isn’t ‘locked’ behind one system. If I choose to share a document in a chat, someone can ask for an emailed link to that same document and we can both get to the same file through our preferred route. Doesn’t work for everything obviously, but generally, there’s a reasonable compromise for most communication.

Ghizzi: NHS England has some basic introductory guidance which is good general accessible communication guidance.
I tread carefully around ‘medical and professional' guidance around Neurodivergence (ND). Many ND people do not identify as having a medical disability and do not consider their modes of communication as unusual. The key is recognising that when it comes to communicating, we are incredibly diverse, so ask the people involved how they prefer to communicate. 

Q: Are there any examples people cherish when thinking of growth and development, in the context of equity?

Adam: Personally, I can only really think of my own growth – I came from a career with very little direct exposure to disability (that I was aware of) and I arrived at AbilityNet with a whole host of assumptions about disabled people. I was of the mindset that a disabled person was either ‘wheelchair bound’ and staring out of a window looking sad and once every two years they're an ‘inspirational’ Paralympian (winter games, summer games – two years). Now a person has a name, they’re a colleague, we have a laugh, we argue. They pay their bills, complain about the trains, arrive late for meetings, oh yes, and they also have a disability.  

Q: Could you give any pointers for organisations with a large disability pay gap (like mine) on how this could best be addressed?

Adam: There is obviously a legal angle to this and I’m the last person anyone should get legal advice from. We know disabled people are typically underemployed and that a pay gap exists between disabled and non-disabled workers, we know a lot of this is built around the assumptions people make that; “you can’t have disabled people in certain jobs/positions”, that “disabled people should be grateful to have a job” – the issue is without giving disabled people the same opportunities for career progression, the people making the decisions on pay are unlikely to be people with disabilities. It’s a catch-22 but hopefully, the assumptions are being challenged, the value of diversity is being recognised and a shift is beginning to happen.

Ghizzi: Great question, this is a worldwide issue. Disability inequality for life chances, education and qualifications, work access, lifelong earning levels, and career progression are huge. It also seems to be stubbornly intractable. There are key points an organisation would need to address to close this gap e.g. Job ads, Hiring processes, EDI policies and training for all staff, promotion/progression system reviews, flexibility and adaptability e.g. remote/hybrid, flexible hours, internal support systems, etc.

Q: It's great Adi that you take the approach to reassure a prospective employer - what more can an employer do to make it more comfortable/less scary for a person affected by disability to be open about their impairment?

Adam: Ideally by building an inclusive environment, you will be building an environment where someone can choose whether or not to be open without it impacting their ability to do their job (i.e. having a situation where if they don’t say anything they will have to use inflexible systems and processes). Not everyone is at that point, nor will you get there overnight, so it’s about promoting an open culture, where disability is discussed at all levels (just don’t force people to have to do so!)

Q: How do you think you can do a non-intimidating check-in at work as a regular thing. For example, I’d love to implement that in our daily morning meeting without it seeming irritatingly contrived.

Adam: It’s difficult because everyone is different and for some of us, cynicism runs deep! That said, maybe begin with something lighter-touch, take the focus away from the individual saying how they are and maybe try saying something about their day – anything they are looking forward to, anything they are not, or something they are grateful for (or not?) – It might still sound contrived, but it’s certainly an easier starting point for most people, rather than “Tell the group how you’re feeling”. It also gives you the opportunity to follow-up with individuals if they mention something that might point to a potential issue.

Ghizzi: We’ve done silly things in our team or in teaching sessions like using emojis in the platform we’re using, anonymous Polling with open questions feedback, or uploading an image/gif of where you’d like to be right now, etc.
I always think the thing to consider is what you then do with that check-in data/feedback. People get frustrated if they openly engage and then that’s it, there’s no response, no further questions or action.

Q: What's the panel's opinion of targeted, bespoke awareness training for colleagues on my disabilities specifically? It's been recommended by Access to Work, and would probably be helpful, but I also don't want to get colleagues' backs up.

Adam: If you weren't aware already, AbilityNet provides training in this area, you can check out our training courses including our Don't Disable Me courses. I do understand your hesitation and if it has been presented that “everyone is going to have to do this training because ‘Alex’ (these questions are anonymous sorry) has the following disabilities” then it’s going to probably feel very uncomfortable. I’d suggest that a good training plan in this instance should highlight the broad benefits of disability inclusion highlighting the benefits of different working styles to all members of your team with perhaps a little more focus on your condition/disability and the ways of working that would suit you.

Ghizzi: I think this is one where how this is introduced to your colleagues by your manager will make the difference. Context is key, it must not be presented as something that has to be done to make you feel included or more productive. This is not on you.
I’d want to include it in a suite of inclusion lived experience sessions for all of you. So that all of you including the line manager as a team learn about diverse experiences together. In my experience what happens is people open up about their own or close family members' experiences they can relate to and are more positive, open and accepting of different experiences then.

Q: If you were seeking kit or software to support you at work, would you welcome a conversation to discuss your needs with IT to support finding the best solution or would this be uncomfortable? Would you prefer HR led these discussion (where in my experience they don't have tech knowledge)

Adam: Unless you have an existing informal relationship, chats of this nature directly with individuals can, in my experience, be a bit awkward. That said, if you’re a confident self-advocate, a direct discussion is a great path to take. As a more general rule and as a former IT network manager, I’d suggest looking at what adjustments you have available for everyone (My Computer My Way may help you here) as well as the sorts of equipment you can make available to people (different types of mouse or keyboards for example). I’d do this in terms of an open policy for anyone to make the request, rather than needing to have a diagnosis or ‘accepted disability’ – that way you’ll be getting the best from everyone, limiting issue with injuries becoming permanent disabilities and also encouraging anyone with more specific needs to discuss them because you’ve built an environment where you are making everyone feel welcomed.

Ghizzi: I actually do this for staff and students in my role at UWE, though I’m not IT. I facilitate a cross conversation and can adapt and modify for personal needs with the very many systems, software packages and tools we have at UWE.
I help staff understand their workflows, and the pressure points when trying to use assistive technology with the provided tech systems. To try to minimise the impact of disabled staffs ‘invisible workloads’ (the extra commitments in energy, time, and workarounds) that come with disability.

Q: Do you have any advice around neurodivergents starting to unmask in the workplace?

Adam: I’m assuming you are talking from the position of identifying as neurodivergent and letting others know about this, as opposed to enforcing this as policy (which would not be ethical). Assuming the former, it’s great that you are in an environment where you are comfortable to do this, but be prepared for a mix of reactions, some people will be interested, some won’t care, some may react more negatively, so I guess my first bit of advice is don’t assume everyone will react in the same way. The second piece of advice is that some people are likely to be curious and want to ask questions and, as Adi said on the webinar, encouraging curiosity (if you’re comfortable with it) is a good way to start conversations and address taboos. Remember people normally ask questions from the position of wanting to do or say the right thing rather than wanting to offend, but be prepared to do some correcting and a bit of education.

Ghizzi: There’s no simple answer to this. I wasn’t diagnosed until late adulthood and was very unsure whether I should reveal it initially. This could partially have been because I’d internalised the cultural bias towards neurodivergence, this impacts our confidence in our own judgement. I’m in a position of privilege in that I now work in an institution where I could risk it. In some previous roles I definitely, would not have done so. That said I do believe as ever more people come forward, this has improved markedly. What I did was slowly test the waters with people I trusted to keep it to themselves. What I found was that large numbers of them were also neurodivergent. Some people clearly were and hadn’t been aware, realising as I described some experiences or challenges. Find your allies and your advocates. If you have a disabled staff network this can be a good safe place to start to question and reveal.

Q: How do I promote disability safe inclusion within an organisation which is big on physical health promotion?

Adam: I think the key thing here is to remove the separation between the two. Physical and mental health promotion should involve everyone the only restrictions are those the individual chooses to place on themselves.

Ghizzi: Disability and health are two separate states. We can be disabled by the barriers unintentionally created by society, technology, and people’s behaviour. Our health is something each of us manages for ourselves (sometimes with the help of medical services) and it is relative to our own history of health. Case in point I am a medical model identified as disabled by my deaf/HoH status, a permanent spine injury and carpal tunnel in both wrists. I manage my health so that at 61, I can still go mountain biking when I’m in good health regarding the back and wrists, still dig my allotment, etc. In fact, I use these good health periods to extend them by managing both activities and a lot of off-road walking. My Hearing disability in no way affects my overall health, but a challenging hearing environment or types of events can make me very tired, it’s a temporary health deficit. A night of good sleep and I’m ‘healthily in budget again’.

Q: There are lots of systems like SLIDO has this been chosen for its inclusivity features?

Adam: AbilityNet use slido as it has good accessibility, but, perhaps more importantly, they have shown a commitment to continual improvement of this including working with AbilityNet.

You’re right to highlight that many interactive tools can introduce barriers for some people, but they can also make an event more accessible for others. Getting a balance right is always tricky. If you’re thinking of using an interactive look for an accessibility statement or a VPAT (Voluntary Product Accessibility Template) – these will highlight any issues they are aware of in terms of accessibility as well as what you should expect to be able to do, it may be that there are some interaction types you avoid because they’ve been highlighted as presenting issues as opposed to avoiding the platform completely. The other thing to do is reach out to the community, test the platforms and look for feedback from disabled users.

Q: How do we promote inclusion within the workplace?

Adam: Education and example – make sure your recruitment is inclusive, that your onboarding doesn’t mean disabled candidates are leaving in the first couple of weeks because you are inaccessible, make sure your training and promotion pathways are accessible to everyone and disabled employees aren’t facing barriers. Look at your management levels and ask if they are a fair representation of society (and therefore your customer base). AbilityNet has training and eLearning that can help you begin to tackle this.

Ghizzi: Sharing stories and lived experiences, fosters an open and safe environment for disclosure and conversations around the day-to-day experiences we all have. Give staff a voice, and set up Disabled staff networks, they are a good safe way for people to get help, discuss and share experiences. National Association of Disabled Staff Networks (NADSN). At UWE we have many dedicated staff networks, a Disabled Staff Network, Neurodiversity Staff Network, Mental Health Staff network, etc. We collaborate and cross-talk with each other and with sister staff networks at the University of Bristol etc.

Q: What is your take on hot-desking? 

Adam: I’m cynical because humans are territorial and we place value and status on ownership. It’s going to be an issue we all face with hybrid working, and business downsizing because a proportion of staff is able to/choose to work from home sometimes, but might want to come into an office on others. For disabled employees, the issue of hot desking is more practical than simply favouring a desk with a nice view, or “the one that the boss has to walk by so she sees I’m here”. For disabled employees, sometimes a desk, chair, mouse or keyboard or specialist software might be something required or set up specifically on a computer on a specific desk. Here you’d hope there would be a modicum of common sense that certain desks had priority users but sometimes this too causes friction. Ideally again, a move to inclusive working and flexible environments should make this less and less of an issue. A height-adjustable desk, for example, is great as it promotes movement in desk-based workers, but it also enables wheelchair users to adjust the desk to suit their working height. Some of the improvements in in-built software mean certain accessibility features are available to any user on any machine and, as Ghizzi spoke about; companies looking to enable their employees to use their own devices will mean things like specific software will be carried with them.

Ghizzi: Hot desking doesn’t work for me either as a deaf/HoH, Neurodivergent, or mobility-restricted person. The paraphernalia required to make working productive is sometimes not portable/transferable, it is personal to my needs e.g. Keyboard, mouse, headphones, document riser, computer with installed specific software, my perching stool and electronic uppy/downy desk. Hot desking is another example of one size fits all approach to benefit the company through efficiency savings, theoretically. However, most of my colleagues loathe it and find they are less productive than having a dedicated setup that is consistent, predictable, and reliable.

Q: How can we challenge management on these issues? I almost left a good job because of this.

Ghizzi: Finding advocates either within the company or externals like AbilityNet, union disability officers, internal Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) teams, your company equivalent of WECIL service, Occupational health, and the Access to Work scheme. I always recommend you prepare for these services/interviews, including getting help and support from bodies like ACAS, AbilityNet, and UK Gov websites.
Sad to say for me it has been the case that learning and becoming the advocate or internal expert has largely been the way. The benefit is during this process I have identified allies within and without the organisation. Many voices definitely have more impact.


Useful links

Date of webinar: 
18 Oct 2022 - 13:00