Time to practice what we preach

I’ve worked in healthcare communications for more than 20 years and in all that time I don’t believe I’ve ever interviewed, let alone hired anyone with a disability.  Every office I’ve worked in has been fully equipped with facilities for people with disabilities including lifts, ramps and disabled toilets, but I can’t recall seeing a single person who needed to use those facilities.  I’m also pretty sure I haven’t worked with anyone living with visual impairment or indeed with anyone who has hearing difficulties, for example.  Attending the first Cannes Lions Health Festival I was blown away by a speech from Francesca Martinez, a stand-up comedian who has cerebral palsy (but who prefers to describe herself as ‘wobbly’), but I’ve never come across anybody working in our industry who is ‘wobbly’ or otherwise coping with disability.

When you consider the debate across the communication industries about the need to reflect the society in which we live, and the fact that in the UK there are more than 6.9 million disabled people of working age (approximately 19% of the working population, according to the Disabled Living Foundation), my experience is startling, and I am sad to say that I am not alone.  Just this week Sara Hawthorn, owner of PR agency InFusion Comms, wrote in PR Week that “after almost 10 years in the PR industry I have never knowingly met another PR professional who has any kind of disability and that needs to change.” She’s right when she says that there’s a stark lack of conversation around inclusivity and how to create a positive culture around disabled PR professionals.

I’m a big proponent of women’s equality in the workplace, and as I wrote earlier this week, there are important campaigns running in many agencies and holding companies to support gender diversity, as indeed there are about LGBT rights and providing equal opportunities to BAME communities, but where are the equal access campaigns for people with disabilities? I don’t mean physical access, I mean access to careers and opportunities – although let’s not forget just getting to the office can be a mountain to climb for wheelchair users or anyone with a physical disability who needs assistance getting on and off trains. Imagine if you had to book assistance 24 hours in advance, for every train, every day – twice a day – and if you’re unfortunate enough to have to use Southern Rail for your commute you’re totally stuffed before you start – but I digress. The widespread introduction of flexible working policies across many agencies though means that more and more people are able to work from home as the traditional desk-bound model of working fades away, and surely this is another reason why now, more than ever, we can and should accommodate people with differing physical abilities.

As an industry we’re getting much better at supporting people coping with mental health problems (although we’ve still got a long way to go) and if you’re diagnosed with a serious illness most employers are fantastic at helping you to stay working and employed, but we need to find ways to open doors for people living with disabilities.  As healthcare communicators we often speak for and on behalf of people coping with disability, so why aren’t we employing disabled people who can share their lived experience with us and be part of our teams? When we pitch for business, we’ll often seek out somebody living with, say, psoriasis or diabetes to help us understand the impact this might have on their lives, and we can often find people with those types of experiences working within our agencies – but finding an employee who’s living with disability? Pretty much impossible.

Where to begin? Well, I guess we can make a start by talking about the issue, and thank you again to Sara Hawthorn for raising it in the first place, because I was certainly ashamed by my ignorance and lack of attention to the problem. We can ask recruiters to think about how to help us address the issue, we can be specific in our job ads, going beyond the usual “open to all” statements to be clear about how someone with a disability might be suitable for the role(s). If I were in agency now I’d be talking to my HR team about how we could create an open access entry scheme for people with disabilities – but I’m not, so I hope someone else will take the hint. Above all else we need to make it as OK to talk about disability in the agency workplace as it is to talk about any other topic.  Let’s do it.

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