‘D&I means nothing if you don’t have people with disabilities among your employees’
Most teenagers get their start in the workforce through one of three pathways; flipping burgers at McDonald’s, behind a retail counter or waitressing at a café/restaurant. These jobs are often viewed as rites of passage for young people and come to mark those last few years of childhood that eventually fall away and transition into adulthood. It hasn’t looked like that for me. As a disabled person who uses a wheelchair to navigate the world, these jobs of typical teenage fare were closed to me. Inaccessible. Part of that came down to the fact that you’re not going to give someone with very little motor skill control responsibility over your burger or breakable glassware. The other side of it is of course the stairs, the too-high counters and the narrowness of everywhere.
And what does your workplace look like? Is it narrow and cramped or open-plan with lots of free space? Do you have stairs everywhere and slopes that are tricky to traverse or is everything flat, flush to the ground with an easily accessible lift that is well-maintained and always in working condition. Do you have accessible bathrooms that are not used for storage? Depending on what sort of building you’re in and what business you have, tailoring the physical accessibility of a space might be a complicated endeavour but I promise, it pays dividends.
My first job, at the tender age of 15, was working as an Editorial Assistant for a major mainstream media outlet here in Australia. I won’t name them (if you’re really that curious, do a Google Search) but all you need to know is that they’re the kind of place that has to be across the 24-hour news cycle and moves fast. To their credit, hiring me as not only a disabled woman but also 15-year-old with no idea what she was doing, was an incredibly progressive move. None of these conversations about diversity and inclusion in the workplace mean anything if you don’t have people with disabilities among your employees.
Do you? If the answer is no, the next most important question to ask yourself is why not? Examining any unconscious bias you may hold and working actively to deconstruct it, is essential if you want to be an inclusive and allied workplace. That also means hiring more than one person with a disability lest you fall into the trap of ‘tokenistic employment’, looking as though you are an ally, but really being only concerned with the ticking of the box.
For all my first employer’s progressiveness, there were a few things they didn’t quite think through from not always making sure the lift was fully operational when I came into the office to struggling to understand my complex self-care needs and the potential role of a carer who could come and go from the office as I needed them. Most of the time, I worked remotely, something that cannot be left behind as we move into a post-COVID world. The flexibility of that option needs to be maintained. Employers also need to be flexible in accommodating for the immense labour of being a disabled person from how they can support you during a pain flare, to making room for the endless schedule of appointments and medical stuff you have no control over.
In these things, you have to trust that the disabled person is the expert. We know our bodies, brains, limits and needs. We just need you to give us a seat at the table.