Sector News

Is it the yuk factor? Disabilty advocacy is growing up

March 27, 2022
Diversity & Inclusion

Susan Scott Parker, OBE, is a thought leader on how to mobilize business leadership behind the economic and social inclusion of disabled people. In 2003 Scott-Parker invented the best practice construct she branded “Disability Confidence,” now heard worldwide, to start a new conversation with business. She founded the first business disability network, is a strategic advisor to the International Labor Organization’s Global Business Disability Network (GBDN) founder of business disability international and an Ambassador for Purple Space/ PurpleLightUp.

Logic is not enough
Scott Parker has spent thirty years working across the world, with the c-suite of global enterprises, to drive disability to the top of the corporate agenda. Scott Parker reports that while many companies are moving forwards, there is still persistent widespread resistance to addressing disability as both a commercial and an equality imperative. Scott Parker’s natural curiosity has created a career long search for why this doesn’t budge easily and how to inspire change. Businesses have well worn, but misplaced assumptions about how hard it is, about costs and risks, many of which have logical, clear responses. Why don’t these land? Scott Parker has some advice for advocates, allies and change agents:

“Advocates trying to influence business need to become much more sophisticated in their understanding of why the traditional messages and campaigns don’t work. Ironically, campaigns seeking to challenge stereotypes of disabled people remain grounded in stereotypes of their employer “targets.” Employers have the same set of fears and misapprehensions as everyone else in their family and circle of friends– albeit with an added level of complexity given they have to persuade their boards, immediate bosses and colleagues to also change, and all in the context of their industry realities.

But campaigners fail when they try to challenge the emotional factors that get in the way with ‘logic’ – as though somehow statistics (i.e. 1.3 billion people with disabilities) will change behaviors, when these same behaviors may be justified, but not driven by, apparent logic and when change is often not in the gift of the person reading the campaign. Face to face contact is essential, i.e. people with disabilities and people in business having contact informally / formally, learning from and with each other, be it structured consultations, lunches, internships, business leader to leader with disabilities conversations, disabled employee networks, PurpleLightUp celebrations, award ceremonies and more.

Personal interaction is essential, if we are to challenge the many stereotypes regarding both disability and business that hold us back. Human to Human contact is the only way to overcome assumptions about the ‘otherness’ of both people with disabilities and people who work in the private sector”

The Yuk Factor?
Several years ago, after a meeting in which she explored with a journalist the many “logical” arguments as to why newspapers avoid disability rights headlines, Scott Parker asked him straight out “is it the Yuk factor?” The response was an immediate “yes.” This journalist’s unfortunate, shoot-from-the-hip comment, while obviously less than sensitive, was in fact helpful – he was saying that data such as the numbers of unemployed disabled people and the average costs of adjustments – simply cannot tackle the fundamental unease, indeed the distaste, which the word itself so often triggers. Distaste evidenced by the number of organisations that hear the word disability as an insult and insist on euphemisms – be it differently abled, people with diverse abilities, the physically challenged, or the UAE’s “People of Determination.”

What did get media coverage however, was the network of disabled media professionals who came face to face with broadcasters as colleagues, peers, campaigners and expert advisors to the UK’s then Broadcasting & Creative Industries Network.

Scott Parker explains: “How often do we see campaigns trying to answer the question: “why you should hire disabled people?” But nobody asks: “Why should you hire Canadians?” We aren’t prepared to generalize about only 38 million Canadians as potential employees (some can do the job, some can’t) but for some strange reason we still insist on generalizing about more than 1.3 billion people worldwide and yes- some can do the job and some cannot. The disability sector has tried since the DuPont research [see end note] in the early ‘70’s to counter the “yuk factor” with data showing that DuPont’s disabled employees were as reliable, productive, safe. Surely we have learned by now that such messages cannot overcome the personal unease, the personal fears (what if I get it wrong and offend?), the personal confusion (who are you talking about? What is a psychosocial disability?) the anxieties (what will my boss say?) that sustain the status quo.

And we still see advocates promoting a well intentioned “business case” which all too often inadvertently conveys: “you only have to treat this disabled person fairly if we can prove that there’s enough money in it for you.”

Advocates wanting to change business policies, cultures, behavior need to do a much better job understanding their target audience,and the reality of what it means to work in the private sector. Much of the success of the Valuable 500 campaign can be found in Caroline Casey’s ability to leverage her lived experience of disability, with her empathetic understanding of the lived reality of people in business, with a direct call for ‘justice’ as she urges business to address the Disability Equality Crisis. The Shaw Trust’s 100 Disability Power List reframes disabled people as professional and dynamic, and profiles their stories to generate connection and solidarity. Kate Nash at Purple Space and PurpleLightUp celebrates the economic contribution of people with disabilities in the workplace. Things are indeed moving on.

Grown Up Strategy
Scott Parker has identified ten types of statements that she hears in companies where disability inclusion programs thrive. These are:

1. I see the need and rationale for change

2. My world includes disabled people

3. I can describe the change and the proposed outcome

4. Change advocates are people I admire and trust / people who have influence

5. Change is possible, inevitable and in my gift

6. The emotional labor cost is acceptable

7. The financial and time cost is acceptable

8. I know what to do first

9. Change will bring personal rewards for me (the change agent)

Scott Parker thinks we are ready for a new, much more nuanced set of messages underpinning disability equality advocacy. She stresses that without equality (non-discriminatory online recruitment for example) inclusion is impossible. She always encourages corporations to work to the economic and ethical imperative for best practice as they learn how to deliver the business improvements that are in their control and which also benefit disabled people. No CEO wants to convey the message that we will only treat you properly if we have to. She says:

“Learning how to recruit everyone on the basis of capability and potential is a much more effective message than the traditional attempts to debunk the “Top Myths” regarding disabled job seekers, lists that all too often remind the reader of a problem they had forgotten!”

This is a winning argument in the contemporary business world, where leaders have moved on from false binaries such as “cost versus people”. Today’s business leaders understand that human capital and talent – and customer experience – is a core strategic advantage and growth strategy. The best practice that Scott Parker branded Disability Confidence in 2003 is a fundamental pillar.

[Note: The DuPont Corporation has been tracking their disabled employees through surveys since 1973. The corporation studied job performance, safety, and absenteeism three different times in 1973, 1981, and again in 1990. The study included people with many different disabilities; physical, cognitive, and emotional. In the 1973 study, there were no incidences of time lost due to disabling injuries. In the 1981 study, it was found that 96% of the disabled employees were rated as average or above average in safety. The rate in 1991 was even better, at 97% of disabled employees rated as average or above average (Lengnick-Hall et al., 2008). A study by Blanck and Braddock (1998) had similar findings, 93% of the employers surveyed stated that they do not believe disabled workers create a safety risk at the workplace.]

by Nancy Doyle


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