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As someone who is living with life-changing neurological disabilities, brought on by progressive multifocal leukoencephalitis, I know what it is like to speak to people who see my disability as a barrier, or who react awkwardly when the topic is brought up. It is as frustrating now as it was 10 years ago, when I was first diagnosed with HIV and AIDS. Saying this, there is an argument that, with a little guidance, people would feel completely comfortable talking to a disabled person – they just worry about doing or saying something wrong.

Indeed, according to Scope, 67 per cent of people in the UK say they feel uncomfortable when they are talking to a disabled person, and 21 per cent of people aged 18–34 have avoided talking to a disabled person in the past, because they didn’t feel as though they would know how to communicate with them. I think that having access to appropriate disability etiquette guidelines could make people feel more confident about talking to a disabled person, and help them realise that it is a good thing to be open about disability.

There is a tendency in the workplace (and, indeed, in society in general) for disabled people to feel excluded in some way. This is often not due to intentional actions by non-disabled colleagues or management teams, but, rather, because of a lack of awareness or confidence about the needs of disabled employees. This might be something as simple as organising a lunch meeting, which will be attended by a colleague who is in a wheelchair, without checking that the restaurant is accessible for wheelchair users. Or, it could be to do with not providing the necessary adapted equipment and resources a person with a disability needs to do their job properly. Whether a person is in a wheelchair, has Down’s syndrome, is partially sighted, has depression or is living with HIV/AIDS, oversight of the needs of their disability or health condition can make them feel horribly isolated when at work.

Beyond the workplace, this idea of ‘inclusiveness’ in society is something that has had an increasing presence in mainstream media in the past few years. Just look at Channel 4 News’s No Go Britain series, which focuses on the difficulties disabled people face on public transport in the UK. I have read stories about wheelchair users being unable to get off the train due to a ramp not being available, or people being refused a space on the bus because of a pram taking up the dedicated wheelchair spot. Indeed, in 2012, wheelchair user Doug Paulley sued FirstGroup for just such an incident – he was not able to use the wheelchair space on a bus as a woman refused to move her child’s pushchair from it, and he was not allowed to fold up his wheelchair and use a normal seat as the driver said the unsecured chair would be a safety hazard. The case recently went to the Supreme Court which ruled that FirstGroup’s policy of requiring a driver to simply request a non-wheelchair user to vacate the space without taking any further steps was unjustified. There have also been cases of people with invisible disabilities (such as epilepsy and Asperger’s) being confronted about their right to a free bus pass. These stories reflect a culture of exclusion (conscious or unconscious) that can still be found in workplaces today.

How can I/we be more inclusive?

On a basic level, becoming more inclusive is about understanding disability etiquette and gaining disability confidence, so that employers, disabled employees and non-disabled employees can all feel comfortable in the working environment. All organisations should, at the very least, make sure their buildings are accessible for disabled visitors and employees, even if they do not currently employ anyone who has a disability. Employers also need to realise that not employing someone because they have a disability is not only discrimination – it is also highly likely that they will miss out on employing someone with an incredible skillset and talent. Finally, organisations need to have policies and practices in place that protect and support disabled employees, making sure they have access to the same benefits, opportunities and rewards as non-disabled employees do. Only then may people with disabilities or health conditions feel like they’re part of a truly inclusive workforce.

Here at Luminate, we can provide training, consulting and motivational speaking on a wide range of topics, including inclusiveness. Contact Roland Chesters today to find out more.

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