About a year and a half ago I trotted along to an opticians and was told that the reason I was squinting at my computer screen and getting frequent headaches was – to the surprise of nobody at all – because I needed glasses. The eagle-eyed will spot that I haven’t updated my Society photo as yet – this is more sloth than vanity!
Many people reading this blog will wear glasses or, if they don’t yet, may do so in the future. This is entirely normal in society.
What though if I asked you to name an example of assistive technology? You might think about voice recognition programs, screen readers, cognitive aids or mobility aids. All fair points. Notwithstanding the point that all technology should be assistive, surely glasses fall into that bracket?
These thoughts sprang to mind at a recent Inclusion Scotland conference to celebrate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Many of the speakers were from huge companies. It was good to see the Scottish legal sector represented in the form of Anderson Strathern and sharing the stage with companies like Microsoft, Sopra Steria, and Skills Development Scotland. A huge focus was put on the social model of disability.
Society as a whole has taken a social model approach to those of us who have a vision impairment. It is relatively easy and cheap to get glasses. There are essentially no attitudinal issues for those who wear glasses (bar some playground teasing). We do not usually require to ask for reasonable adjustments to processes.
What though if that wasn’t true? If glasses wearers were stigmatised in some way? Or if glasses were extremely expensive? Without easy access to glasses many people in the UK wouldn’t be able to go about their business as they might like to do so. Many organisations would find some of their most talented people couldn’t contribute as they used to do.
The social model of disability argues that what disables people is not their impairment but rather the decisions everyone else has taken, that society has taken, which puts up barriers for people with those impairments. Most such barriers can be overcome more easily than expected.
The great thing is that we can all choose to lower or abolish those barriers. All organisations can adopt such an approach to how they work. We can all get input from disabled people-led experts on accessible and inclusive recruitment but this approach should be at the heart of everything we do. Yes, getting recruitment right is important but so is user experience of our services and the writing and implementation of policies within an organisation.
If we start with the idea of ‘how can we design processes to make sure everyone can participate’ we will likely end up with better services and happier customers. For instance, many organisations note that people do not declare or disclose disabilities at work or in a recruitment process. This may come back to how we ask our colleagues and future colleagues.
For instance, compare ‘Please tell us about any special needs you have’ with ‘How can we ensure that we get the best possible interview with you’.
The first makes the applicant feel like a burden. The second makes it feel like the applicant disclosing information is doing the organisation a favour. Many of these adjustments will be tiny but will make a huge difference: giving interviewees with a stutter a little extra time to answer questions; giving interviewees who require it copies of the questions in advance.
It all goes back to how we approach disability. Are we – inadvertently – suggesting the person is the problem? Or are we acknowledging that despite being under a proactive and anticipatory duty we cannot foresee every possible adjustment that needs to be made and are therefore are willing to make sure that everyone can thrive in our organisation?
So what are the takeaways: don’t think ‘’what job can a disabled person do?’’ but rather ‘’how can we make sure that anyone with the qualities we need can do the job we have’’. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Begin to understand that what disables people is the choices that people, organisations and society makes. Contact organisations led by disabled people like Inclusion Scotland for advice. And know that by making different and better choices, we’ll all benefit.