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The Future is Disabled

Business is all about people. There is nuance when involving people in an organisation, but there is endless complexity too. Without people businesses wouldn’t have customers, products, staff. Without people, businesses wouldn’t exist. It then begs the question, why aren’t all kinds of people included in our organisations?

1 out of 4 New Zealanders has a disability. Disabled people are already in organisations, they’re already your colleagues. Yet, most don’t feel safe enough to tell their bosses or colleagues that they have accessibility needs. They don't feel safe to say “I’m disabled”. When the psychologically safe environment is not provided, disabled people don’t get to bring their best self to work every day.

It could be argued that because society sits within the medical model of disability, disabled people have internalised the negativity that surrounds disability to their own detriment. Internalising negative ideas about their peers and themselves likely means that disabled people unconsciously keep finding ways to undermine themselves and their confidence. The term 'disabled' itself carries a negative connotation. ‘Dis-’ is a prefix that means ‘not’ or ‘wrong’, thus; people hear ‘not-abled’ or ‘wrongly-abled’. But this is never the case.

Disabled people are reclaiming the language. They are finding pride in identifying as a disabled person, despite the literal meaning of the word. As they do this, they have to unlearn generations of trauma and otherness. They must build themselves up as individuals and as a community.

There is, arguably, a tendency towards disempowerment regarding disability because people put more substance into negative cues than positives ones. This then creates a pessimistic outlook of events. Some people, when presented with statistics such as ‘disabled people take less sick leave’ find this hard to believe. These people put less credence into statistical data because, to them, it doesn’t make sense. Why would disabled people take less sick leave? They’re disabled, they need to see doctors and rest more and so on and so on, the stereotypes and assumptions continue.

That is why inclusive organisations that create a sense of belonging are so significant. With true belonging organisations are better, for themselves but also for employees and customers. Every time a small step is taken forward to inclusion, as individuals and organisations, a step is taken toward a future where disabled people belong. Belonging refers to the belonging continuum. Where organisations work their way through the three steps – diversity, inclusion, belonging. Briefly put, diversity is having a good range of people in the room, and you feel good about having them there. Inclusion is having a range of people sat at the table, disabled people are invited to discuss, you listen, and you still feel good about them being there. Belonging is when disabled people are at the meeting because they belong, not because they have been invited, and they feel valued.

When people belong, the organisation is acknowledging that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. An organisation is greater than the individuals that make up its workforce. The more diverse the workforce the greater the whole organisation is. It’s not easy taking steps to achieve a sense of belonging in an organisation, but the important aspect to remember is that progress is progress no matter how slow. It’s better to edge forward than standstill, or worse, move backwards.

As people strive towards the ultimate goal of disabled people belonging, not just in organisations but in society, people ought to keep in mind that this is a journey and not a destination. The future is what we are working towards. The future is disabled. This is a positive thing, it’s the future where disabled people co-exist equally with non-disabled people. Where society is built with accommodations for them. Where they don’t have to fight to create accessible infrastructure and legislation and many other things.

Disabled people have helped shape humanity’s past, they have created and invented and contributed across all areas of society. From Helen Keller to Stephen Hawking, disabled people have always existed and should always exist. The future is disabled. This is not utopia or a paradise, it’s not a pretty slogan. It’s an achievable goal. A goal where disabled people have options that aren’t currently available to them. It doesn’t mean that non-disabled people will lose out. When something is built for the 80% (non-disabled people), it neglects the 20% (disabled people). We, the New Zealand Disability Employers’ Network and our members, are working hard to change this. We know that when something is created for the 20% (disabled people) it benefits 100% of people.

But, we need your help.

The power of allies is essential to any social movement. The disability sector has so many allies. There are already amazing non-disabled people working with disabled people to create a better future for them. That’s not to say the job is done! They can always use more allies, more individuals, more organisations. This change cannot come from just one area of society. The disabled community is large, almost a quarter of Aotearoa’s total population. That doesn’t mean that they can, or should, make this journey alone.