People with disabilities have often developed resilience, adaptability and enhanced problem-solving skills in addition to their natural talents. These qualities have always been valuable in business, but especially during the challenges of the past year. In seeking to improve our diversity and inclusiveness at Siemens UK, we are not being purely charitable based on feeling sorry for people but rather recognizing a powerful weapon in the battle for competitive advantage.
Siemens UK has tried to have a diverse and inclusive workforce for a long time. But in the past year, the strategy on Disability has picked up momentum. We are in the process of building a network of employees who are interested and galvanizing people to participate. I just love the name the team chose: AMBITION – Disable the Label.
All our Siemens business units are signed up to the Committee level of the Disability Confident scheme, which helps employers make the most of disabled people’s talents. It will enable best practice and consistency across the group. But there is more we can do.
83% of disabilities are acquired
The statistics are telling. Some 16% of working age adults have a limiting long-term illness, disability or impairment. Disabilities are not static and most of us are not born with them — 83% of disabilities are acquired. The average age of acquiring a disability is more than 50, the age group of 4,500 of Siemens UK’s employees.
I’m no expert on this topic. Indeed, like many people I know little about the challenges many of those with physical and mental impairment face. But in an effort to find out more, I have done some research and spoken to colleagues who have minor disabilities.
Often you can’t see these. But when I listen to people’s stories and experiences, I feel bad that I was unaware of them. Some people would feel alarmed at the suggestion of a team away-day volunteering in the countryside. It might fill them with dread because they would not know physically whether they would be up to it and could feel embarrassed.
Others say their hearing issues affect their ability to follow and contribute in team meetings, especially when people talk over each other. Or they might have been unable to speak at an event because a hip problem meant they could not step up onto the stage. For someone with bladder or bowel problems, two-hour plus conference sessions without a comfort break can be very stressful.
These might be considered by some as relatively small issues; we’re not talking about people with huge disabilities. But in planning our business activities we haven’t taken enough of this into account.
We simply don’t know how many are affected in Siemens. And although we have processes in place to support people with adjustments, we can’t implement these unless we know who needs them. Moreover, if we don’t have an inclusive culture where our employees feel safe talking about their disability, their energy is focused merely on getting through the day.
Language can be an inhibitor. People sometimes avoid talking about disability fearing causing offense. We need to educate employees, for example about using phrases such as ‘invisible disability’. While we don’t want to offend anyone, it’s important not to criticize well-intentioned people who want to discuss the subject. It’s okay to be a ‘lay person’ about it.
The label ‘disability’ can have negative connotations, so we need to ‘disable the label’. Breaking the language taboo and opening the conversation is one goal of the employee network.Justin Kelly.
Of course, many people who have problems don’t think of themselves as disabled and wouldn’t put it on a form. This can inhibit our ability to research the topic. Sometimes we haven’t asked the questions, apart from formally when people join. Or they might not declare their issues out of concern that it might prejudice how they are seen.
One employee told me he had never thought about saying anything because he did not know what difference it would make. We need to be thinking about what we would do if people were more communicative about their challenges. I don’t know the answers, but that is one of the things we need to address. We need to educate and equip ourselves.
Technology can help
Technology and digitalization can help — audio description provides spoken commentary to explain screen images, and the ‘hand up’ button used in video conferencing software lets participants signal that they want to speak.
We work hard to ensure that our key business applications are accessible, staff are empowered to produce their own communications and might inadvertently do something that’s exclusive. Inclusivity will only work if we all do it and are aware of the impact of our words.
Some aspects of the pandemic have made life harder for people with disabilities; face masks do not help those who rely on lip-reading to support partial hearing. In that situation, transparent face shields might be appropriate. But working from home can benefit those with disabilities by providing flexibility about when and where they work and avoiding the need to travel. It might also allow someone with fatigue to sleep for an hour in the afternoon.
Organizations such as Siemens UK need diverse thinking from employees who look at the same issue from different perspectives. Although I spend a lot of my professional life thinking about topics such as cities of the future, my personal perception of what constitutes a supportive smart urban environment might be very unlike that of a partially-sighted person.
And while not all the disabled can be Paralympians, many will I am sure have a little more grit, or drive, than those who haven’t had to face such challenges and obstacles through life. This applies to psychological and neurological problems as much as physical ones.
As an autistic member of our team says, neurodiversity brings many positives. These include increased attention to detail, ability to absorb and retain information, propensity towards in-depth knowledge about specific subjects, good problem-solving abilities, a methodical approach to tasks, and (usually) a high level of honesty and loyalty.
“Just like everyone else, we have a range of strengths and weaknesses,” he says. “But if you find the right role for the right person who just happens to be neurodiverse, they could really excel and easily become an invaluable member of your team.’’ Such individuals present an opportunity Siemens and other organizations cannot afford to miss.