Transcript of Equal Too Episode 5: The Hunt for Employment Equality

[Music: ‘Rising Phoenix’ with heavy bass beat. We can hear a male vocalist, georgetragic, rap the lyrics]

There’s a young boy 

Walking through obstacles 

Cut up from all the surgeries 

Prosthetic picture perjury

Telling me, I’m normal 

But normal, they never really made me seem

They always painted me

Discriminated but levitated …

[Music fades under speaking]

SOPHIE (narration): In the last episode we looked at accessibility and inclusive design, and learned that the global unemployment rate for Disabled people is somewhere between 50 and 70%. In this episode we ask why this is the case and what brands and activists are doing to change the global picture for the Disabled community. 

Join me as I speak to Disabled entrepreneurs, leaders from companies trying to change hiring cultures to become more inclusive and we ask – how can we create a more equitable workplace moving forward?

I’m Sophie Morgan. This is Equal Too Episode 5 – Equal Too: The Hunt for Employment Equality

HABEN GIRMA: The first time I tried getting a job, jobs like washing dishes or folding laundry, I kept getting discriminated against.

CHARLES CATHERINE: When I learned about 14(c) as a foreigner, it kind of blew my mind. I had no idea that it was legal in America to pay people with disabilities less than minimum wage.

HABEN GIRMA: You don’t have to be able to see to wash dishes or fold laundry but the employers assumed sight was required. So they passed me over.

DAN BROOKE: There are many more people with disabilities in the world who don’t feel that they can be open about their disability and particularly in the workplace.

HANK PRYBYLSKI: If we’re going to be committed and execute building a better working world, that world’s gotta be inclusive for all. And that world is almost by definition incredibly diverse.

SOPHIE (narration): When Sir Ludwig Guttmann created the Paralympic Games following the Second World War, his vision was to use sport to rehabilitate people with spinal cord injury back into society. 

Audio clip from ‘The Mandeville Legacy’: In 1944 a Jewish doctor who was a refugee from Nazi Germany started a new spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital…

SOPHIE (narration): And to do this he gave them the confidence and the skills needed to join the workforce again. Almost more than any other outcome, Guttmann believed that employment mattered most.

[MUSIC: Futuristic beat]

The Paralympics may have evolved from a small archery competition into one of the largest sporting events in the world, but has it made the impact on employment that Guttmann would be proud of? To answer it plainly, many of the incredible athletes that we’ve watched compete in the Tokyo Games can’t even make a living from playing sport. Many survive on benefits. Take New Zealand’s Paralympic team for example.              

[Māori Haka audio fades under narration]

Of the 29 people who represented New Zealand this year, only seven of them are considered full-time employees. Or take a look at Ananias Shikongo from Namibia.

[Audio clip of 2016 Rio Games]

COMMENTATOR: Gomes in front, Shikongo wearing him down. Gomes just in front, Shikongo’s got him. Shikongo drives through. Shikongo won it from Gomes in second, Silva third, Fan fourth. Paralympic record 22:45, at his second Paralympic Games…

[Audio fades under narration]

SOPHIE (narration): The visually impaired sprinter returned home from the Rio 2016 Paralympics with the country’s first ever Paralympic Gold medal. He hoped that his success might at the very least facilitate an interview for a job with the police but he couldn’t even get an interview. 

Now it would be easy to assume that his disability justified such prejudicial behaviour. People might justify it thinking, ‘how could a blind man be a policeman?’ But therein lies the problem. The lack of employment is not because Disabled people en-masse are unskilled or unqualified, but because we live in a world where our differences make us lesser, where limits are placed upon us, where what’s possible is dictated to us. In short, we live in an ableist world. 

And when you start looking into employment for Disabled people in society more generally, we have a lot of work to do. Statistics vary by country, but one thing is the same all around the world: employment levels for Disabled people are much lower than for non-Disabled people. In the UK it’s 52% for Disabled people compared with 81.1% for non-Disabled people; In the USA it’s 35.2% compared with 77.6%; In Australia it’s 48% compared with 80%. And these are just the countries where we can source the data. It’s a well-known problem that when it comes to collecting the figures around disability employment, it’s not always straightforward.

What we do know however, is that the Covid pandemic has made the situation even worse. As French Para athlete Charles Catherine, the Associate Director at the National Organisation on Disability, tells us.

CHARLES: I think the pandemic was a magnifier of issues that we’ve been facing for decades for our community. People with disabilities are usually under-employed and when they are employed they are usually more vulnerable. And so there was a phenomenon called ‘last hired, first fired’ that really took place in May, June, July, August of 2020 when the crisis really hit. And it’s true that millions of people with disabilities lost their jobs at that time. For people like myself who really fight tooth and nail to sometimes create 10 or 100 jobs in a company to see a million jobs disappear like this in just a few weeks was crushing.

SOPHIE (narration): We may not have the exact figures, but what we do know is that the situation for Disabled people all around the world currently, is not good.

So what is being done about it?

LIZ JOHNSON: So The Ability People is an organisation I co-founded with my business partner Steve Carter and it’s staffed entirely by people with impairments, with disabilities and medical conditions. 

SOPHIE (narration): Liz Johnson is a former Paralympic Gold medallist for Paralympics GB. After her retirement from swimming in 2016 she founded The Ability People, an agency to help Disabled people get jobs. 

LIZ: And the view is to normalize differences within the workplace. But my primary aim was to create more meaningful opportunities for people with disabilities. 

SOPHIE (narration): Liz explained that she was inspired to create The Ability People due to the fact that the employment gap for Disabled people was stuck at 30%, and that figure had not moved in over a decade.

LIZ: So then I was like, well, what is it? Why is it that this is not moving? Like, what is the issue? Is it the people don’t want jobs? Is it the people can’t work? Or is it the fact they’re not understood? Or is it the fact that the system is letting them down? And the reality is – all of the above.

SOPHIE: All of the above

LIZ: Because the one thing we need to remember is people with disabilities, they’re human. So like the spread of their abilities and their needs and all is no different to the rest of the population. So you’re going to find people that aren’t qualified or have no incentive to work. But the issue in this space specifically was that those that did want to work didn’t have an equitable experience or opportunity to access employment.

SOPHIE (narration): And even though Liz found her career and her platform through the Paralympics, she brought up one of the big issues of talking about disability employment in the context of the Games – not everyone is a Paralympian.

LIZ: They’re Paralympians, so rightly or wrongly, sometimes that opens a door for you right, and sometimes people are blinded by the fact that you might not be able to do that job. But if you’re a Paralympian we’re going to give you a chance. And my frustration came from the fact, like I said, 99% of people aren’t Paralympians and probably 70% of them don’t want to be. Like a lot of time when you’re young you have aspirations to be an athlete or a footballer or whatever it is, but like in reality, the majority of people don’t want to go to the Paralympics. They don’t want to have a life as an elite athlete. That’s fine.

SOPHIE (narration): And for those who aren’t athletes, the job market for Disabled people is equally, if not more challenging. You may remember Haben Girma from our conversation on law. Here she is, as a Deaf Blind Harvard-graduate talking about her own experiences looking for work.

HABEN: Employment discrimination is a huge problem. Over 70% of blind people are under – unemployed. And the statistics for deaf blind people are even higher. And I grew up with those statistics with the constant fear that I would not be able to get a job. And the first time I tried getting a job, jobs like washing dishes or folding laundry, I kept getting discriminated against. Those are tactile jobs. You don’t have to be able to see to wash dishes or fold laundry. But the employers assumed sight was required, so they passed me over.

SOPHIE (narration): Assumptions like these stem from a lack of understanding. Not every Disabled person will need extra support and accommodations to do a job. But when they do, employers in places like America and the UK should be making ‘reasonable adjustments’ to support Disabled people in the workplace. But what does that actually mean? Eddie Ndopu, who you might remember was also in the episode about law, thinks that this type of woolly language is problematic.

EDDIE: I’ve got a bit of beef with the language around reasonable accommodation, right – I’ve always had – and at a philosophical level the question I ask myself is, what is reasonable? Who is reasonable? Who is being unreasonable, right? And the reason why this is important is because when we demand more, we get seen as being unreasonable. 

SOPHIE (narration): So legal support doesn’t always help. And in some countries, the legislation can even prevent Disabled people from working. Facundo Chávez Penillas is a UN human rights and disability adviser, and he spoke about some countries with shocking laws.

FACUNDO: We have laws that, for example, we want when we are not working quite so they are excluding us through  the social protection system and not to be part of the workforce. And that is changing in Argentina or in New Zealand there are laws that say that we cannot work at all. And that also is changing like in Zimbabwe or Samoa. But none of these changes can happen without an active civil society behind them and a clear understanding of what it is to be a person with disability. 

SOPHIE (narration): What has become apparent through this conversation is that increasing the confidence and skills of Disabled people is not enough if they get turned away when they apply for jobs. And we see once again that Disabled people have to self-advocate for legal and physical access to the workplace. We need something more. We need workplaces around the world to acknowledge the problem and commit to changing it.

Audio clip from Davos 2019: At Davos 2019 we put disability inclusion centre stage for the first time and made a worldwide call. So this is a crisis, but there is a solution to help end the disability inequality crisis.

SOPHIE (narration): The Valuable 500 is a global movement of 500 big businesses – from Apple to Zurich Insurance – that aims to equalise the playing field for Disabled people. It provides companies with resources and support on aspects such as workforce, governance, and learning opportunities. The tagline is “disability is our business” – something that should be true for every workplace.

Hank Prybylski is the Global Vice Chair for Transformation at EY, previously known as Ernst and Young, he is also their Global Exec sponsor on disability inclusion. EY is one of the biggest consulting firms in the world, and they were one of the founding members of the Valuable 500. Exec producer Sinéad asked him how and why the company lead the way.

HANK: If we’re going to be committed and execute building a better working world, that world’s got to be inclusive for all. And that world is almost by definition, incredibly diverse. So when you think about that opportunity for bringing together that diverse world and inclusive environment, you know, we just see that as so core. And in the area of diverse abilities, we see we’re proud of what we have accomplished but we see so much more opportunity ahead. And I think it’s a little bit of that, you know, that continual push to drive and do more and align with others who share those goals. You know, if you look at some areas like in the Americas where we’ve been a leader in the disability equality index for the top five years, we’re very proud of that. But we also recognize, you know, we have a long way to go. And sometimes that’s – we look at different parts of our world where we may be farther ahead in one world than another.

But when you really look at the Valuable 500, it is a great way of sharing best practices. It’s creating an alignment of 500 companies, and think about the size and scale of that. It’s over 20 million employees; 36 different headquartered countries. I think eight trillion in revenue represented by that group and, you know, sharing best practices, learning from each other and as we said earlier, challenging each other. You know, bring in your authentic self to work. Inclusive in employment journey. Accessible and inclusive workplace. And really lastly, equipping all of our employees to be disability inclusive and really rallying that around. I think that’s, you know, we have enjoyed that camaraderie within the 500. We’ve enjoyed the learnings and we’ve enjoyed the competitiveness of each pushing each other.

SOPHIE (narration): EY have a great track record in this space. And it is great to see brands and corporations like EY helping to bring around meaningful change. I wanted to get an idea of how the Valuable 500 work in practice. Esther Verburg, who we heard in the last episode, works at the fashion brand Tommy Hilfiger. Her role is responsible for everything related to sustainable business and innovation. We asked Esther how aspects of diversity and inclusion fit into the idea of a sustainable company.

ESTHER: What we’re doing at the moment is also in line with the pledge of the Valuable 500 is we’re creating a strategy that dismantles ableism within the organisation, so as we say it. So that means that we need better measures to hire people and to make sure that people with disabilities also feel like they belong, but also to create a different attitude within the organisation towards people with a disability. So that’s, I think, a really important part. We’re doing at the moment, a big review of our talent practices in Europe, for instance, with an eye on inclusion and diversity. So what are all the levers, when we hire, when we retain, when we promote people? And how can we actually give the disadvantaged communities or the underrepresented communities, you know, a better platform? So create a more equitable situation and help them to be more represented at different levels. 

Recently we had a talk also around neurodiversity, and there were actually people also from the company that spoke up about how they were neurodiverse and what that meant. And it opened up so many doors for conversation but also so many opportunities for people to say, like, oh, OK, so if I act a little bit more like that or that, then that actually helps you and it makes it or, you know, more agreeable for you and for us in the end as well. And that connection and that conversation really has to happen, because first, people need to be aware and then they need to feel that, OK, you know, we’re all co-owner of the fact that we need to make this a place where people all feel they belong. And in the end, you know, all of us become better if the workplace is more diverse. It’s not only the people from the underrepresented groups, everybody benefits from it because a more diverse environment is just a more enriched environment. And you will get better ideas and better products and, you know, more fun. I think in the end, also.

SOPHIE (narration): Thinking about disability equity under the umbrella of sustainability is an idea that other innovators have utilised. After all, Disabled people aren’t going away, so making a workplace disability-friendly is making it future-proof! Christina Mallon spoke in the last episode about the design and marketing considerations for different lived experiences. But much of her work is through the framing of social sustainability.

CHRISTINA:  I’ve used social sustainability kind of as the term when I’m explaining what I do because there’s so much talk around sustainability, but people only really talk about climate sustainability, but it’s much broader. So when, you know, we look at the UN sustainability goals, many of them are about social issues. And if you can link it to the UN sustainability goals, people, it starts to click more. Also there’s budgets usually. There’s sustainability budgets, there’s heads of sustainability at companies, there’s not a lot of heads of disability.

SOPHIE (narration): Movements like the Valuable 500 and concepts like social sustainability are useful as frameworks to show the possibility, to measure success, but most importantly, they prove the need to employ people with disabilities. Especially since the pandemic, when the number of people working from home in Britain nearly doubled from 12.4% to 25.9% in 2020. Companies realise it is possible to accommodate disabled people without compromising their workflow. In this podcast, we have Disabled people from all over the UK and Canada who have been able to fulfil their roles with no problems due to the modern technology on offer. There is a huge opportunity coming out of the pandemic to support disabled people. To gain more flexible working commitments which suit their daily needs and attributes better than an office 9 to 5. But we have to ensure that we take this opportunity to change working cultures to ensure that this progress continues as we move out of the pandemic.

CHARLES: The employment numbers are looking pretty good since, you know, June, July of 2021, because the industry that is bouncing back the fastest are industries that tend to hire more people with disabilities on average. So that’s restoration, tourism, grocery stores, and so the numbers are now higher than they were around 2008, 2009. So that is very encouraging. But we’re still at what we look is not so much unemployment, but workforce participation rate. And so now it’s around 35% for people with disabilities against about 70% for the rest of the population. So we’re still at half, and we know that it should be much higher than this. So it’s better and we’re bouncing back but the crisis has clearly shown that people with disabilities were more vulnerable to either losing their job or being laid off. 

SOPHIE (narration): But as much as the pandemic has brought some opportunities, there is a long way to go for Disabled people to have true equality of opportunity in employment in the US, as well as across much of the world. In many US States they are still upholding a shocking piece of legislation called 14(c), which allows employers to pay sub-minimum wages to Disabled people if the employer believes that their disability impairs their productivity for the work they perform. Charles Catherine, who we heard earlier, adds to this, talking about the disproportionate impact that Covid had on job losses for Disabled people in the first year of the pandemic.

CHARLES: When I learned about 14(c) as a foreigner, kind of blew my mind. I had no idea that it was legal in America to pay people with disabilities less than minimum wage. It was thought of in 1938 as a progressive legislation, and I think it probably was, but now is completely outdated. And although a few states have phased out 14(c) it’s still a minority. It’s about a handful.

SOPHIE (narration): But Charles says that plans are in motion now to bring to an end to this humiliating and discriminatory piece of legislation across the US for good.

CHARLES: What we’re trying to do at NOD is advocate at the federal level to change and phase out of 14(c) and there are a few initiatives that are out there. The most popular one is the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act, which might be introduced in the Senate pretty soon. And that is what we think as a good solution, balanced solution, to phase out 14(c) over time and with appropriate support for companies because it’s a significant change, right? There’s hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities in America that are paid penny per hours for really hard jobs. And that has been allowed by the Government because we don’t really think about those as jobs. We think of it more as support for people with disabilities and things to do.

SOPHIE (narration): We spoke with a Para athlete from Afghanistan called Nilofar Bayat. Nilofar was the captain of the Afghan women’s Wheelchair Basketball team in Kabul. As the whole world knows, the Taliban have reasserted control across the country and their extremist attitudes towards women in work and sport, or people with disabilities have started to take hold. This led to Nilofar leaving her home country, where she was employed full time by the International Red Cross, to re-settle as a refugee in Bilbao in Spain. She told us about her initial experiences in Spain and the lack of visibility for Disabled people in employment as she starts to look for a job for herself.

NILOFAR: When I’m walking around I see there is a lot of people, they have disability. Some of them use wheelchairs, some of them has crash or some of them without that, but they have disabilities. But still, I didn’t see anyone to have a job. And I do know that it will happen with me as well, or no, like the CEO, the office that they are helping and working for refugees here. I didn’t see anyone to have disability.

SOPHIE (narration): Nilofar’s observation is anecdotal, but there is evidence for it. In 2019 a third of the non-disabled population in Spain were unemployed, yet for people with disabilities it’s reportedly nearly three quarters. I say reportedly as the numbers can be skewed due to disclosure rates, as some disabled people do not like to disclose their disability publicly. Liz Johnson, who we heard from earlier, explains.

LIZ: This is a bit of a double-edged sword. You want to be in a world where people don’t have to tell you they have a disability in order to access a fair opportunity. But similarly, you want to gauge how well you’re doing. So it’s difficult. And sometimes that’s why that number is low to start with. And actually, when organisations are talking about wanting to be more inclusive, sometimes we’re like you have the people already here they just don’t feel comfortable in this environment or they’re not able to show their true self, which is why when we interact with them, when we do pieces of work with them, the disclosure rate goes up because the messaging is there and people feel a lot more comfortable and understood.

[Music: ‘Yes I Can’ by The Superhuman Band]

[Music fades under speaking]

SOPHIE (narration): Dan Brooke, who we heard from in an earlier episode, and who was one of the pioneers behind Channel 4’s hiring of disabled talent to work on the Paralympic Games, agrees. 

DAN: There are many more people with disabilities in the world who don’t feel that they can be open about their disability and particularly in the workplace because they think that it’ll count against them. And what I would do to those people is I would say I understand that, and I understand why it’s the case that people who aren’t disabled in companies may have some apprehension.

[Music fades under speaking]

SOPHIE (narration): If we come back to the beginning of the episode and Ludwig Guttmann’s intent for the Paralympics to uplift Disabled people in society, how close have we gotten to his goal? Thankfully, more businesses are now talking about the need for a more inclusive employment policy, but considering Guttmann began the Paralympic movement in 1948, the progress being made is far too slow. And we also need to define success, because we cannot rely on numbers alone. As Eddie Ndopu explained in our conversation.

EDDIE: If we insist on those things culturally and socially and economically, right, and start seeing, you know, disabled people as CEOs in the boardroom, you know, I think that creates a critical mass of Disabled people with power and influence who can then, you know, sort of spur and really catalyze the kind of broader, you know, human rights changes that we need, right? So it starts with closing the disability wealth gap as well. Right? Because let’s be real, you know, most of us are living hand-to-mouth, even when we look successful.

SOPHIE (narration): Let’s expand on Eddie’s point about living costs as a Disabled person. According to the disability charity Scope, Disabled people in the UK spend an average of £550 a month on costs related to their disability. For 1 in 10, costs of this sort amount to over £1,000 a month. Disability is expensive, no matter where you are in the world. In addition, of the estimated 1 billion Disabled people in the world, 80% are living in developing countries according to the WHO. Disability and poverty are inextricably linked.

In many countries, including some of the world’s most developed, not only is there no legislation to promote equality of opportunity but there is actually legislation that reinforces inequality and a two-tier system to access the workplace. If you are disabled, it is indisputable that it is likely to be harder for you to find work than if you are not. However, there is hope. With initiatives like the Valuable 500 supported by brands like EY and Tommy Hilfiger, there is a global force for change. And whilst the pandemic undoubtedly had a negative, disproportionate impact on people with disabilities in the workforce compared to the non-Disabled community, it has also shown employers that flexible working conditions enrich all employees’ experiences and can give employers access to a wider talent pool that they may have otherwise ignored.

Join me in the final episode when we’ll be looking to the future, specifically thinking about the decade ahead. We’ll reflect on the impact the Tokyo Paralympics has had on the world. We’ll talk to leaders from the Paralympic movement and the wider disability sector about the potential of the next decade as the Paralympics head to Beijing, Paris, Milan and Los Angeles.

I’ve been your host, Sophie Morgan. We’ll see you next time.

SOPHIE (narration): These podcasts have been made possible because of the support of Procter & Gamble. P&G share our ambition to create a more equal world. A world where everyone can have equal access and the opportunity to thrive. We are very grateful for their partnership in making these conversations a reality.

61% of people with a direct involvement in the production of the podcast, including guests, identify as Disabled.

This podcast was created by Greg Nugent, co-founder of Harder Than You Think. I’m Sophie Morgan, your host and Executive Producer. Fellow Executive Producers are Sinéad Burke, Greg Nugent, Barnaby Spurrier, Laura Ims, Marc Pritchard, and Kimberly Doebereiner.

Thank you to the IPC and Channel 4 for their support, and use of archive material.

Thanks to our podcast production partner Stripped Media, and also to Seneca Women for their assistance with distributing this show. 

If you want to follow the Equal Too story, and join the conversation #EqualToo, go to our website where you will also find the transcript and video versions of the podcast, along with subtitles and a BSL-signed version in the coming days.

[MUSIC intensifies and ends]