After years of hiding my own disabilities from employers, I’ve come to realise that employers can play a vital role in helping employees embrace their personal challenges and create a more inclusive place to work.
As an IT contractor going from job to job, I always worried that I would miss out on a contract to more able-bodied people, so I decided to keep my disabilities a secret - but this all changed when I joined Amazon.
I was able to get away with hiding my condition from employers because I have so called ‘invisible’ disabilities, including Asperger’s, dyslexia, hearing loss, osteoarthritis and Hypermobility Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (hEDS) – which is a genetic connective tissue disorder causing me chronic pain, frequent dislocations and fatigue.
Although I often need crutches and struggle to stand for long periods of time, I am not in a wheelchair, and IT doesn’t require a huge amount of mobility.
I was able to get away with it for years, but in truth I was living ‘in the closet’, hiding my disabilities and making up excuses for why I couldn’t come into the office. I had assumed that my career would be defined by the need to hide my disabilities.
When I joined Amazon as a solutions architect, this all changed – and it changed my life for the better.
An internal course called ‘being peculiar’ opened my eyes: it was about embracing diversity and difference, helping me to realise that I could bring my authentic self to the workplace.
Over time I discovered a range of employee affinity groups, including the 'People with Disabilities' group.
This group was originally set up in Seattle to promote inclusivity for people with all types of disabilities, taking an approach that encourages diversity and inclusion without favouritism or special treatment.
Inspired by this experience, I suggested that we launch our own group in the UK, and became the chair.
Like our colleagues in the US, the group’s remit is to raise awareness and build initiatives to ensure people with disabilities can be proud in the workplace. I was motivated to help ensure that my colleagues would not feel the need to hide their disabilities.
Some of my favourite initiatives aimed at boosting inclusivity in the workplace include:
Employee-driven affinity groups
Affinity groups give everyone a voice on how to improve inclusivity.
‘Employee-driven’ should mean that employees lead the conversation, and this also ensures that senior figures are allies in raising awareness and tackling any concerns about company culture.
Providing an option of support up front will make a considerable difference to employees' day-to-day lives.
It’s important that these groups are available to all company staff, not just corporate staff in the head office.
Developing ‘allies’ of affinity groups is vital. This means finding ways to educate others about how these issues impact colleagues. We want to avoid groups becoming an echo chamber and we want to instigate positive change around the company.
One example of positive change through dialogue and awareness would be the removal of unconscious bias during the interview process, which in turn can also boost diversity among staff.
We have a great programme called ‘Circles’ where people from different areas of the business come together in small groups to act as mentors, sharing ideas and experiences in the process.
In a large company, this is a brilliant way to get new and veteran staff together, outside of their usual social circles.
It can also help colleagues to grow as individuals, so they feel part of the business, have their voices heard and discover new opportunities for development.
Clear policies ensure people can easily engage with HR to request any adaptations they may need.
This process should run through every stage of an employee’s career with your organisation, starting with the job interview.
All visitors to the company – whether it’s for a job interview, meeting or event – should be offered adaptations as standard practice.
Get involved with the national conversation
There are many excellent and well-established public campaigns around specific issues. By creating a national conversation, these events and campaigns can help to translate awareness into action.
You may choose to engage with these, or you may want to plan your own. For example, many companies now have their own ‘mental health awareness week’.
Activities might include fundraising, wellbeing sessions, advice on employee assistance programmes employees may not be aware of, or an offer of employee counselling.
Sign-up sessions for blood, stem cell and organ donation are also excellent schemes to run within your company. This is especially important in areas of the country with large BAME populations, as there aren’t enough blood and stem cell donors to meet current demands in the UK.
Your message when engaging with national campaigns should be that anybody can be impacted by these challenges at some point in their life, and that your company will support its employees through those challenges.
Reach out for help
There are a number of excellent charities providing relevant support. For example Scope’s End the Awkward campaign covers multiple disabilities, while MIND’s Time to Change campaign focuses on mental health.
These charities exist to raise awareness and provide resources for different conditions, so there’s plenty of support and guidance available to make your employee’s day-to-day lives easier. Reducing the emotional labour of asking for extra help is an excellent first step, so I would recommend reaching out to relevant charities for help.
This can be particularly useful if staff are reluctant to disclose their disability – for example, if they think it will hinder their career progression. Providing an option of support up front will make a considerable difference to their day-to-day lives.
Want to learn more about this topic? Read Diversity at work: the business case for an inclusive culture
About Suzie Miller
Suzie Miller is a Solutions Architect for Amazon UK and chair of the company’s People with Disabilities employee affinity group.