According to the World Health Organization, "disability" is an umbrella term that covers various physical, medical and mental impairments that may limit one's ability to participate in daily activities.

Given this classification, there are more than one billion people around the globe who have some form of disability, with 78% acquiring their disability while of working age. This makes it critical for organizations to prepare for the reality that many of their employees are - or will become - disabled.

Tune in to season 4, episode 2 of Diversonomics as hosts Roberto Aburto and Cindy Kou chat with diversity and inclusion consultant Emma Dennis about the challenges of developing an inclusiveness strategy for disabled employees in a world where there is no "one size fits all" solution.

Episode tip

"I think we need recruiters, line managers, the people that are really involved in bringing people in, to be able to look past disability, see the skills the individual brings to the organization and to the role and be confident by talking about disability and making things work."

- Emma Dennis, diversity and inclusion manager at Gowling WLG UK


You are listening to "Diversonomics", a Gowling WLG podcast

Roberto: Welcome to Diversonomics. The podcast about diversity inclusion from Gowling WLG. I'm your co-host Roberto Aburto. Cindy Kou.

Cindy: And I'm Cindy Kou, your co-host. Our guest today is our diversity and inclusion manager at Gowling WLG UK. She spent over 15 years at a major accounting firm including as a diversity and inclusiveness consultant. We're going to take this opportunity to discuss a topic we've not dedicated a lot of time to, disability. So welcome to the show Emma Dennis. Please tell us about yourself.

Emma: Thank you guys for having me on the podcast today. I've been working in D & I for the last 7 years and am relatively new into Gowling WLG in the UK. I got into D & I purely by change a few years ago. It's always been fascinating for me how we work as people, how our brains work, how we work with each other. I think D & I really lends itself to that fascination that I've got. I love being able to work with different groups of people and really figure out the best ways to make sure that everybody's got the ability to reach their potential. I think as well, what drives me most above all, is that making sure that everybody's got the same opportunities. It's something that's really important to me and any injustice really gets me going. Yeah, thank you.

Cindy: Thanks so much, Emma. You were keen to discuss disability. We wanted to know what made this of such significant interest to you.

Emma: I think, historically, if you look at diversity and inclusion we've had a huge focus over the years around things like gender, ethnicity, LGBT and disability, in my view, has often been the poor relation to these others focus areas. So we've spoken about disability in organizations but there hasn't really been that big push to make a huge amount of change. I think as well, if we look in the world, we've got over a billion people across the globe that have some sort of disability and there's a myth that I think that gets perpetuated in line disability, that it's something that people are born with, but this isn't often the case in reality. I think we know that 78% of disabled people actually acquire their disability while they're working age. That means that we, as an organization, we need to prepare ourselves that people that work for us now either already have a disability or will have a disability, likely to, at some point in their time with us. We work in a time where people with disabilities have issues in terms of access to employment or finding meaningful employment. I think we need to really look at this and change it and recognize the different skills that people can bring to our organization. I think as well one of the things that really sticks out to me is we still have this stigma and this fear about talking about disability. I think a lot of people worry about saying the wrong thing, insulting somebody, upsetting somebody and it can feel quite awkward to have a conversation around disability. We what we tend to is go silent in saying this thing and just ignore and this does nothing to help move things forward. I think the more open conversations we can have around disability and get people being more confident talking about the subject, the more we can do around that, the better. I think, finally, one more point is that out of all the things we look at in terms of diversity and inclusion, disability doesn't discriminate. You can be black or white, straight or gay, whatever you are you can still get a disability. We all know somebody who's got a disability, or we might have one ourselves, and it's really important that we do more in this area.

Roberto: That's great and certainly I would think we've explored it a fair bit over the seasons of Diversonomics that language is really important. For the purpose of this discussion how do you define disability?

Emma: I think for the purpose of this conversation today that the World Health Organization's definition fits really well. Their definition is that disability is an umbrella term so it covers things like impairment, limitations with activity and the ability to participate in things. It can include many different things that can be bodily functions, due to the structure of your body, so things that affect you physically. It could be mental conditions. I think looking at in the broader sense is the way that I would look at it. I guess for me disability is physical impairment such as hearing loss, vision loss, mobility issues, mental health issues. Then we've got cognitive conditions, autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, things like cancer, autoimmune conditions, MS, HIV. I think the list is vast if you look at it holistically. I think it's impossible to list everything but we need to look a bit wider than what the legislation tells us in terms of disability. We obviously have to make sure that we're meeting our legal obligations in terms of what we have to do around disability in the work place. I think that broadening out to look at things in more than that. How can we go above and beyond what we're told we should be doing around disability.

Roberto: What are some of the challenges faced by people with different disabilities?

Emma: I think this is a broad question because everybody's experience with disability is going to be really individual to them. As an example you could have two people who are on the autistic spectrum and the way that those two people experience autism will be really different. One person may require some adjustments to make sure that they're in a quiet area of the office because they get sensory overload. Whereas another person with the same condition actually could need that sensory input to be able to function at their best. But I think if I was looking at more broadly I think there's a few challenges that I guess work across different conditions that people have. I think one of them is around people's attitudes, generally, to disability. I think over the years we haven't made a huge amount of progress in this area. People make presumptions on the capabilities of a person based on their disability and nothing else. There is that bias towards disabled people and that impacts on all areas of their life, especially when they are trying to get into employment. That, in itself, is a challenge so a number of disabled people really do struggle with finding meaningful employment. I've heard from lots of people over the years that they've been unable to get a job in their profession. I know one person who had Asperger's syndrome who was hugely qualified but worked in a café because it was the only job that they could get and it was only through a company that was doing a pilot around Asperger's and trying to hire people in that they managed to get into the profession that they wanted to be part of. I think we need to look at how we're talking in increasing people into our business to make sure that we aren't discriminating against anybody with a disability. We need to show that we are disability confident employers. I think disability confidence is one of the key things that can help us attract and retain disabled talent. It is a real challenge in terms of getting into employment. Our recruitment processes aren't always the most accessible to people with different disabilities. For example, if we've got assessment centers somebody who's on the autistic spectrum might find that really hard to perform at their best. Somebody with a vision impairment might struggle if they're having to do an online quiz as part of an assessment for a job in the work place. We need to really look at what we can do to make these processes easier. That links in, again, to the accessibility piece. I think accessibility is a huge challenge across the board for people with either visible or invisible disabilities. There is this thought around adjustments being made in the workplace, and to enable people to work, being very expensive and that isn't always the case. It's not always the case that you have to spend a lot of money to help somebody with a disability working with you. Sometimes, I think from my experience here in the UK, we have legislation so that we have to put in place reasonable adjustments for somebody with a disability in the workplace. I think there's a lack of knowledge at times of processes of one making these adjustments happen quickly and effectively. If the process breaks down it can have a really big impact on that person being able to do their job. I think the final challenge, and I think we're getting better at, this is becoming more of a topic across the board, is that we don't always spend a lot of time talking about or looking at hidden disabilities. So people that can, from the outward appearance seem like there's nothing wrong with them, they may look okay but actually they have a condition that's having a really big impact on their ability to live their life every day. Things like rheumatoid arthritis, ME, epilepsy, mental health conditions, there's so many things out there that are hidden conditions. It's a lot easier, I guess in some ways, if you can see somebody's disability, whether they've got a wheelchair, hearing aids, you can see that there is a disability there. When it's an invisible condition I think it's harder for people to understand what that person's life experience is.

Cindy: Thanks, Emma. As you said, the challenges really do vary significantly depending on the disability and the individual and as you've alluded to this can seem daunting for some employers about the resources needed to be inclusive. If we take a step back, can you tell us about how a law firm can come up with a guiding strategy to be more inclusive of people with disabilities?

Emma: Yeah, definitely. The challenges do vary dramatically and there isn't one solution works well for everybody in terms of disability. I also think when you start to look at disability as something to focus on as an organization you can very quickly become overwhelmed by the amount that there is to do and the amount that you can be doing around disability. Sometimes the scale of it can be very overwhelming to the point where you don't really feel like you're moving forward. I would say for any law firms that are out there looking to really start doing more on the topic of disability is to really start with the basics. When you've got the basics working well you can then sort of move onto the things that are on your wish list. I think one of the big important things is making sure that you've got the buy-in and support of senior leadership. People need to see that commitment from the top that disability is on the agenda and it is something that is important to the organization. You need to also get your hands in order. So look at your processes around accessibility, around adjustments, the people who are working, make sure those processes work and that they don't break down. I think, as I mentioned earlier with accessibility, if something goes wrong that can really impact on somebody's ability to do their job. Really making those processes robust enough I think is really important. I think as well as much we can do from a process side in making sure that leadership have got that commitment disability, the people that work in an organization really need to have disability confidence. You can have everything else in place and you can attract the people with disabilities and get them in but if everybody within the organization doesn't have any disability confidence it's very unlikely that you'll be able to retain them. I think we need recruiters, line managers, the people that are really involved in bringing people in, to be able to look past disability, see the skills in the individual the individual brings to the organization and to the role and be confident by talking about disability and making things work. Have that conversation with people from the start. Don't just go silent and say nothing. As well, I think as I've said this a lot, disability's a big subject. There is a lot to do. Past experience has taught me that while looking at the big things you also need to identify some of those quick wins. The things that are really quick things to implement but can really make a difference to people. That could be things like making sure that all your videos are captioned. That all podcasts have got a transcript that goes with them. Things around communications, making sure that if you've got images in communications there's alternative text for people that may use screen readers, asking if people have accessibility requirements, then little things make a big difference particularly if you're somebody with a disability that is either looking to be employed by a firm or is already working here. Those little things can have a big impact on the day to day experience of people.

Cindy: Thanks so much, Emma. I feel like you've kind of anticipated the next question. I'd like to ask if you have some examples of success stories in law firms that you'd like to share about concrete initiatives or little tweaks that were good promotions of inclusion for people with disabilities.

Emma: Yeah. I think I've seen lots of different things work well over the years. I think the big thing is breaking that silence and stigma that still exists around disability in the workplace. The thing that I think has worked really well here at Gowling WLG in the UK is really focusing on storytelling and role modeling. I think that's a really powerful way to start conversations. So last year we did a "This is Me" video around mental health, where a number of our people shared their experiences of mental ill health, which I think was a big ask of people. But it was a really powerful video that came out the other side of that with people sharing their stories. The outcome of that has been mental health, it's been a really key focus of ours in the UK. We did a lot around mental health. It's people being open about their own experiences has then led to other people putting their hands up to share what they've been going through. I don't think we can every underestimate the power behind storytelling. The success behind that video actually has led to our embrace network in doing a similar video that's showing the experiences in terms of black and ethnic minority employees and we're going to do another video on the hidden disabilities as well. I think that storytelling really starts to open up the conversation around disability. I think it's also very powerful if you've got somebody who's a senior leader who's got a disability that he's happy and willing to talk about it. I think that often opens up the door to more people coming forward to share their stories and act as role models. Other things that I've seen work are there's a lot to be said for using allies as a tool for promoting inclusion in terms of disability. I've been involved in the past in a couple of programs focusing on guesting allies specifically in terms of disability and the topics around diversity. But allies can be a really powerful tool in getting that conversation going and if you're educating your allies on how to be disability confident then they start to break down that silence and they can have conversations around disability without any awkwardness. In my past experience allies really do tend to drive up activity as well. Whether that's sharing their own experiences of either disability that they may have themselves or somebody within their family or acting as role models and mentors and sponsors to people across the organization. I'd say one of the other things that worked really well, to me it all links back to disability confidence, so having some thought of education plan around getting your people up to speed around talking about disability. So whether that's Lunch & Learn sessions over lunchtime that could focus on different conditions. Whether that's getting people to do some self-learning by watching TED talks, for example. I think there's a whole host of TED talks out there that are absolutely fantastic on sharing people's experiences of disability. I would say have somebody share things like that on a regular basis with your people so that they're just getting that exposure to different people's stories. If you need somewhere to start for a TED talk then I can highly recommend Caroline Casey's "Looking Past Limits". She's the first TED talk I ever watched and she has a very powerful story around disability. Then finally, don't think you've got to do it all on your own. Work with organizations. Work with the experts. Look at what the organizations are doing locally. Are there any charities or local groups who are experts in a particular field that you can work with to get their insights to impact on what you're doing internally. We've got a number of people we work with in the UK and I know across the world there's similar organizations in various countries. They're a really great resource because there are so many different conditions that are classed as disabilities you can't expect everybody to know everything about everything. I would really say make those connections and lean on those organizations to offer you guidance and support. It's not something you can do alone.

Roberto: Thank you so much, Emma. There's a lot of great ideas here and a lot to chew on. Thanks so much for being here with us today. For our listeners, if you ever have any questions, comments or ideas for topics and guests please look us up at and get in touch with us. We'd love to hear from you. Also make sure to check out the show notes for this episode at and transcripts are included online, typically in Lexology and on the Gowling WLG website relating to diversonomics. Last but not least make sure to subscribe on Apple podcast so you don't ever miss an episode and, while you're at it, leave us a review to let us know what you think. You can also follow me on Twitter, in the law Twitter universe, at @robaburto. Emma, do you have anything you want to plug?

Emma: Yeah. You are welcome to follow me on Twitter. I'm at @emmaladennis.

Cindy: And you can follow me on Twitter at @ckoutweets. Diversonomics was presented to you by Gowling WLG and produced by Rachael Reid. Thanks for listening.

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