July is Disability Pride Month and the 18th November to 18th December is UK Disability History Month. Tokenism is rife in these kinds of awareness raising periods yet for disabled people, even if we wanted this tokenism as a bare minimum, it would rarely be afforded to us. The online world provides disabled people with an accessible communication platform, yet it’s not a platform which always chooses to recognise disabled people.
My name is Aaron and I am currently an Alumni Ambassador with Student Hubs. Prior to this I was a student volunteer, committee member and staff member! Last year, I came to Student Hubs’ Network Operations Manager, Sophie, to discuss what steps the organisation were taking to represent disabled voices online – in Disability History Month, Disability Pride Month and beyond.
I wanted to ensure that this organisation which I have history with, is one I can be proud to represent in my identity as a disabled volunteer – because it actively chooses to represent disabled people in turn. A privilege many disabled volunteers and employees elsewhere do not have.
For Disability History Month 2021, Student Hubs released a blog celebrating and sharing our journey becoming a Disability Confident Employer. Something we shared lightly on communications channels that month, and reshared in the new year. In addition, we had plans to reshare posts and content from organisations and creators who have expertise to share, recognising that platforming others’ voices is sometimes more valuable than adding our own to the mix.
More broadly, Student Hubs has been exploring how to get more student voice on our platforms and student input into our work through blogs and focus groups. We are committed to paying for this work as we recognise individuals should be compensated for sharing their experiences.
My conversations with Aaron were really useful as they not only supported me to do more in the moment, but also spurred me on to build time into my schedule to reflect on representation myself. Student Hubs are blessed to have Aaron as a champion but we shouldn’t rely on people with lived experience to be our critical friend, instead taking that role on ourselves. In practice that looks like me blocking out time in my calendar to reflect on what’s been done, and how we’ve progressed towards our goals – most notably representing all individuals across our diverse network, rather than focusing on backgrounds represented by our small staff team.
Student Hubs’ status as a Disability Confident Employer is well placed. As a student volunteer, I wasn’t expected to talk to staff about my disability in a way which differentiated me from other volunteers. Disclosing my disability on the application form only led to what would later become support to advocate for myself as a student leader and an environment which welcomed students speaking out when things could be better. It should be said that organisations shouldn’t shy away from talking to volunteers about their disabilities as raising barriers to access before they happen supports a more inclusive volunteering experience.
This continued into my employment where I jumped at the opportunity to deliver a Lunch and Learn to my colleagues about my visual impairment and how it impacted me. With my Bristol Hub and Southampton Hub colleagues I advised the communications team on best practices around accessible communications. Before I left my role I even drafted a list of disabled talent for local and national channels to follow to make their social media feeds more diverse. The kicker was that those opportunities to share best practices with my colleagues came from my own prerogative and were supported by an induction process steeped in listening and understanding employees’ needs and ambitions.
In terms of communications, organisations are often unsure how to make the ask for case studies and focus groups when reaching out to under-represented people, especially when that organisation lacks the lived experience required to connect with those individual’s identities. Socially conscious organisations like Student Hubs fully recognise the importance of funding Equality, Diversity and Inclusion initiatives but struggle to deliver on these projects when the funding isn’t there. It takes the socially conscious individuals at the heart of the organisation, like Sophie and others, to take a step back and reflect on how they can do better with the resources and the platforms they have already at their disposal.
I believe there are people and organisations out there who do care about disabled representation, they just need a kick in the right direction, over potential financial and logistical barriers, to show it. In a 2020 Forbes article titled ‘Is The Social Media Generation Transforming Disability Representation?’, it’s stated that while 88% of corporations claim disability inclusion is important – only 8% regularly include people with disabilities in marketing and communications. During my conversation with Sophie I offered suggestions on how an organisation can make their asks for student voices accessible and we agreed that it’s important to meet the student where they are at in their personal journeys and to give them a space.
Sophie identified some legitimate concerns she had in achieving this way of working and it became apparent to me that these concerns weren’t replicated in representing students during International Women’s Month or Pride Month. I challenged this, not because I didn’t think Sophie or Student Hubs cared but because they needed to hear it from me, a disabled volunteer. When the representation in a team isn’t there, it does take external forces to kick an organisation into gear. Whilst there is no available data for the charity sector specifically, the labour force as a whole does see 28.6 percentage points more non disabled people accessing employment than disabled people. Ensuring representation in a staff team is key and it’s not as simple a fix as being a Disability Confident employer, charities need to do more. In January 2018, the then Shadow Minister for Disabilities, Marsha de Cordova, stated that there is little evidence that the scheme is enabling more disabled people to find sustainable and supportive employment. The scheme is not supporting representation.
Part of creating this article about my conversation with Sophie was to lessen the burden on disabled people to do the kicking and give other organisations a view as to how they can kick themselves into gear by being the ones to reach out to disabled talent. Inclusive Employers notes that “It is crucial to raise awareness and start conversations with your organisation about disability and the disabled community.” In doing so, you can be given the energy and knowledge to reflect as Sophie will do. You can bring about positive change for disabled people without having the need to be disabled yourself. This is what I mean by doing more.
It would be easy for me going forward to scan my fifteen page conversation with Sophie and draw out each individual action I want to see and the actions Sophie has committed to. What will require a lot more work is continuing the conversation in a way which is physical and will produce results. At the end of the day, I want to see results and these results will look like an organisation which will represent disabled people as proportionally as other priorities in the online and physical world.
An organisation which will do this without being told to do so but open to being told how when they ask. Throughout my conversation with Sophie, I gave recognition to the limitations of funding but gave clear points as to how using existing social media platforms, input from existing disabled social media followers, and existing website space, meant that Student Hubs didn’t have to wait until funding became available to act.
I would like to see social media channels which interact meaningfully with and raise up disabled voices. I would like to see blog articles from more diverse backgrounds. I would like to see greater interest centred around social action led by and for disabled people all year round. I would like to see Student Hubs use its platform to share best practice with other charities and student/youth organisations. I would like to see these things because they will help to continue the conversation I started with Sophie last year. Representation needs to be continuous conversation to reflect best practices and the changing faces of the charity sector.
One could assume that I started this conversation because I am a disabled person and therefore must care about disability representation. Anyone thinking this must realise that this point of view takes away responsibility from abled-bodied people and organisations led by abled-bodied people with receptive platforms to be inclusive. Luckily for me, I volunteer with Student Hubs who already value inclusion and welcome my input when I intercede to ask for more to be done for their disabled students, staff and community networks. Throughout my conversation with Sophie, I challenged ways of thinking which while positive, I felt were not going far enough. I used my lived experience to offer alternatives in the face of adversity and above all, I opened a door to a conversation which would have never happened if I had not intervened.
That is why I ask that you, yes you, reading this article to do as Sophie has done:, reflect, commit and act. Look over your social media platforms, your website, training and internal communication to staff and volunteers. I ask you to acknowledge the areas where you could be better, where you should be and then ask someone with lived experience how you go from where you are to where you should be. Acknowledging gaps in your practises isn’t easy but you aren’t alone. If you are struggling, reach out to the disabled community, disability charities and do your research online before you begin the acknowledgement process to give you a good idea of the gaps to look out for. Be the change you talk about. Act now to give disabled people the platform they don’t see elsewhere.