Achieving Diversity and Inclusion Goals with Disability Connect

Steven Jones set up Disability Connect which runs a reverse mentoring programme with disabled people that helps organisations achieve their diversity and inclusion goals. In this conversation, we talk about Steven’s reasons for setting up Disability Connect and the range of benefits employees bring back to their organisations from getting involved as a mentee on the programme.
Photo of Steven Jones

Steven Jones is the founder of Disability Connect, a reverse mentoring scheme to support disabled people in the workplace. Before we got into what Disability Connect is and why organisations need to be more inclusive of disabled people, I asked Steven to tell me a bit more about him, what he does, and what brought him to the point in life where he created Disability Connect?

‘I’m in my late 20s and my background is I went to university, did a degree in business management, and then went into the graduate world with several roles in the not-for-profit, private and public sectors. I’ve been in civil service for around seven years now in a range of departments and roles. I have a disability, spinal muscular atrophy, which is the same disability as Toby.

Maybe SMA is not as rare as I thought it was because I’ve had a chance over the last couple of years to meet lots of people that share my condition which has been interesting.

Through my experience of graduating and looking for employment and going from job to job, it stuck out to me how many challenges there were when it comes to disability and recruitment, and retention. I experienced that quite often employers didn’t want to put up any barriers, but they simply didn’t know what the barriers were or how to get around them. That’s where the Disability Connect reverse mentoring scheme came in.

The scheme pairs mentors who have a disability with organisations to share their learning and insights as well as their first-hand experience of disability. Then that organisation can take those insights away and bring it into their organisation and their policies and processes.’

Steven has mentioned that there are several challenges that disabled people face trying to gain employment. To understand that more I asked him, ‘When it comes to attracting and recruiting disabled talent, what are some of the challenges or barriers that you’ve seen?’

‘From personal experience, I always felt that job descriptions are almost always the first point of contact for lots of people. I’ve looked at a lot of job descriptions and being in a wheelchair myself I remember there was one that said, “The team is fast-paced and dynamic. We work hard and we play hard as well. On the weekends or after work, we go rock climbing and go-karting and we’re very active”.

I was thinking the job looked interesting but felt immediately excluded because I couldn’t go go-karting or rock climbing like others. Maybe that was the organisation trying to say, “We’re a very social team. We want to do lots of different things and lots of team building”, which is great, but I think how they put that excluded a lot of people. So I think the job description and that initial recruitment process can sometimes be a blocker.

I also think it’s perceptions of organisations too. It’s interesting. I suppose even in my own head, I’ve got a view on which organisations are very inclusive, and which organisations aren’t really. That would either attract me or put me off applying for roles with them.

Then there is the actual recruitment process, so interview and assessment. I found that interesting too, because I’ve had some interviews previously when I was looking for graduate jobs, and they were very accommodating, sorting out disabled car parking for me, making sure it’s all accessible. However, in some cases, I found the car park was far away. If I’m coming in my manual wheelchair, I can’t self-propel over long distances without taking breaks, so that’s almost an instant block even though they’ve put those facilities in place.’

I was also interested to hear Steven’s thoughts on developing and retaining disabled people once they’re in the organisation. I asked him to tell me about some of the obstacles or challenges that he has come across in this area.

‘I work with my mentors who have a disability, but they haven’t always had a disability. I have learnt a lot from that because I was born with SMA. I think previously I had the assumption that everyone was born with their disability. However, the majority of people go through their lives without a disability and then one occurs. It might be a condition, or it might be an accident or something that’s happened.

An employer that was maybe accommodating and was accessible before may not know what to put in place or might not be open to that conversation. I’ve found that can be a key barrier. I think changes in conditions have an impact too. It’s just about that opening of the conversation with employers. Just because some adjustment that you’ve put in place previously doesn’t mean it’s a one-time fix for it forever. There needs to be a process to monitor these reasonable adjustments on a more regular basis.’

In response to this, Steven has set up Disability Connect’s mentoring programme. From the description, it sounds like a reverse mentoring scheme which is very common in diversity and inclusion within businesses. I asked Steven to give some more detail about what the scheme is and how it works.

‘Yes, there are lots of large organisations that run reverse mentoring schemes for a number of the protected characteristics which all sound positive. Reverse mentoring is mentoring but switched around the other way. So generically, mentoring is maybe a more junior person being the mentee and you would get the mentor being a senior person with more experience. The idea of reverse mentoring is that the person who is the mentor would have that first-hand experience of some of the diverse characteristics, in this case, disability, and they may mentor a more senior person in an organisation. The reverse mentoring scheme has a real range of mentees and organisations as well. And I work with lots of organisations that come forward and say, “I’ve got a particular challenge in my organisation”.

Some of the key ones include people not being aware of how many people with disabilities they have in their organisation. Lots of companies come to me and say, “My declaration rates are really low so there’s a problem with my recruitment”.

Sometimes you can turn that around to ask, “Actually, is there an internal issue here that maybe people aren’t declaring. Have you got those channels open? Do people understand why declaration rates are needed?”

With other organisations, we might look at the scheme from a customer point of view. So, for example, I have several housing associations that work with customers who have disabilities on a day to day basis and they look at this by asking, “How can I better meet the purpose and serve the needs of my customer base here, as well as attract more people into my organisation?”

Another example is a charity I’m working with at the moment. They’ve said, “The fundraising portfolio is very much targeted at sports events, climbing Mount Snowdon and things like that. That’s not very diverse though so how can I increase representation in that fundraising space?”

How the mentoring scheme works is that it’s over six months. The organisation will sign up, they’ll submit a form to pretty much say what they’re looking to get from the scheme. They’ll say what their internal challenges are currently and what they’re doing in the diversity and inclusion space. We use that information to think, “Right, okay. Who’s the best fit for you as a mentor?”
I’ve got a really big pool of mentors and I do that strategic match that way. I always check with the mentee to make sure they’re content with that mentor match that suits them and their purpose for signing up as well.

The mentors I work with are diverse in their experiences and backgrounds. I’ve had several graduates who have recently joined the scheme and they can provide some really useful insights in terms of what it’s like in the graduate market with disability. I have also worked with lots of industry professionals that have been in the private or public sector for 20 to 30 years, and they’ve got that in-depth experience. So the mentors are diverse in both their disabilities and their protected characteristics as well as their experiences and what they’ve achieved.’

It sounds to me like the person with the disability who’s being the mentor is bringing a lot more to the table than just their disability. As Steven says, he’s working with people who’ve just graduated and they’re able to bring a fresh perspective to things by being younger and having had a recent university experience as well. I asked Steven, ‘Would I be right in assuming that the organisation that signs up and gets the mentoring gets a lot more value for money that way as well?’

‘That’s a really good point. You’re completely right. All of the mentors have a disability. They may also belong to one of the other protected characteristics too. Plus also they bring a lot of experience, knowledge, and all have very unique backgrounds as well.

I think a big part of the mentoring scheme is the mentor helping their mentee set goals and objectives. That’s a big part of the mentor recruitment process. We look at the ability to pin down organisation on what they want to achieve, and work with them to keep that momentum going throughout the six months.’

As well as the benefits Steven’s already mentioned for organisations working with Disability Connect, I wondered if there are any other great reasons for entering a reverse mentoring arrangement to get that positive impact on the business.

‘One of the key ones is general awareness. Lots of organisations I talk to are aware of disability. They’ve been to disability training and they’ve had lots of different experiences, but they’ve rarely, or sometimes never spoken to someone with a disability first-hand and had quite an open and honest conversation about what it’s like for the person. What are reasonable adjustments like; what works for them and what doesn’t in lots of cases.

I’ve heard feedback previously from mentees who have said, “I’ve learnt so much about this and I will incorporate this learning into the decisions I make at work and how I act in meetings.” That carries across into their personal life, or out in public and how they interact with others.

Another one is continuous professional development. A big part of mentoring, as I said previously, is having someone to keep that momentum going on those diversity and inclusion goals. I think it’s almost someone to bounce ideas off, check in with and hold a person accountable to say, “Actually, last month you said you were going to achieve this or you were going to progress this goal. Where’s that got to?”

What I say to the organisations that sign up is that it’s up to them how much or how little they take from this. Their mentor will have lots of knowledge on disability and wider issues. However, they don’t necessarily speak for the whole disabled community. I’m quite clear on saying that your mentor has all of this good advice and experience, however, this gives you a small view of one disability, but will open up other doors as they go forward.

I think a tangible benefit and opportunity here is to open that conversation of disability, and then that organisation to then actually think, “Right, okay, what can I do in my organisation to make this more visible? How can we promote disability across my workplace, to open up more conversations like this as well?”’

Before I let Steven go I had to ask him my usual question, ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you?’

‘I’ve listened to lots of your podcasts, Toby, and I always find this question interesting at the end. I think what I found is that inclusivity means that everyone is equal, everyone has the same experience no matter what background they come from, what protective characteristics they’ve got. I suppose disability wouldn’t exist if there weren’t barriers in terms of processes, procedures, accessibility, and all of that. So my view is inclusivity is where actually disability isn’t a thing, it doesn’t exist because everything is designed with disability in mind and difference in mind as well.’

Steven made such good points about inclusion there. I am reminded of the role employers can play in removing those procedural, attitudinal, and societal barriers which have such a profound impact on the world.

To learn more about Disability Connect and about mentoring with disabled mentors visit the website disabilityconnect.org.uk which has lots of information on there both for the mentor and the mentee.

Steven’s contact details are on the website too. He’s happy to talk to anyone who is considering becoming a mentor. It’s a rolling application process that is always open. If any organisations out there want to learn more about disability and signup for a mentor programme that information is there on the website too.

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