Kamran Mallick and I met years ago because we used to live in the same part of London. At the time he ran a disabled person’s organisation in the local area, but he’s gone on to bigger things. He now heads up a large organisation Disability Rights UK. To get things underway I asked Kamran to tell us a bit about himself and what he’s done in the past.
‘I came to the UK when I was about six years old. I was born in Pakistan and came to the UK because I caught the polio virus when I was a young boy. My parents came over to get me treatment. All my education and learning have been in the UK. I kind of fell into my career in the disability rights movement. It’s not something that I was thinking I wanted to do when I was growing up. My dad was in the banking world and I always saw myself following in his footsteps.
Then I did some work experience in a bank. I had the worst week ever, sorting cheques into alphabetical order. That’s how old I am, back when people used to manually sort cheques! That put me off a life in banking. I found myself working in the disability rights sector. I’ve been there ever since and it’s something that’s close to my heart.
Disability Rights UK or DRUK is a not-for-profit organisation or charity. We are a campaigning and influencing organisation. What we’re trying to do is bring about rights for all disabled people, to make sure that our human rights are real and that we can enjoy them. We aim to create a society in the UK that’s truly inclusive for all disabled people.
What’s unique about DRUK is that it’s led by disabled people and their lived experience in this country. That means our board of trustees has to be 85% or more disabled people. At any given time, more than 50% of our staff are also disabled people. Everything we’re doing and what we talk about is from our own lived experience.’
This approach resonates with me. Baroness Jane Campbell who is a friend and ambassador for DRUK is a lifelong campaigner in the disability rights movement and she has drummed into me the saying, “nothing about us without us”. It’s great that disabled people’s organisations are run by disabled people and they are for disabled people.
I was keen to learn from Kamran about DRUK’s current thinking on disability inclusion in the workplace.
‘What’s in the forefront of many people’s minds are the things we’ve learned from the pandemic and during the lockdown. The first thing is that we’re conscious of creating an inclusive workplace. Organisations need to be thinking about how they go about their business, so we don’t revert back to the idea that everyone has to be in the office. It’s been a big experiment, hasn’t it? And now working from home is proven to work.
It’s been something that we as disabled people have been saying for years. The importance of being able to work remotely, to work more flexibly. Working in a way that fits business need, which is important, but also in terms of someone’s health needs as well. This hybrid working that we may go into, what does that look like? I always think that the best way to find out what that should be is to involve the very people that we’re talking about.
Nothing about us without us means business needs to be thinking about how they engage with staff who have disclosed as disabled people. They need to ask, “What works for you, and how can we best enable you to be a valuable and contributing member of our team?”
No one can tell you that better than those individuals themselves. At DRUK we’re thinking about those kinds of things, but also about some of the challenges that individual disabled people are talking about around returning to work. This includes the obvious risks with COVID still around so we’re thinking about that as well.’
I asked Kamran what are some of the concerns that disabled employees are telling DRUK about.
‘People are naturally nervous about still being at risk of catching the virus. Even though many disabled people have had the vaccine in the UK, there’s a sense of nervousness. Often it can be about the commute from home to the place of work that can be seen to be of a higher risk for individuals. Even if the reality is different, it’s the perception that’s real for people. So that’s part of the risk.
The other risk that disabled people are talking to us about is being in open-plan type environments. Being with lots of people where it may be difficult to distance yourself from others. With certain impairments, you may not be able to distance yourself if you need to. Imagine if you are blind, it can be quite difficult to know how far you are from someone and it relies on other people being very conscious about that.’
Some of my clients have expressed concerns around cliques being formed now. They have people that are eager to get back to the office and other people that would rather work from home, whether they have a disability or not. The concern is that people working from home might be left out of the loop in information, decision-making and career progression. I asked Kamran if had come across these concerns about in-groups and out-groups being formed.
‘Absolutely. I think it’s down to leaders to make sure that they tackle these issues head-on and again, talk to the individuals who are feeling this way to ensure that doesn’t happen. Leaders should be thinking about how to use technology to overcome some of those issues so people aren’t favoured because they’re physically there. It’s about ensuring people are supported and progressing based on how they’re performing, the work and outputs being created, the outcomes achieved rather than whether someone is physically in the building.’
I think another area that employers tend to overlook is people who are disabled by association. So parents of a child with a disability, for example, might be hesitant in returning to work because they don’t want to expose themselves to any risk and take it home with them. I asked Kamran what his thoughts were around that.
‘During the pandemic, we often heard how whole families were isolating because they had one individual, often a child or a younger person who was at higher risk of worse outcomes from catching the virus. Companies need to be aware of and sensitive to that. It’s about creating an open conversation and normalising this conversation, so that it’s not down to the individuals to constantly have to raise it with their line managers.
I often compare it to how the conversation about mental health has changed over the last five to ten years. There’s been a dramatic shift in how we talk about how we all have mental health. We’re getting to a point where it’s becoming normalised to talk about it. I want disability to be the same.’
One of the questions that I encourage my clients to ask every member of their team, including disabled and non-disabled staff, is, “What is stopping you or slowing you down?” That clearly identifies the barriers that people face. The job then, as a line manager, is to try and remove those obstacles so that people can thrive. It’s a great question to ask because you don’t have to have a disability to experience barriers. For example, you just might not be a morning person, and getting to the office at 8:30 AM in the morning doesn’t set you up well for the day. If you have some flexibility in when you can start your working day, you might perform better in your role. I know there are disabled people, for example, who struggle to access transport and again, having some flexibility in when they can start their day, it can make a huge difference to their performance.
Kamran agreed, continuing, ‘We talk about the social model of disability. That’s the idea that it’s not my disability or impairment or health condition that’s stopping me, it’s the barriers. Whether it’s physical barriers, people’s attitudes or perceptions about what someone can and can’t do and how we should fit ourselves into some existing model.
I’m Asian so something like intersectionality is also really important because, without it, I can’t talk about who I am. I’m not just a disabled man, I’m an Asian disabled man. Therefore my experience of the world is a combination of the fact of my disability and people’s reaction, but also of my colour. I always think about people as a combination of everything. So my experiences are different from your experience as a White disabled man. And a Black disabled woman’s experience will be different from mine. We will experience barriers that you talked about, the inequality and discrimination based on our different characteristics.’
I asked Kamran what he thinks employers need to be particularly aware of when it comes to intersectionality, especially the intersection between disability and other characteristics or identities.
‘I always think you should look at it as a whole and not try and pull those strands out. Businesses will often talk to us saying, “We’re tackling gender discrimination or gender inequality this year and next year we’ll do some other one, and then we’ll get to disability in year three.” I think that’s the wrong way to do it because how are people who have intersectional identities going to experience that?
It’s very hard for me to think about myself as just an Asian male in the UK, because that’s not only who I am. I never experienced life like that. When you start looking at the barriers that people with different identities experience, there are so many overlaps. So the feeling of being excluded because you’re a woman or because you’re a person from a particular cultural background, or you’re a disabled person, the end result is the same. These are things that we’re tackling.’
My view is that it helps us expand our thinking when we think about intersectionality. If an employer has got a really thriving LGBT+ network, for example, and they are organising an event, if they think intersectional, then they start to think more inclusively. There might be disabled people that want to come to this event because they are LGBT+ too so is the event inclusive for disabled people.
I talk very openly and publicly about my intersections. I’m White, disabled, and gay. I’m also introverted. I’ve talked quite openly about how I don’t find the LGBT+ scene in London particularly inclusive. Soho is not a very accessible part of London. A lot of the bars are inaccessible to wheelchair users, for instance. If we think about how we can be more inclusive as an employer we get economies of scale because we’re thinking about the whole human experience in the workplace. As Kamran says, using that social model of thinking, thinking about the barriers that people face in trying to navigate the workplace and eliminating those is probably the right thing to focus on.
One of the other things that we’ve talked about previously is how to give disabled staff space to talk in the workplace. I asked Kamran, ‘How can employers do that?’
‘Companies employ lots of different tactics. We’re currently working with some NHS trusts that are setting up Ambassador Programmes. These are disabled staff members that people can go and talk to about their experiences or about any issues or problems they might be having with line managers or the way things are being done. Lots of organisations have staff network groups, and that’s where there is open conversation. You also have the idea of creating champions at senior levels who effectively become the champions for a particular issue or set of issues.
There are lots of different things you can do. The more we start talking about these points and not waiting until disabled people raise the issue the better. We need leaders saying, “We’re going to talk about this issue within our team meetings and within our staff workgroups”.
That’s how we start to create understanding and awareness amongst everybody. This idea of normalising the conversation through, whether it be staff networks or staff meetings, whichever method you choose to use, having the conversation is the thing.’
Before we ended our fantastic conversation I couldn’t let Kamran go without asking what inclusive growth means for him.
‘To me inclusive growth is organisations and businesses not leaving anyone behind. It’s benefiting from the wealth of experience and that diversity brings to their organisation, that kind of different levels of thinking based on people’s lived experience driving their growth.’