Workplaces must promote role models with disabilities to encourage others to discuss their disabilities, according to global head of inclusion and diversity at GlaxoSmithKline Liz Burton.
Speaking on the ‘Workplace Today’ panel at the Business Disability Forum Conference 2018, Burton said: “We want people to disclose their disability, but for it to work we need more role models. We need brave people who are willing to come forward and tell their stories; even if that’s just through explaining their experiences of opening up about their disability to their employer and how it helped.
“We need line managers to see these examples in order to start having those conversations and developing people who have a knowledge of disability in the workplace,” she said.
However, founder and CEO of Genius Within Nancy Doyle warned that role models risk leaving people with disabilities feeling alienated at work.
“Role models are important but they’re not the be all and end all," she said. "Sometimes when you get someone saying that they were able to become incredibly successful despite their disability you end up intimidating people.
"Richard Branson, who has dyslexia, is a classic example; he’s not someone everyone can relate to. We need to make sure that we’re not relying too much on role models and glorifying the challenges people face as a result," she said.
Marina Matosic, career and employability adviser and co-chair of the Disabled Staff Forum at Manchester Metropolitan University, agreed that it was important people with disabilities are not automatically seen as role models.
“Just because you have a disability it doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily an expert in disability; it’s easy to apply stereotypes to yourself," she said. "It’s much better to approach the conversation about disability from an organisational level through showing what you’ve done to help employees with disabilities.”
The panel also discussed how attitudes towards disability have progressed over recent years through increased awareness across large organisations.
“One of the ways we’ve seen attitudes change in the workplace is through moving from a really positive place of 'why' to 'how'," Doyle said.
"When I first started discussing reasonable adjustments employers wanted to know why they should be making changes in the workplace. Now I’m seeing big companies sending senior members of staff to events because they want to know how they can help people.
“We need to let people know that it’s OK to ask for help, and that when employees do so they’re asking ‘is there anything else I can do to help?’"