What we learned speaking to Ellie Simmonds on Disability Inclusion

Author Nick Croucher
January 24, 2022

One in five people in the UK are disabled. That’s over 14 million of us. But only a little over half of working-age disabled people are employed.

Of those, The UK Disability Survey reports that under half (48%) agree that their employer has made sufficient reasonable adjustments for them, and only 24% agree that their promotion opportunities are the same as their colleagues.

On top of this, disabled people have felt the impact of the Covid-19 more than most, with disabled people more likely to have experienced a reduction in earnings, redundancy, or furlough.

As we come out of the pandemic, we have a unique opportunity to shape positive change in the workplace, setting new precedents that make the working world fairer and more inclusive.   

Which is why we were really excited to speak with former British Paralympian Ellie Simmonds, OBE to hear about her experiences, her advice, and her thoughts on how we can work towards a better future. companies can work towards a more inclusive workforce.

Here, we highlight the key things we learned when Nick Croucher (Lead Partner, Frazer Jones UK) and Clare Thornton (Partner, Frazer Jones UK) chatted to Ellie.

1. Assumptions create barriers

One of the biggest barriers someone with a disability faces when joining a new company is assumptions and preconceptions about what they can or can’t do. Employers often, according to Ellie, “create an idea about someone or what they can do before actually even talking to them”.  

For example, people often assume Ellie can’t reach light switches, when actually she can. “I was born a dwarf; I know what works for me and what doesn’t. I’m independent and I’ve made adjustments.”

2. Honest, open conversations are crucial

It can be incredibly isolating and frustrating for employers to make assumptions, so talking to people about their disability and what it means for them is critical. It’s important to ask what people feel comfortable with, and for companies to make sure that there is a culture where everyone feels safe and empowered to share their experiences.

 “Be open and talk about what [an individual’s] needs are and what things you can do to help your employees”, says Ellie. “Talk about their disability if they’re okay talking about it; some people want to just keep it to themselves which is okay, but it’s important to open up dialogue.”

“These conversations can help you to figure out the little things; what an individual needs and what works for them. For example, I love it when I go to gatherings with new people, and they come to my eye level.”  

Of this, Nick Croucher says “Sometimes if you are looking at things from a recruitment process or an HR policy perspective, you can lose sight. It’s down to individual people.”

Says Ellie, “I like it when people are actually intrigued to learn. If you’re scared to ask the questions, then isn’t that a step backwards?”

3. Think about the language you use

Ellie has experienced all sorts of different words to describe her disability when travelling around the world. She says it is important to consider what language you use; for example, she finds ‘handicapped’ quite derogatory.

Of course, some people find choosing the right words hard and often worry about what terms they should use. “Speak to people and find out what they like being called” says Ellie, “Being called a dwarf is fine, because that is what I am.”

And if you’re worried, remember that “it’s also the context you use it in and the way you say it.”

4. Think about format

Ellie says that we the need to think about accessibility for everything. For example, companies have to ensure that job adverts are not ‘one size fits all’.

Although there are many different disabilities out there and everyone works differently, Ellie notes that companies should “figure out how an advertisement can be accessible for all and not be just a piece of paper or screen with text on it”.

For example, companies could introduce spoken adverts for individuals who are visually impaired, or video for people who are both visually and audibly impaired, so they can see it clearer overall.

5. The UK is leading the way on Disability Inclusion

When the UK hosted the 2021 Paralympics, it had an overwhelmingly positive impact on the perceptions of disabled people in the UK, which Ellie says is leading the way on disability inclusions. Now, we have disabled people on many of the biggest TV shows in the country, from Strictly Come Dancing to CBeebies.

But in other countries, the Paralympics isn’t even shown on mainstream television.

Competing overseas, Ellie has realised how far ahead we are the in the UK. Some nations are very behind in terms of accessibility; with basic physical adjustments such as lifts, ramps and accessible toilets missing.

The same goes for people’s behaviour. “When you walk down the street [in the UK], people don’t often stare. But in other countries, you get stared at and photos taken of you. Here we’re more aware that people are different. We are showcasing what it’s all about” says Ellie, who noted that more disabled people in the media in the UK is a huge help towards understanding.

“Broadcasting the Paralympics every four years puts a spotlight on people with all different types of disabilities. Paralympians are then seen as inspirational role models and it helps with the acceptance off all different types of disabilities.”

“But we need to be aware not all disabled people can be athletes. They can do anything. They don’t all want to be Paralympians.”

6. You should never be afraid to speak up

Ellie was asked for some advice for someone who is facing a career challenge at the moment. 

“Just find out what works for you and what doesn’t. Consider what you enjoy and what you don’t. At the end of the day, it’s your career and if you’re not happy and wake up every single day dreading that career don’t be scared make that leap of faith.”

Equally, Ellie expressed her concern around companies hiring someone with a disability as a ‘box ticking exercise’ and noted that the right job should fit the right person and companies should view the candidates as “a person and not a disability”.

7. There is always more to learn

For Ellie, The Paralympics showcase just how many disabilities are out there, and how there is always something to learn about each person’s needs and preferences.

Everyone can learn something. There are so many different disabilities out there, you can learn something new about how to be there for someone with a disability every day.”

“At the end of the day, we’re all human and we’re all different. And that is what makes society amazing.”

8. Talk, listen, and implement

Finally, Ellie gave her top three tips for encouraging more inclusive company cultures for people with disabilities:

  1. Be open and transparent – talk about their needs and how the organisation can help, provided they are ok talking about it.
  2. Listen to what they need – “Don’t just do it to tick a box”
  3. Implement what they need – for example a more comfortable chair to sit on, more accessible toilets or lower light switches.

These simple steps, says Ellie, are the crucial to sincerely and effectively implementing disability inclusion; ​“We’re talking about it, [Frazer Jones] are having these webinars and wanting to learn. So you’re implementing and that’s really important. Talking about it is a big thing, and that’s what we’re doing here.”

About Ellie Simmonds

Ellie Simmonds is a record-breaking British Paralympic swimmer who won four Olympic Gold medals before the age of 20. Born with achondroplasia, a genetic form of dwarfism, Ellie took up swimming at the age of 5, becoming part of Team GB at just 13. Since joining the team, she has won a total of eight Olympic medals, including five gold medals.

Ellie’s hard work and determination, in accordance with swimming, has landed her a number of awards and titles. In 2008, Ellie was awarded BBC’s Young Sports Personality of the Year and in 2009 she was the youngest recipient of an MBE, at just 14 years old. Since then, Ellie has been awarded Best British Sporting Performance for an Athlete with Disability (2011) at the Jaguar Academy of Sport Annual Awards. She is a patron for a number of organisations, including the Dwarf Sports Association UK and in 2013 she was awarded an OBE for her services to the sport and charity work.

Would you like more insights?

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We also regularly write content and host events on subjects like this, so please do regularly look at our resources (you may find Matthew Syed on cognitive diversity: Why it’s the most important thing for you and your business particularly interesting) and events listings, and follow us on LinkedIn, to make sure you’re up to date with all of this content.

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