Q&A with gold medal-winning paralympian Liz Johnson

“Society says being disabled is a bad thing. We’re here to prove that wrong. It’s the world’s idea of what normal should be that creates negative perceptions of disability.” 

We spoke to Liz Johnson, gold medal-winning Paralympian and founder of The Ability People, to find out about her work educating businesses on disability and to understand why disability inclusion languishes at the bottom of most corporate agendas.

Q: How did the idea to create The Ability People (TAP) come about?

The idea was sparked when I was watching the news one night and saw a feature on the disability employment gap. The first staggering thing was that the gap is enormous. There are 13.9 million people in the UK with disabilities but barely half are employed, compared to over 80% of non-disabled people. Secondly, and perhaps more shockingly, this gap hasn’t improved in over a decade. 

Once I’d seen these figures, I couldn’t get them out of my mind. As a disabled person, I knew the bias that exists in society towards those who look and act differently yet seeing the overall effect of this was chilling. I was determined to do something about this bias and the disability employment gap.

Around this time I also met my current business partner, Steve Carter, who has been a recruiter for over thirty years. He had similar interests and concerns to me, albeit for slightly different reasons. Steve was tired of being presented with the same talent pool, and instinctively knew that there was untapped talent out there. 

After some discussion, we decided to set up The Ability People, with a goal to improve disability awareness within businesses and the wider recruitment industry and make workplaces truly accessible to disabled people

Q: How has your own experience shaped TAP?

One of the reasons reason I have been as successful in my career, both as an athlete and as co-founder of TAP, is that I’ve had a great deal of freedom and control over my work. I have been in control of the parameters of when and how I work and this has made a massive difference to my personal wellbeing and my motivation. This level of freedom was something I wanted to translate to TAP’s structure and our consultants are able to flexibly work in the way that best suits them. 

Indeed, flexible working is a major way businesses can be inclusive to disabled people. Being able to work remotely or around different core hours has massively increased in popularity for non-disabled people, yet when a disabled employee is involved, it becomes an unreasonable adjustment for many managers. 

I also was supported throughout my swimming career by an amazing team of people in my corner - from my coach to my physiotherapists and team mates. Everyone needs a support network of people believing in them and empowering them to achieve their goals. This is completely lacking for disabled people and the aim of TAP is to make employers become that support network for their employers, disabled or non-disabled.

Q: How is the candidate experience different for disabled people?

If a non-disabled person applies for a job, neither the recruiter nor the person interviewing the candidate makes a judgement on whether or not the person is physically able to do the job. They assume the candidate can be a success because they’ve submitted their application and their CV is up to scratch. 

But for a person of difference, hiring managers make subconscious judgements about what the candidate can and can’t do and assume that different will negatively impact their work. While they often don’t realise it's happening, more often than not, hiring managers end up employing non-disabled people who align with their inherent biases.

Q: As part of TAPs consultancy work, what recurring challenges have you found in organisations and recruitment businesses that are adapting to become more inclusive for people with disabilities?

In terms of the recruitment industry, we know there’s plenty of brilliant recruiters out there that don’t need help finding candidates or building talent pools. But what they do need help with is discovering more diverse talent, and, more importantly, understanding their needs. Recruiters also need help getting their clients to understand disability inclusion. Conventional processes aren’t designed to enable recruiters to put forward diverse talent, nor are they set up to enable diverse talent to showcase their abilities. 

In many cases, making it through the recruitment process is particularly difficult for disabled people. But by ignoring diverse talent, businesses often end up settling for round pegs in square holes, especially in such a competitive talent market. For recruitment companies and their clients, the biggest impact we can have is to enable recruiters and clients to change their processes to allow diverse talent to travel through the recruitment journey without stigma, and with processes that empower them to shine.

At TAP, we have access to thousands of highly talented, disabled candidates. But putting them through existing recruitment processes gives them a slim chance of actually landing a role. The reasonable adjustments that need to be made are believed to slow the recruitment process down. In the majority of cases, they don’t to any great degree. But because hiring disabled people is often new to the hiring managers, disabled candidates are usually overlooked. 

For recruiters, it’s easier to use a tried-and-tested approach. Engaging disabled talent can, at first, add a few more days to establish what reasonable adjustments need to be made, and then implement these changes. In the mind of the recruiter, those extra few days could mean losing out to a rival. This, without a doubt, is the biggest hurdle for recruitment businesses.

For businesses, the situation is slightly different. Hiring disabled people is seen as something that is not only a bold step, but a step that is extremely difficult. This is where TAP can help. 

Despite what many people assume, not everyone within our organisation was born with a disability. Not everyone was a Paralympian — we have real equality throughout our business. Within our team, we have a healthy gender mix and diverse age range. There’s a mix of cultural backgrounds, a mix of people who went to university and people that didn’t, people who have got children and people that haven’t. We’re a very diverse group of individuals. 
 
We present real-life, authentic experiences to businesses. You don’t know what you don’t know, and you can’t be blamed for not knowing – especially if you’ve never previously needed such knowledge. Our team normalises difference. At TAP, we act as a medium for businesses to ask the questions they’re worried about asking disabled candidates. 

As disabled people, we are constantly problem-solving, constantly adapting, and constantly having to think outside of the box, so any big problem within an organisation (or at least what most people perceive to be a big problem) isn’t such a big hurdle for a disabled person. It’s just another problem that needs to be solved, that needs looking at differently. In this way, it massively strengthens a team to have diversity. Businesses need to realise this.

Businesses also benefit from a diverse workforce by gaining new perspectives and voices. Different backgrounds and experiences bring with them different ways of looking at the world and new ideas. These things are crucial for innovation in any industry.

The biggest challenge for organisations is actually setting the wheels in motion. It’s relatively easy to have that initial chat and get excited about diversity and inclusion, but to actually move forward companies need to find the right people within their organisation who can actually make the necessary changes. Businesses often view inclusion as a ‘nice’ thing to do, inspired by morality or the culture of increasing corporate social responsibility. In addition to this ‘tickbox’ approach to inclusion being entirely ineffective, they completely miss the fact that their business directly benefits through employing disabled talent.

Q: Businesses increasingly talk about their diversity and inclusion efforts, but often these are related to gender equality and racial diversity. Why do you think disability inclusion is sometimes forgotten in these conversations?

Out of all the diversity groupings, disability is viewed as the biggest challenge. I quite often sit on panels and give talks. The fact that I’m disabled is a far bigger deal for audiences than the fact I’m a woman. 

There’s the mentality of ‘if a disabled person can do the job then a non-disabled woman can definitely do it’. This is because there’s misunderstanding about what disability is, what it represents, and how people should look and act if they’ve got a disability. 

The common expectations of society and within the workplace are that any non-disabled person is more capable than a disabled person, in every situation. This bias is constantly being reinforced in society 

It was only very recently that the treatment of disabled children in schools has changed. People that I swam with on the swimming team earlier in my career at the Paralympics who were a generation above me had a very different experience of the education system than I had. They either went to a “special school”, where they were hidden away from most kids, or if they did go to a regular school, they sat at the back of classrooms, and left to their own devices – given menial tasks to perform by teachers, like colouring in. Inevitably, this has led to the widespread assumption that people with disabilities are intellectually inferior to able-bodied people. Because of this, when a disabled person achieves anything, it is seen as inspirational and awe-inspiring. People don’t understand that disabled people just do things differently.

Within society, there’s an in-built, destructive ideal that everyone prescribes to. That ideal person has two functioning arms, two functioning legs, two good eyes, two good ears, no neurodiversity, no mental health issues. 

But the reality is, at a personal level, I love my life. There’s nothing to say I would be better off if I had two ‘normal’ arms and two ‘normal’ legs. The same can be said for many disabled people. It’s the world’s idea of what normal should be that creates negative perceptions of disability.

It’s like when people say “what’s wrong with you?”. There’s nothing wrong with me, I’m just different. If someone says “what happened to you?” that’s a reasonably valid question, but to say “what’s wrong with you?” – who is to say there’s anything wrong with me? I’m fine. It’s the destructive societal ideal of what a human being should look and act like which makes people ask this question. 

To some extent, we’ve moved away from the white alpha male being seen as the optimal human form. Gradually, thanks to increased social awareness and education, we are moving towards a widespread understanding that the world shouldn’t be like that – though there are, of course, still hurdles to overcome. 

But when it comes to disability, both the stats and personal experience suggests that disability equality is not gathering the same widespread awareness as race or gender equality. 

Q: How does this situation influence a disabled person’s ability to get a job in the current market?

Society has constructed this seemingly impenetrable myth about disabled people so non-disabled people make automatic, negative assumptions about a disabled person’s capabilities. So, if a non-disabled person is  presented with a disabled candidate they instinctively think “how could they possibly do this?”, overly focusing on the way someone does something, not how it’s done

At The Ability People, we’re on a mission to challenge and eradicate these assumptions and help people understand that a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work. Just because someone does something differently to another that doesn’t mean they don’t get to the same outcome or goal. 

Q: We are witnessing some progressive businesses taking action to increase female representation and racial diversity at senior and board level (which are, of course, very necessary), but discussions about senior representation of disabled people seem some way off. Why do you think this is?

There are some organisations who approach diversity authentically, and there are those that do it as a box-ticking exercise or to achieve a certain level of certification. It goes back to people’s motives for doing it, and this again reverts to my previous point about educating the right people within businesses. 

An organisation can easily hire ten disabled people just to tick a box and meet a quota, but if they don’t hire ten people who are actually a right fit for the job, then ultimately they’re making the situation worse, not better. Hiring the wrong people just reaffirms negative associations and assumptions that surround disability. 

Inclusion must also work hand-in-hand with accessibility. If an organisation isn’t accessible in its structures as well as it’s hiring practices then it won’t retain disabled talent and we won’t see the progress we desperately need.

What we’re trying to do at TAP is increase people’s level of understanding so that they are able to see a human being as a human being, not as a problem to be solved. With the right education, a business should get to the point where a diversity and inclusion policy is redundant. With authentic inclusion, diversity would naturally be everywhere. Of course, this is quite a big step for a business to reach this stage, and it takes somebody with a genuine understanding and willingness to make those big strides forward for it to happen.

Q: When you’re working with clients, do you find that businesses just want to hire disabled people for entry-level roles, or are they also ready to hire at managerial level?

They are willing, and you bring up a good point actually. A lot of people with disabilities are either self-employed or in highly technical roles, because they’re educated, or they’ve stayed in technical industries. But for disabled people without a great level of education, things are more difficult. Most roles that don’t require a strong academic background tend to require good motor skills or good vision.

This is the reason why so many people with disabilities are un, or underemployed – because businesses frequently offer them these jobs where they’re set up to fail. 

Q: In the disability space, most organisations are charity-based. What makes TAP different?

One of the biggest questions we were asked when we first set up TAP was: is your organisation for-profit? And of course, my answer was: ‘yes, why would it not be for-profit?’. People assume that because we’re a business staffed exclusively by disabled people, and one that focuses on disability awareness, we must be a non-profit.
 
I’m not denying that charities do an amazing job. But if everything related to disability is driven by charities alone, the belief that people with disabilities need charitable assistance from non-disabled people persists. It goes right back to that misguided idea that people with disabilities are not as capable, or competent as non-disabled people

Q: Which is, in essence, a very patronising way of looking at things, isn’t it?

Exactly, so this education piece is incredibly important if we are going to level the playing field and remove unconscious bias.

Q: Over the past year, you’ve been included in the BBC 100 Women list, and more recently, in BBC Worklife 101, how do you think being recognised in this way can help drive greater disability inclusion?

Ultimately, this recognition gets more and more people talking about disability, and this is what needs to happen. Of course, I’m not the only person working on this.
 
You personally understand why we need to speak more about disability, and Guidant Global are helping to change perceptions within the recruitment industry. But in terms of reach, I’m fortunate enough that my success as a Paralympian gets people’s attention. 

Sport is something that everybody can relate to. My achievements in the swimming pool make people think: “Oh actually, she knows what she’s talking about; she’s done it before, she’s got a proven track record.” 

It’s very humbling to achieve such recognition, but ultimately, it’s about shifting the conversation and getting more people talking about disability – moving disability inclusion to the forefront of people’s minds.    

Q: Finally: which disabled person most inspires you?

It’s not one individual disabled person that inspires me. Every day I am empowered, enlightened and encouraged when I see the people at TAP and in the wider working world who are making a contribution, taking on daily challenges, changing their world and developing the people they come into contact with. They’re the inspirational people who are having the biggest impact. Ultimately, we are all on this journey together to educate society, drive disability inclusion and eventually, transform the world. 

 
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