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Profile: Kate Nash, OBE

Why “inspiration porn” fails disabled people.


Zena Martin speaks to disability rights advocate Kate Nash, OBE, about why confidence, networking and empowerment offer the best ways for people with disabilities to reach their full potential in the workplace, rather than “being inspirational”.

PEOPLE SHORTTo say that disability rights champion Kate Nash, OBE, has an impressive CV is an understatement. Currently, she is an ambassador for Disability Rights UK, chair of the Department for Work and Pension’s Residential Training College Review, chair of the External Strategic Disability Expert Group at the Post Office, a member of the BT Inclusion Leadership Panel, a member of Defra’s Diversity and Equality Strategic Advisory Group, and a ‘disability networkologist’ at her own organisation, Kate Nash Associates.

Kate Nash

Kate Nash, OBE.

For nearly 20 years Nash has spent her time supporting employers in their journey towards, what she calls, “disability confidence”.

She’s a busy woman by any standards, but Nash’s achievements might seem even more impressive because she has reduced mobility and rheumatoid arthritis – not that she thinks this has any relevance. Well-intentioned people might be tempted to describe her as ‘inspirational’, but it’s not a word that she likes. Indeed, she sees that sort of attitude as being part of the problem, rather than the solution, for reasons that will be explored later.

I first met Nash over a decade ago when she and I were both members of a diversity communications panel. At that time, she was chief executive of Radar (the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation). A couple of years later, she left to launch Kate Nash Associates (KNA), because she wanted to create an organisation helped people with disabilities to thrive in the workplace.

Her mission statement

KNA’s mission is, she says, “to create disability-confident organisations from the inside out, by providing advice on how to set up or refresh networks, and by delivering first-class personal effectiveness training.” Nash aims to achieve these goals via what she calls “networkology” – bringing together networks of employees and businesses to make positive change happen.

In general terms, these networks fall into three basic categories: 1) peer groups, where members are mostly disabled and share best practice; 2) leadership networks, where members have a functional lead within mainstream parts of the business (eg, Facilities, HR, Communications, or ICT); and 3) consultative networks of advisors. In practice, however, most networks are hybrids of all three.

Thanks in part to the work of KNA and other disability organisations, companies are increasingly identifying and appointing senior ‘disability champions’, or executive sponsors who lead from the top down. These people may or may not have a disability themselves, but all are able to help create lasting change within their organisations.

Zena Martin.

Zena Martin.

This has not always been the case. During the research that led up to KNA’s foundation in 2007, Nash observed that employee networks had sprung up in the wake of many landmark pieces of equalities legislation – in areas such as race, gender, and sexuality, for example – but this had not happened to the same extent with disabilities.

Nash found that employee networks had proliferated, on average, approximately five years after the Race Relations Act and the Sex Discrimination Act were each introduced in the mid-1970s, and after legislation for the LGBT community was enacted in 2003. Yet, despite the Disability Discrimination Act being granted Royal Assent in 1995, Nash saw that there had been comparatively little in the way of growth in networks for employees with disabilities.

She began to ask some difficult questions: Was there a lack of leadership to drive the issue or to manage change networks internally? Were people with disabilities not gravitating toward senior positions? Was there a lack of funding? And were there too few disabled people within some organisations to justify the need for a network? All too often, the answer to each of these questions was ‘yes’.

The funding challenge

Presenting a sound business case for disability networks is crucial to their growth and success, as is finding the money to support them. Disability Rights UK and other organisations are putting pressure on the government to improve the availability of accessibility grants. Among these, the government’s Access to Work Fund provides £80 million annually, but there is little awareness of the scheme. Recently, the government has also drastically cut the list of products that it funds.

But it is not just about money. Organisations need help to develop well-run networks, as well as tools to support disabled employees’ requests for workplace adjustments. So, to meet her 300 clients’ support needs, Nash and her seven expert associates not only help to set up the disability networks themselves, but also create and deliver in-house open learning and development workshops, for both employers and employees.

There are three non-bespoke employee courses, all of which focus on an area that is important to people with disabilities: empowerment. The courses are:

Shades of Women – which teaches disabled women at managerial level how to present their disability in a manner that doesn’t risk limiting their opportunities.
Chain Reaction – which empowers disabled employees to ask for the adjustments they need at work. These adjustments could be small, such as a different chair, keyboard or mouse, but would make a big difference in that employee’s ability to work comfortably, efficiently and effectively.
Telling Stories for Success – which coaches disabled employees in effective presentation techniques, so that they can talk about their disabilities in positive and engaging ways.

Nash believes that society is “entering a third stage of building a sustainable culture change in recruiting and developing disabled employees”. The first stage was the establishment of the Disability Discrimination Act – harmonised in 2010 under the Equalities Act. The second has been the process by which employers have become, and continue to become, more “disability confident” through training and best practice.

Why stories are important

The third stage is when disabled employees begin to shape their own stories, so that their employers accept them as contributors to the organisation and want to help them reach their full potential. In some ways, this stage is the most important, because many people with a disability choose not to share information about it at work for fear of being held back in their careers (even though not talking about it may deny them the very help that they need).

Kate Nash speaks

Kate Nash presents her organisation’s latest findings.

“We spoke to 2,500 disabled employees from 55 employers,” says Nash. “The research revealed that 60 per cent of respondents who had not shared information about their disability with their employer were worried about future repercussions. Employees in the public sector are more fearful of repercussions – 68 per cent – than staff in the private sector – 50 per cent. The majority of respondents, 57 per cent, said the main reason they chose to share was that they needed their employer to make an adjustment for them.”

Nash’s latest contribution to the debate is a book, Big News – Enabling People to be Themselves at Work, which focuses on “disclosure and declaration” of disability in the workplace. It presents 15 ‘big ideas’ and strategies for success. One of these is to “avoid being an inspiration”, because this has the effect of defining people by their disability, rather than their ability.

This is why Nash doesn’t like being called an inspiration herself. She prefers to talk about “human difference rather than special needs”, because she believes that the former is celebratory, and the latter pejorative.

She came to this view at just 15, soon after she acquired her disability. At that time, she was a permanent wheelchair user, unable to walk, bathe, or dress herself. She recalls sitting at the kitchen table and her mother saying to her: “It would be fantastic if one day you could get a little job.”

In that moment, Nash became determined to overcome both the odds and the implicit sense of pity by working around her disability, and by “being brilliant anyway”, rather than settling for a ‘little’ job. That, at least, was her mental challenge; partially overcoming the physical challenge has been helped by joint replacement surgery.

Don’t be ‘an inspiration’

Nash is far from alone in wanting to start a new conversation about disabilities and to change people’s perceptions. British comedian Laurence Clark has created a series of funny, but sometimes uncomfortable, videos about people with disabilities inspiring those around them. In April 2014, Australian comedienne and disability activist, Stella Young, delivered a stunning TED talk – I’m not your inspiration, thank you – about what she calls “inspiration porn”. She ended it with the words: “Disability does not make you exceptional, but questioning what you think you know about it does.”

All of this is part of a powerful new trend in disability activism. For example, UK disability charity, Scope, has been running its own multichannel advertising campaign, #EndtheAwkward, which Nash says is “brilliant”.

So, what next? Nash wants to double her number of clients over the next nine years and achieve a universal rollout of KNA courses. She also wants to create a platform for what she calls ‘purple talent’ – the disabilities equivalent of the ‘pink pound’ (the consumer power of LGBT communities). Accordingly, KNA will be launching Purple Space, a disability network of networks, on 3 December 2014 – the International Day of People with Disability. In its wake, she wants to help create more, and more meaningful, #purpletalent conversations on social media.

At 51, Kate says that she is very aware that people with her impairment tend to have a shorter life expectancy, and this drives her to keep moving forward. “We are still on a huge journey and we’re nowhere near the finish line,” she says. TS

The Strategist says

It is extraordinary that workplace networks for people with disabilities have emerged more slowly than advocacy groups for people from other minority groups. And it is depressing that the public sector seems to fare badly in terms of feelings of job security among people with disabilities. These facts, combined with the tendency in our sensationalist times to see any successful disabled person as an inspirational hero, makes the equalities challenge unnecessarily difficult. That we tend to see disabled people as heroic simply reveals that the obstacles facing many of them in the workplace and elsewhere are enormous, and shouldn’t be. Many disabled people are simply striving to be accepted on normal terms and to be allowed to contribute their skills and talents in everyday situations. For today’s organisational leaders, listening to campaigners, trainers and educators, such as Kate Nash, is more important than ever in the quest to strike the right balance.
Zena Martin is an equalities advocate and a leading PR executive.



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