“You will get it wrong, just don’t make a habit of it!”
These wise words were shared on the latest IABC UK & Ireland webinar, “Building Back Better With Disability-Inclusive Communication,” highlighting the importance of starting the conversation about disability in the workplace and not being afraid to say the wrong thing.
This was my key takeaway on the topic of inclusive communication — one of our roles as communicators is to ensure people feel comfortable speaking about disability with their colleagues instead of being too scared to mention anything.
Our fantastic guest speaker, Mark Webb of Shift.ms, told the story of how he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) and took some time off to process the news. When he came back to work, he found that his team had taken the time to educate themselves on what MS is, the symptoms he might be experiencing and how this might affect him at work.
“My colleagues turned into allies,” Webb said. “They were OK with the fact that I sometimes had to fade out of meetings due to fatigue and reduced concentration span.”
Often, people don’t know what to say when a colleague develops a disability, so they don’t say anything. But Mark explained that it’s important to have the courage to ask. According to him, in 99% of cases, people will be happy to explain their situation and what sort of support they need. “Language changes, so it’s hard to keep up and always get it right. Have the courage to ask, ‘I’d love to know more about you if you’re happy to talk to me!’”
The second speaker we heard from, Diane Lightfoot of Business Disability Forum, started by saying she had noticed a huge increase in interest for inclusive communications in recent months, which is a positive trend to note.
In her view, some of the key elements communicators should focus on are how we can challenge internal and external stakeholders to think differently about disability while raising awareness of the breadth of disability. It’s not just physical — it can be mental, it can be visible or not, and it can affect your daily life in many different ways.
With a nod to the Business Disability Forum’s Inclusive Communication Toolkit, which launched last year, Lightfoot made it clear that communication professionals have a huge role to play in this space. One example of how we can change our language to be more inclusive was asking people to “self-declare” their disability, which sounds more like something you would do at customs when you arrive at the airport. However, it is important to prioritize peoples’ preferences to ensure you are using inclusive communication.
I’m so glad I was able to be part of this event. My colleagues Pooja Kamat, Georgia Eather, Simon Monger and I wanted to put on an inspiring event — with some raw honesty, which Mark certainly provided — along with practical advice for communicators to take away and start applying in their daily work.
What can you do, starting today, to make your communications more inclusive? I’d love to hear your ideas! Let’s discuss on The Hub.
Laura Desert leads the internal communications function at CityFibre, the UK’s largest alternative provider of wholesale fibre network infrastructure. She also is the president of the IABCs UK & Ireland chapter and has been an IABC member for the last four years.