Seeing Purple!

David Grayson CBE, Emeritus Professor of Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield School of Management

December 3rd was the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. When businesses and governments and international development agencies and influencers are thinking about how to progress the SDGs, many of those SDGs will only be fulfilled if there is a far more joined up and proactive approach to involving disabled people.

Perhaps like me, your heart was touched by the story last month of Chris Nikic. The 21 year old American entered the Guinness Book of World Records by becoming the first person with Down Syndrome to complete the Ironman event: swimming 2.4 miles, cycling 112 miles and running a 26.2-mile marathon.

“You have shattered barriers while proving without a doubt that anything is possible,” the official Ironman account tweeted. (BBC Sport 09/11/2020)

For me, Chris’s achievement is a powerful example of seeing the possibility rather than the disability.

There are one billion people in the world with a disability – 15% of the world’s population. Disability prevalence is higher for developing countries. Almost one-fifth of the estimated global total, or between 110 million and 190 million people, experience significant disabilities.

As the World Bank acknowledges: “Persons with disabilities are more likely to experience adverse socio-economic outcomes such as less education, poorer health outcomes, lower levels of employment, and higher poverty rates.” (World Bank Oct 2020)

Women with disabilities are recognized to be multiply disadvantaged, experiencing exclusion on account of their gender and their disability. (Disabled World).

The prevalence of disability is on the rise. This is due to advances in medical technology but also because of ageing populations and the higher risk of disability in older people as well as the global increase in chronic health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and mental health disorders. Most disabled people (including me) acquired our disability rather than being born with it.

December 3rd is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. It is a chance for each of us to pause and reflect on our unspoken assumptions and biases about disability.

Purple Space describes itself as ‘a small social business with a big mission:

“To make it easier for employees to navigate the experience of ill health, disability or the experience of an accident or injury, at the same time as flourishing at work.”’ It supports organisations in the public sector, business and the Third Sector to establish and run successful networks for disabled employees. It is supported by businesses like Fujitsu, Barclays, EY, PwC and GSK.

It is also behind #PurpleLightUp which is a global movement that celebrates and draws attention to the economic contribution of the 386 million disabled employees around the world. Since 2017, #PurpleLightUp has been driving momentum for disability inclusion across hundreds of organisations, reaching thousands of employees in different ways. This includes lighting up iconic buildings purple, holding events, developing workplace policies for disabled employees and sparking conversations about disability inclusion worldwide.

In 2020, #PurpleLightUp will be bigger than ever before, through a 24-hour Global Broadcast with webinars, interviews, panel discussions and more.

One of the key partners in #PurpleLightUp is the inspirational social entrepreneur and campaigner Caroline Casey and the Valuable500 campaign which is trying to get major companies across the world to sign up to a commitment to make disability a board agenda.

They are encouraging companies inter alia to:

  • Appoint a board-level champion who is accountable for disability performance within their organisation.
  • Lead from the top and define a global disability performance strategy.
  • Review their media and consider how this could represent and speak to a broader spectrum of people.
  • Invest in insight from disabled consumers to drive efficiencies and innovation.

Signatories to The Valuable 500 have access to an Executive Resource Hub – a free, exclusive online toolkit designed to help leaders and their boards on their inclusion journeys.

COVID19 and the switch to working from home is an opportunity to revisit employment policies and practices and be more flexible for disabled employees going forward.

Employers also need to examine any Machine Learning Algorithms they use in recruitment for candidate evaluation and pre-screening process, to avoid unconscious bias against disabled candidates.

Of course, to get a job needs education and in many parts of the world, that basic human right is not easily available to disabled children. According to UNESCO, ninety per cent of children with disabilities in developing countries do not attend school.

This is why the work of disability charities like Leonard Cheshire to help disabled children in low-income countries in Africa and South East Asia into school is so important. All the Leonard Cheshire inclusive education projects include Child identification, assessment and support; Child-to-Child clubs which provide an opportunity for children with and without disabilities to learn and play together; Parent support groups; School adaptations to create an accessible and inclusive learning environment; Awareness-raising with parents, families and communities; Training of teachers and school staff; Working with local civil society and governments on institutionalising inclusive education; and Transforming negative attitudes towards educating girls with disabilities and addressing the intersectionality between gender and disability.

An example of Leonard Cheshire’s inclusive education work is their flagship Girls Education Challenge – Transition Project in Kenya, which is supporting more than 2,000 previously out of school girls with disabilities to transition from primary to secondary school, and to vocational training. It takes a multi-sector approach which invites the participation of government, institutions, national services, NGOs, schools, and parent groups to create sustainability through shared ownership of the project’s overall goal of promoting access to quality education for girls with disabilities.

During the pandemic, the project engaged teachers, parents in households, government stakeholders and community-based volunteers directly to ascertain priorities to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. This study provided valuable evidence on how to improve remote learning for girls and boys with disabilities in rural settings. Subsequently, the project was able to respond with a range of targeted interventions, from provision of adapted learning materials to solar radios to enable beneficiaries to access radio learning content. The project then worked closely with government, schools and communities on the reopening of schools in October 2020.

So, my message is that when businesses and governments and international development agencies and influencers like Business Fights Poverty are thinking about how to progress the SDGs, many of those SDGs will only be fulfilled if there is a far more joined up and proactive approach to involving disabled people. We have to see purple!


David Grayson CBE is Emeritus Professor of Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield School of Management and a member of the Business Fights Poverty Circle of Advisers.

Twitter: @DavidGrayson_

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