Let's Talk

Invest to Get the Best from Disabled Employees

Helen Cooke is the founder and chief executive of MyPlus. Helen joined me for this brilliant conversation about her company which specialises in employment and disability. I met Helen years ago while working at the BBC whilst running the BBC’s disabled staff forum, BBC Ability. I was interested in the employment of disabled people within the corporation and reached out to Helen for some support and advice.

Welcome to The Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon. Future-proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.

Toby Mildon: Hey there, thank you ever so much for tuning into this episode of The Inclusive Growth Show. I’m Toby Mildon and today I’m joined by Steven Jones, who is the founder of Disability Connect, which is a mentoring scheme to support disabled people in the workplace. So Steven, thank you for joining me today. It’s lovely to see you.

Steven Jones: Thank you and really good to be here as well.

Toby Mildon: Before we get into what Disability Connect is and why organisations need to be more inclusive of disabled people, could you just let us know a bit more about who you are, what you do, and what brought you to this point in time where you created Disability Connect?

Steven Jones: Yes, of course. Thank you, Toby. So my name is Steven Jones. I’m on my late 20s at the moment and my previous background is I went to university, did a degree in business management, and then went into the graduate world and had a number of roles in the not-for-profit, private and public sector and now I’m in the civil service. I’ve been in civil service around seven years now in a range of departments and roles. I have a disability, so I’ve got spinal muscular atrophy, which is actually the same disability as you, Toby.

Toby Mildon: It is, yeah.

Steven Jones: Maybe not as rare as I thought it was because I’ve had a chance over the last couple of years to meet lots of people that share my condition which has been really interesting. And I think through my experience of graduating and then looking for employment and going from job to job, it really stuck out to me how many challenges there were when it comes to disability and recruitment, and retention as well and quite often I experienced that quite often employers didn’t want to put up any barriers, but they simply didn’t know what the barriers were or how to get around them and that’s where the Disability Connect reverse mentoring scheme came into it, ’cause the schemes pairs mentors who have a disability with organisations where they share their learning, their insights, and their first-hand experience of their disability. And then that organisation can take those insights away and bring it into their organisation and their policies and processes.

Toby Mildon: Brilliant, brilliant. So you mentioned that there are a number of challenges that disabled people face trying to gain employment and then also retaining people within the organisation. Let’s just take one of those aspects one at a time. When it comes to attracting and recruiting disabled talent, what are some of the challenges or barriers that you’ve seen?

Steven Jones: Yeah, of course. From personal experience, I always felt that job descriptions are almost the first point of contact quite often for lots of people and being in a wheelchair as myself, I’ve looked at some job description and I remember there was one, and I think it was a recruitment agency. I can’t even remember and in their description, it said, “The team is really fast-paced dynamic and we work hard and we play hard as well, and on the weekends or after work, we go rock climbing and go-karting and we’re very active”. And I was thinking the job looked really interesting, but actually I felt that immediately excluded me because I couldn’t go go-karting or rock climbing like others. And I think that was the organisation just saying, “We’re a very social team. We want to do lots of different things and lots of team building”, which is absolutely great, but I think how they put that discluded a lot of people. So I think the job description and that initial recruitment process can sometimes be a blocker.

Steven Jones: Plus I also think it’s perceptions of organisations as well, and it’s interesting. I suppose even in my own head, I’ve got a view on what organisations are very inclusive, and what organisations aren’t really, and that would either attract me or put me off applying for them. And I think lastly as well just on the actual recruitment process in terms of interview or assessment essentially as well, I found really interesting, ’cause I’ve had a number of interviews previously when I was looking for graduate jobs, and they were very accommodating sorting out disabled car parking for me, making sure it’s all accessible. However, in some cases, I found the car park was really far away, and I think if I’m coming in my manual wheelchair who I can’t self-propel myself over long distances without taking breaks, that’s almost an instant block even though they’ve put those facilities in place.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, absolutely. You also mentioned about developing and retaining disabled people once they’re in the organisation. So what are some of the obstacles or challenges that you’ve come across there?

Steven Jones: I work with lots of my mentors who have a disability, but they haven’t always had a disability, and I have learnt a lot from that because I was born with SMA. I think previously I had the assumption that everyone was born with their disability. However, the majority of people go through their lives without a disability and then one crops up and that might be a condition, that might be an accident, something might have happened. And that employer that was maybe accommodating and was accessible before may not know what to put in place or that conversation might not be open as well. So I’ve found that can be quite a key barrier there and I think changes to conditions as well and is an impact. And I think that’s really just opening the conversation with employers about actually just because some adjustment which you’ve put in place, that doesn’t mean that’s a one-time fix for it, and actually there needs to be a process to monitor these reasonable adjustments on a more regular basis.

Toby Mildon: Yeah. So you’ve set up the mentoring program. From the description that you’ve given us already, it sounds like a reverse mentoring scheme which is very common in diversity and inclusion within businesses. So could you just tell us a bit more about what the scheme is and how it works?

Steven Jones: Yes, of course. And, yes, you’re completely right. There’s lots of experiences of big organisations that run reverse mentoring schemes for a number of the protected characteristics which all sound really positive. For listeners who may not know what reverse mentoring is, I suppose it’s just mentoring, but almost switched around the other way. So generically mentoring is maybe a more junior person being the mentee and you would get the mentor being a senior person with more experience. The idea of reverse mentoring is that person that would be the mentor would have that first-hand experience of some of the diverse characteristics, in this case disability, and they may mentor a more senior person in an organisation. The reverse mentoring scheme has a real range of mentees and organisations as well. And I work with lots of organisations that come forward and say, “I’ve got a particular challenge in my organisation”.

Steven Jones: So some of the key ones are people may not be aware of how many people with disabilities they have in their organisation, and lots of companies come to me and say, “My declaration rates are really low. So there’s a problem with my recruitment”. But sometimes you can turn that around to think, “Actually, is there an internal issue here that maybe people aren’t declaring or have you got those channels open or do people understand why declaration rates are needed?” And other organisations I work with look at the scheme from a customer point of view. So, for example, I have a number of housing associations who work with customers who have disabilities on a day to day basis and they look at this from a, “Actually, how can I better meet the purpose and serve the needs of my customer base here and attract more people as well into my organisation?”

Steven Jones: And then just another example as well, Toby, is a charity as well I’m working with at the moment. They’ve said, “My fundraising portfolio is very much targeted at sports events, maybe climbing Mount Snowdon and places like this”. That’s not very diverse of how can I increase representation in that space as well. And how the scheme works is it’s a six-month scheme on average. The organisation will sign up, they’ll submit a form to pretty much say what they’re looking to get from the scheme, what are their challenges currently internally, and what they’re currently doing in the diverse and inclusion space as well. And we’ll use that information to think, “Right, okay. Who’s the best fit for you as a mentor?” And I’ve got a really big pool of mentors currently and I do that strategic match that way. I always check with the mentee to make sure they’re content with that mentor match that suits there and purpose for signing up as well.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Steven Jones: And the mentors I work with are really diverse in their experiences and backgrounds as well. So I’ve had a number of graduates who have recently joined the scheme and they can provide some really useful insight in terms of what it’s like in the graduate market with disability. I have also work with lots of industry professionals as well that have been in the private public sector 20, 30 years, and they’ve got that in-depth experience as well. So the mentors are really diverse in both their disabilities and their protected characteristics as well as their experiences and what they’ve achieved.

Toby Mildon: And presumably the person who’s being the mentor, I.e., the person with the disability, presumably in that mentoring relationship, they are bringing a lot more to the table than just their disability. ‘Cause like you were saying, if you’re working with people who’ve just graduated, they’re able to bring a fresh perspective to things just by being younger and just having left university as well. So I suppose I’m assuming that actually the organisation that signs up and gets the mentoring gets a lot more value for money that way as well.

Steven Jones: That’s a really good point and you’re completely right. All of the mentors have a disability. They may also belong to one of the other protected characteristics. Plus also they bring a lot of experience, knowledge, and all have very unique backgrounds as well, and I think a big part of the mentoring scheme is or what we’re mentoring in general is helping their mentee set goals, set objectives. And that’s a big part of the mentor recruitment process as well which look at the ability to really pin down organisation of what they want to achieve, and work with them to keep that momentum going as well throughout the six months.

Toby Mildon: So you’ve mentioned already some of the benefits that organisations are looking for when they work with you. So you’ve mentioned things like reflecting the diversity of the customer base, making sure that events and activities are inclusive, making sure that there’s a culture within the organisation where people can declare their disability if they want to. What are some of the other top reasons for entering a reverse mentoring arrangement like this on the business?

Steven Jones: That’s a really good question though. Thank you for that. And one of the key ones is just general awareness I find as well. So lots of organisations I talk to is they are aware of disability. They’ve been to disability training and they’ve had lots of different experiences, but they’ve rarely, or sometimes never spoken to someone with disability first-hand and had quite an open and honest conversation about what it’s like, what’s the perception like, and what are reasonable adjustments like and what works for them and what doesn’t in lots of cases. And I think I’ve heard feedback previously from mentees who have actually said, “I’ve learnt so much about this and I will incorporate this learning into the decisions I make at work, how I act in meetings”, and also in their personal life or out in public how they actually interact with others. So I think the real key part is just general awareness.

Steven Jones: I think another one is part of that continuous professional development as well. So I think big part of the mentoring, as I said previously, is having someone to keep that momentum going on those goals to do with diversity inclusion as well. So I think it’s almost someone to bounce ideas off of, check in with and hold a person accountable to say, “Actually, last month you said you were going to achieve this or you were gonna progress this goal. Where’s that got to?” So I think there’s quite a lot of different examples and lots of real benefits to this.

Toby Mildon: That’s fantastic. So if an organisation engages in a reverse mentoring program, what do you see are the opportunities that ultimately open up for them?

Steven Jones: What I say to the organisations that sign up is it’s really up to them how much or how little they take from this as well. So their mentor will have lots of knowledge on disability and wider issues. However, they don’t necessarily speak for the whole disabled community. So I’m quite clear on saying that actually your mentor have all of this really good advice and experience. However, will give you a very small view of one disability, but will open up other doors as they go forward. So I think a real benefit and a real opportunity here is to open that conversation of disability, and then that organisation to then actually think, “Right, okay, what can I do in my organisation to make this more visible, to promote disability across my workplace, to open up more conversations like this as well?”

Toby Mildon: That’s cool. So before we go, the question that I ask everyone that comes on this show is what does inclusive growth mean to you?

Steven Jones: Now, I’ve listen to lots of your podcasts, Toby, and I always find this question really interesting at the end. I think what I found is what inclusivity is is everyone is equal, everyone has the same experience no matter what background they come from, what protective characteristics they’ve got and I think I suppose disability wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t barriers in terms of processes, procedures, accessibility, and all of that. So my view is inclusivity is where actually disability isn’t a thing, it doesn’t exist because everything is designed with disability in mind and difference in mind as well.

Toby Mildon: Definitely and the role the employers can play in removing those procedural, attitudinal, and societal barriers, they can have a profound impact in the world, so thanks. Steven, before you go, if the person listening to us right now wants to learn more about Disability Connect, about mentoring with disabled mentors, what should they do?

Steven Jones: Yeah, of course. So I’ve got a website, so it’s disabilityconnect.org.uk, lots of information on there both for the mentor or the mentee and my contact details is on my website as well. So happy to talk to anyone who is considering becoming a mentor. It’s a rolling application process, and the application process is always open, and equally as any organisations out there want to learn more about disability, and signup for a mentor, there’s information on my website as well.

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. Thanks, Steven. So yeah, if you are interested in reverse mentoring with disabled people, please do go and check Steven’s website at Disability Connect. So Steven, thank you ever so much for joining me today. It’s been wonderful to catch up with you and have a chat with you, so thanks very much. And thank you for tuning into this episode of The Inclusive Growth Show. Hope that you’ve took some interesting points away from my conversation with Steven, and as I said, if you are interested in organising, mentoring within your organisation, please do reach out to Steven directly. Until the next time, I look forward to seeing you on the next episode of The inclusive Growth Show, which will be coming up very soon. Thanks very much.

S?: Thank you for listening to The Inclusive Growth Show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website at mildon.co.uk.

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