Positively Purple

Positively Purple is the title of the new book by Kate Nash, founder of PurpleSpace. Kate sat down with me to talk about the book and her work on disability inclusion in the workplace.

I was very excited to speak to this week’s guest Kate Nash who was making her second appearance on my podcast. It’s worth going back and checking out Kate’s first interview where we talked about her first book which was Secrets and Big News. This time Kate came in to talk about the release of her new book Positively Purple: Build an Inclusive World Where People with Disabilities Can Flourish.

I’ve known Kate for a very long time. When I was working at the BBC, I used to run the Disabled Staff Network, and Kate was a phenomenal mentor for me then and she’s been a mentor ever since. We keep in touch and collaborate. She is also the founder and chief executive of PurpleSpace which helps organisations set up and run effective disability networks, amongst other things.

PurpleSpace are a great partner if you are trying to increase disability inclusion within your organisation. Most employers will have a workforce where at least 10% of their people have a visible or invisible disability, and 86% of all disabled people acquire their disability during the course of their working lives. The big question is how businesses can create strategies and a company culture that includes all staff.

I had so many burning questions for Kate. In her book, she discusses sharing personal information for the first time. The employers that I work with often tell me that they want more data about disabilities in their organisation. I asked Kate, ‘Do we need to encourage people to share information about their disabilities?’

‘I would say absolutely, yes, but not for its own sake. There’s a wonderful expression that if you want happiness in your life, you should look the other way. It is the same when it comes to getting good data about the numbers of people with disabilities that you employ. It’s about engendering trust within your organisation. People with disabilities are no exception in terms of sharing personal information. We look for clues that we are going to be welcomed, celebrated and accommodated etc.

So, it’s about what employers can do to signal that they are honourable organisations. Whether it’s storytelling campaigns, creating employee resource groups, or having an easy to use, elegant, very visible workplace adjustment policy and process.

Encourage people to bring their authentic selves to work. But as many of us have experienced challenges in our life, often it’s other people’s stuff as well as inelegant policies that gets in the way. You must do the activities that will make it easier for people to share data, either formally or informally. But back to the question, yes, absolutely. I think it’s proper for employers to encourage their people to be who they are.’

I reflected that someone cleverer than me once said, ‘What gets measured gets managed.’ Unless we know how many people we’ve got in the organisation, whether that’s representative of our society or not, and what the experience of those people is, then we don’t know it we are going to be making any improvements or not. I asked Kate if she would agree?

‘One hundred percent. We don’t see too many organisations looking to create a hit list of people to target and exit. I say that with a little jest in my voice because sharing data is often a privilege that you offer others. But the majority of employers want to deliver a strategic plan when it comes to building an inclusive and accessible workplace and environment and it’s easier to do that with good data. It’s about sharing with people why you want that data, delivering against that, and then telling people what you did with that data.’

A key word is trust. A lot of people are anxious about sharing personal information about their disability or health conditions because they’re worried about who’s going to access that data and whether that data could be potentially used against them. I asked Kate, ‘Is that what you come across as well?’

‘Yes, you know, people can take a wee while to make sense of a disability. Some of us have had a disability for a very long time but anything between 83 to 86% of all disabled people are individuals who have acquired that disability or health condition through the course of their working lives. That means it take time to make sense of that life experience, to feel good about it and sometimes to learn how to do things differently.

It’s not a comfortable ride and therefore it takes us a while before we feel well-versed enough to share that with others around us, particularly in places where we want to be performing at our best. And that’s work. None of us want to be seen as anything than just delivering at work. It’s quite a sophisticated dynamic that has to be created in the workplace.’

In Kate’s book she discusses the abuse of power in the chapter on nature, nurture and the new reality. I asked her to tell me a bit more about that.

In that chapter, I give a specific example of a personal, physical example of a patient who experienced sexual abuse at a hospital that I went to many years ago. Although I didn’t share her experience, she was a fellow traveller and she was unflinching in her sharing her story. The reason it’s in the book is it serves as a reminder of how sometimes susceptible we can be if we don’t take steps to nurture our worth. As a disabled woman, quite often we can find ourselves in positions where that abuse of power can be played out.

There is a steady low-grade bitrate of stories of people who experience abuse of power. We often hear about bullying in the workplace, and we don’t often segment that when it comes to people with disabilities. It’s not a comfortable story in the book. It’s a powerful one I found necessary to call out sometimes that need we have to really build our worth and to reflect sometimes about why we don’t stand up, and why, sometimes, we don’t feel able to be out loud and proud about our experiences.’

Sometimes that abuse of power Kate was talking about can be sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace. But what happens more often on a day-to-day basis are the micro aggressions and the micro behaviours, those small bits of behaviour that undermine you and has a compound effect. If you’re on the receiving end of those micro aggressions, you end up questioning yourself, Is there something wrong with me here?” rather than it’s the behaviour of the colleagues or the work culture.

Kate agreed. ‘That is a wonderful expression, challenging as it is around the soft bigotry of low expectation. Many in the disabled community will sometimes choose deliberately not to use the language of microaggressions because they don’t see what we experience sometimes as an aggressive act.

That’s what’s so profound about this notion. That the pity of others can be one of the most corrosive of human emotions that we experience and it can have a debilitating effect on our feelings of worth and value and talent and our potential to get ahead of work. My advice to many networks with hundreds and thousands of employees with disabilities is to just notice, along with our allies, the interplay of power at work.’

This leads naturally onto another topic in Kate’s book. In another chapter, the soft bigotry of low expectations is discussed. Kate is clear that skills are skills irrespective of disability. That really resonated with me. Considering this, I asked Kate she recommends employers should be considering.

‘Mostly, it’s about keeping an open mind. I think anybody who might have direct personal experience of disability or even indirect, whether it’s a father or a mother or a child, or a grandparent or a sibling or a best friend, we make sense of the world by interacting with the experiences of others. But it doesn’t mean to say we get it all right. My advice is always to keep an open mind and not to make assumptions about people’s lives, whatever the challenges presented.

There are so many manifestations of disability that can so deeply challenge others about their views of talent. Whether that’s about how we look, sound or walk, or about how we might speak; it might be about how we absorb and communicate.

I tell some funny stories in the book, some of the ironic stories. There’s one where I was being interviewed and I was trying to be brilliant at this interview. I think I was doing a pretty fine job of demonstrating my skills, but the panel was having none of it because at that stage I was waiting, I think, for another hip replacement or knee replacement, and I walked with a stick or a crutch.

The panel were possibly frustrated because I was answering the questions too well. One of them asked, “Well, what can’t you do?” Of course, I avoided the judicious use of sarcasm, like I didn’t say, I can’t scuba dive and I can’t speak Chinese Mandarin, or I can’t walk the tightrope because there are a myriad of things that we cannot do as human beings, disabled or non-disabled. So, my best advice is just keep an open mind.

I tell another story of the wonderful, great, late James Partridge in his book ‘Face It’. He’d had surgery, corrective surgery for his facial disfigurement. He too was posed with a question at the end of a job interview. He was asked, “Are you expecting to have any more surgery Mr. Partridge?” And he was shocked. And he kind of ignored it, and then he waded back in and said, “Well, do you think I need it?” The good news story is, a little while later, he got the letter and he’d got the job. Perhaps that was because he stood up and pushed back.

Although that might have provoked the panel, they had the wherewithal to notice that this man was not having any of it. It’s about keeping an open mind and it’s about being prepared to be a little loud, out and proud about our experiences.’

One of my diversity and inclusion heroes is Verna Myers, who’s now the head of Diversity and Inclusion at Netflix. A lawyer by background, she’s over in the States and she’s done a couple of good TED Talks. In one of her TED Talks about leaning into our biases, she says that biases are stories that we make up about people before we get to know them. I just think it’s so simple and easy to understand, and it’s about those assumptions or presumptions that we make about people, about what they can and can’t do.

As a disabled person myself, I’ve had those situations where people have assumed that I can’t do something, when in fact I can do it, and I’m very good at doing it. I asked Kate, ‘When you were growing up, what did you want to be? Who were the role models that you were looking up to?’

‘Back in the day, as a teenager, I loved fashion. I loved design. My mum was a fantastic dressmaker. She worked with Frank Usher and she used to make beautiful creations. But I acquired juvenile chronic arthritis at 15, and one of the very many manifestations of that is that it changed the shape and strength of my hands and I experienced significant pain. So that was not going to happen.

I had to think quickly, what did I want to deliver in this world? It took a while but I have to say I was always fascinated, after my onset of disability, how other people often changed their impressions of what people with disabilities can do. That led me into thinking about politics, and it led me into thinking about how you change the world. I was asking “What does it take to drive change?”

‘Of course, it’s often about legislation and regulation, but it’s also about sharing very difficult truths about people’s lives. I looked at history for my role models. Although I don’t profess and didn’t aspire necessarily to be somebody of remarkable as someone like a Rosa Parks, I was deeply moved by the knowledge that one person can change the world.

I was looking at the budding politicians of the age, the Jane Campbells of this world and the Colin Lows and the Rachel Hursts. I was looking at the youngsters like the Liz Carrs and the Barbara Lisickis. For me, the role models were those individuals who were prepared to call out the inadequacies of systems, the inadequacies of legislation, the inadequacies of our lives, so that we can get our wiggle on. But I constantly collect role models. You are one of them Toby. We are fellow travellers.’

Another interesting thing I took away from Kate’s book is that disability is a political issue. I asked Kate if she would mind talking a bit more about that?

‘The story in my book Positively Purple is primarily autobiographical. But it’s also the story of PurpleSpace. It’s the story of #PurpleLightUp. It’s chock-full of lessons to learn for both employers and employees. And in terms of politics of disability, well, politics is nothing but the dynamic of power. It’s about who has power. It’s about how, as a people, we spend money on things. It’s how our taxes are spent. It’s how we spend our energy and our time and our thinking and our love and our compassion. I do see myself as a political animal with a small ‘p’.

I have worked in a number of non-governmental organisations to support the process of securing both legislative and regulatory reform, not just in the UK but across the world. Although I choose very deliberately not to be a politically aligned with a party, I do believe very deeply that disability is a political experience and that money talks. Therefore, the reason why PurpleSpace had to come about is because people with disabilities in work needed to notice their economic contribution. Day in and day out, thousands, millions of us are working every single day.

Yes, there are many of us who can’t get that first job or are very far away from the job market for different reasons. But disability is a deeply political experience. And I do see within the PurpleSpace community, a good number of people who have been politicised to understand how they can lend their talent, skill and their positions of seniority. We keep hearing that there are not enough C-suite leaders with a disability. That’s largely true. But there is a caveat that it’s changing. We have to break this narrative of keeping saying there are not enough, because while there aren’t, we can’t keep talking down about our experiences. We have to talk them up.’

At that C-suite level and elsewhere, we see disability come about with age and we’ve got an aging workforce. Naturally we should expect people to acquire their disabilities with age if they’re staying in the workplace for longer. I’ve found it interesting because I’ve worked with senior leaders, chief executives and directors of companies. Some of them have hidden their disability from their colleagues.

I worked with one guy, a really senior leader in a business. He had hearing difficulties in one ear and used hearing aids. He went out of his way to try and hide the hearing aids from his colleagues and it was becoming an issue for him. He was struggling to participate in online meetings, things like Zoom calls because he was having difficulty hearing what people were saying. Yet he was going out of his way to hide it from his colleagues.

Kate replied, ‘It is such a common experience. I think it is changing, but it does take, to my mind, these networks employee resource group networks and business resource group networks, affinity groups, special interest groups. They’re all called something slightly different wherever you look across the world. But it’s these networks and cross-organisations, this networking between employees of disability within different companies that is starting to make it easier even for the C-suite leaders with disability to be a little bit sassier in how they present to the world.’

Kate talks about the importance of building a network around oneself as a disabled person so I asked her what she thinks employers can do to help their disabled staff develop their networks?

‘A couple of things. I think for those who have not yet considered the value of the disabled employee resource group is to do that quickly, and to do that deeply. These are no longer nice to haves. PurpleSpace wrote a publication last year called Priceless where we called out that they’re no longer an additional extra. Toby, you have worked with many organisations. You’ve shared your experience with BBC and there are many organisations who now don’t see this as a kind of nice to have but setting up a disability employee resource group is one of the most powerful instruments of change because they are collections of ideas, of passion, of energy. If their governance, is aligned to the overall DEI objectives of the business, they can be a fantastic magnet for the other individuals who want to be allies.

I’d say make space for networks and invest in those networks. I’d say make sure that C-suite leaders are plugged into those networks where they really motor, they tend to be networks that have passionate seniors C-suite leaders. You see that in GSK. You see that in Google, Twitter, Accenture. You see that at the HSBC. There are millions out there now that are really motoring because of that connection between the ERG and the chief executive or the C-suite leader.

I suppose the only other thing I would say, there are some organisations that are just too small to warrant a network. And if that’s the case, I would encourage those organisations just to make it easier for their people with disabilities to access other types of support. Is it about partnering with an external reputable NGO, for example? There are lots of impairment specific organisations or disability rights in the UK. Enabling people to meet and connect with the disabled thought leaders out there, I think is one of the most powerful things they can do.’

In terms of making changes in an organisation, I know that one of the biggest challenges around disability inclusion is a lack of budget and resources plus people being really, really stretched with their time. I asked Kate if when budgets and resources are limited, is it possible to make a big impact?

‘I would say so. Storytelling campaigns, for example, are one of the most well-known activities within a disability ERG. It’s never once and done. It’s not a project. This is being and then having the wherewithal to create a steady bitrate of great internal stories that you then externalize. This can be one of the most powerful things you can do. It doesn’t have to be a costly affair; it only takes five individuals to do some short videos as long as you’re captioning and you’re doing that in a way that’s accessible. As long as you have your organisation’s blessing, then why not just five of you team up, get together on International Day of Persons with Disabilities Purple Light Up, and share some stories about how you’ve succeeded within your company?

It can be as cheap as chips to make a big difference and a big splash about how the company’s motoring. It takes a bit of budget; networks can’t work on fresh air and enthusiasm alone. It’s unfair to suggest that they can, so invest a bit, but you don’t have to worry about using your budget wisely and effectively if it’s small.’

Kate mentioned Purple Light Up which is a campaign she’s spearheaded for a number of years. It’s worth linking any of your internal disability activities with the Purple Light Up campaign that happens each year. Look out for Google Purple Light Up and go on Kate’s website PurpleSpace. We’ve got the United Nations International Day of Disabled People, which is on the same date 3rd of December. And again, that’s another key date to put in the diary. Anyway, there you have a couple of dates that you can certainly use as a great springboard for disability events and awareness.

Before I wrapped up our conversation, I asked Kate if she could offer any advice to the futurists.

‘Oh, yes. I would say get excited, get passionate, get involved. We all have a role, I think as individuals, as citizens in the world to look out for our contemporaries who may experience disability or life experience that, if push they may suggest they prefer not to have and are struggling to make sense of that and the identity. We all have a role to play in this. So, the advice would be to get impatient, notice where there are gaps or clunky systems within your place of work, and that might be the workplace adjustment process, it might be the recruitment data, maybe your tech systems. I would say roll your sleeves up, get impatient, spot one thing that you can do, do it well.’

Kate’s book Positively Purple: Build an Inclusive World Where People with Disabilities Can Flourish is available at your preferred book retailer.

To find out more about how her organisation can support professional development for disability network leaders in business visit the PurpleSpace website where you can also find information about the Purple Light Up global movement and annual event.

Positively Purple - Mildon