Shining a Purple Light

Kate Nash is the Founder and Chief Executive of PurpleSpace. She’s had a fantastic career in disability change, diversity and inclusion and I’d been wanting to interview her for ages. Kate has worked as a lobbyist with NGOs in the UK. This secured anti-discrimination legislation for disabled employees. She describes this time as ‘eyeballing parliamentarians for a living’.

The work was not only aimed at influencing government. They also pressed employers to recognise disability as a rights issue affecting workforce talent, rather than one for philanthropy and charity’. After the legislation change was achieved in the mid-90s, Kate worked extensively with employers. She also wrote a book, “Secrets & Big News“. This led to the creation of PurpleSpace, which is the world’s only network of disabled employee networks also called employee or business resource groups. These networks exist both to drive cultural change, which makes it easier to develop an inclusive workforce. They help disabled employees bring their authentic selves to work – build resilience, confidence and lean into their career.


PurpleSpace brings together disabled employee network leaders across the globe. PurpleSpace estimates that they reach 440,000 disabled people through their membership of 600. They deliver high-quality know-how through the delivery of high-performing networks; they cover 12 leadership themes in a year, featuring different topics each month. Each topic is explored from various angles. To support the activity, PurpleSpace provides a range of resources. These include written material, podcasts, webcasts and coaching. Kate describes the resources as, ‘Buckets of delicious know-how supporting amazing change agents who are building disability confidence from the inside out’.

Kate and I met when I was working at the BBC running the disabled employee network. I’d read Kate’s book and she was a guiding light in helping me to build a positive, high performing network. My first question to her focused on the return on investment employers get from having disabled employee networks

‘Firstly, an organisation does better by learning from its people. This learning informs any public statement about their company’s story. It also feeds into the strategy for building inclusive workplaces, so policies, practices, procedures, the way we do things around here. Having an employee resource group is a tidy way of consulting with your people about what’s working and what’s not.

Next, the data metrics that many of our networks use, start to go up. In the public sector, it’s pretty mandatory to monitor these indicators, but not so much in the private sector. We know reputable bodies and government agencies will say that most organisations, of any size and sector, geography and footprint have 10% of their people with a disability. However, those that do monitor, invariably find that data will come back as maybe 1%, 2% or 3% as the maximum. So when a company introduces a network, it becomes a congregation place. You start to get a better, more sophisticated narrative about how to bring your authentic self to work. As a result, over time the data starts to creep up. This provides two other real returns. As a network gets into its groove, it can focus on supporting the business to deliver an elegant, easy to use, visible workplace adjustment process with service level agreements. Then people can access workplace adjustments more easily.

Finally, engagement scores go up. Without a network, it’s hard for many disabled people to share personal information. So establishing a network helps people to be who they are in the context of work.’

“Secrets & Big News”

This conversation touched on the reason that led to Kate writing her book “Secrets & Big News“. People now share their information about ethnicity or LGBT+ status fairly easily but rates for identifying as disability remain stubbornly low, around 1%. Since government data shows that 16% of working-age adults have a disability, organisations probably employ many more disabled people than they realise.

The book was written five years ago. Its purpose was to uncover this real challenge that people face sharing personal information about their disability or experience of ill health, whether that be physical or a mental challenge. Of the book, Kate says, ‘We wanted to understand what employers can do differently and better to support people to share that experience with their disability. What makes it easier for people to share that personal data?’

They worked with 55 employers and surveyed 2500 disabled people. They had an editorial board including people from BT, GSK, Post Office, Microlink, Shell and the Metropolitan Police. The research provided insights into the process of assimilating and how people make sense of their life experience with an impairment.

Kate believes that for many disabled people, it can take years to understand their experiences, how to frame and talk about them. “Secrets & Big News” came up with 15 big ideas for employers and another 15 for employees to try. She says, ‘ we didn’t deliver best practice, that’s not what we chose to do. It was about offering a provocation to employers to notice the challenge that we have after an identity change. 83% of all disabled people acquire their disability during working life. It means that they’re working and making sense of a new identity. That doesn’t come easy. That’s what the book was all about. The lessons that came out of that book hold true now and it’s a very popular book.’

Recommendations for Employers

Since I have a rare neuromuscular condition that I was born with, I reflected with Kate that my experience of disability is different from the many who acquire their disability later in life. I entered the workforce with a disability. This came with its challenges as well as all sorts of discrimination that I faced trying to get into the workplace. That’s a challenging but different process to that of adjusting to a new identity in the workplace. Given this range of individual experiences, I asked Kate to share some things she’d recommend from the book for employers.

Kate recommends holding in mind that at least 10% of an organisation’s people will have a disability, whether they have chosen to share that information or not. She advises that even if previous attempts to establish disability networks have failed, it’s still important to continue spending time, energy, effort and investment in setting up a disability employee network. Because it’s not easy to share that personal information, employers need to stay with the process. If they do, people will engage in time and then Kate says, ‘you will never look back. You will have a rich and permanent group of individuals who will genuinely want to support the business to do differently and better.’

The second recommendation for employers is to have an accessible, visible workplace adjustment process.

Kate explained, ‘In the past, employers often chose to frame the workplace adjustment process as the reasonable adjustment process and that creates a lot of confusion. The concept of reasonable adjustment came into force in the original Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 and is now the Equality Act.

There’s no reason why you have to call your workplace adjustment a reasonable adjustment process. The challenge is that the language we often use around the concept places the word ‘reasonable’ before the word adjustment. What people hear is reasonable and not the adjustment part.’

Because employers get hung up on what’s ‘reasonable’ Kate encourages employers to use and normalise the language of workplace adjustment. She continues, ‘We would never talk about the reasonable maternity policy or the reasonable flexible workplace policy. We should take it as a fact that our employers have an understanding of what’s right and what they can do and can’t do.’

The third recommendation for employers is to stop using the language of declaration and disclosure. An insight gained from the 2500 survey respondents in the book is that people don’t enjoy that language. If employers are using that language it’s an own goal. The language of disclosure suggests another human being has a secret. That’s a huge barrier in people bringing their authentic whole selves to work.

Thinking about the word ‘declaration’ Kate says, ‘My goodness! As a woman, I’ve never been asked to declare my gender. We shouldn’t be asked to declare any aspect of human difference or part of our identity. It’s as if we are trying to smuggle some illegal part of ourselves through customs at an airport.

The other drawback, if you treat everything in such an earnest way, is that people learn not to go near a topic. One has to be brave enough to think about and play with these concepts, but we heard loud and clear that we’re well beyond the time where it’s proper to talk about declaration and disclosure. Let’s move it on, let’s talk about people sharing personal data about their disability or ill health.’

Kate’s final recommendation for employers and employees is to make good use of storytelling campaigns. ‘If you tap into people willing to share their story of difference, the more likely its people within the business will start to share their story. Then you give out very positive external messages that you’re real and serious.’

Creating High-Performing Networks

My next question for Kate was about organisations with employee disability networks. I asked her ‘What does a high-performing network look like? And what’s the impact of the current coronavirus pandemic on network performance?’

Kate’s first criterion is that the network should have a well-thought-through purpose.

 ‘If they don’t have that clarity networks sometimes struggle, trying to do too much and spreading themselves too thinly across various gaps. The second criterion is that high-performing networks spend equitable time on some of the business drivers as a consulting vehicle. An example might be if the organisation is going through a deep dive on a particular policy, and return to work through COVID19 is a classic case now. High-performing networks do those two things: helping both the organisation and its audience.

Thirdly, well, two other things, one is the strategy should be aligned to business needs. Make sure there’s a strong line of sight between what the D&I team is doing and how the network can support the business to deliver against its strategy. And then lastly, speaking truth to power. We live in a troubled age, and sometimes the spotlight on human difference is acute. It can be devastating for us. Look at, for example, the huge distress that has come from all of us as allies with the BAME community around Black Lives Matter. Networks feeling able to speak truth to power when needed is an essential component of an organisation hearing difficult information about what it needs to do.’

Kate also talked about the pivot networks are doing around COVID19.

‘That’s still work in motion for us. We are likely to have an insight and impact report later in the summer that will be freely available. What’s on our minds around that is that we’re all now living and working in a supercharged digital world. Whilst it was acute, distressing and difficult for all of us to mass migrate onto Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Skype, we’ve all learned things. Networks have had a massive and important opportunity to increase membership. If I had a pound or a dollar for every time I’ve heard of a network that has increased their membership because they can now deliver virtually even though they had the technology to start with… it’s incredible.

Employers should think deeply about how they support individuals with different health needs in terms of that return to work. Learning about the positive characteristics of blended work will be important. I heard the other day it’s not so much that we are all working from home, it’s that we’re all sleeping at the office now. Blended life brings intensity. However, if we can take the best features and combine them with stronger insights coming from networks, it’s mostly a good news story.’

Collaborating for Inclusive Growth

Since Kate works with major global brands and organisations, I asked her what inclusive growth means for her clients. She reflected on my book “Inclusive Growth” and the seven core principles particularly the one around collaboration.

‘Employers collaborating with their networks and resource groups to build a better working world is critical. Rich collaboration can be a fantastic instrument to improve business performance. It also supports people to self-actualise, feel good about themselves, be able to ask for workplace adjustments, share their personal stories and maybe to support other non-disabled people who may be, through COVID, experiencing an acute phase of situational depression.

I’ve heard so many stories of how networks are supporting individuals who have never had a little rainfall in their lives and now it’s pouring, so that richness of cross-organisational collaboration and learning is hugely important. There’s always commercial sensitivities, why a company may not share what it’s doing on disability, but what I see is a huge generosity of spirit. That employer-to-employer collaboration to build a better working world is important to me for inclusive growth.

Finally, it’s about celebration. We lead the Purple Light Up, which is our way of marking, with respect, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on the 3rd of December. It’s our celebration of the millions of disabled employees who make a huge economic contribution. The story about disabled people is often a narrative, about not getting in, not getting on. It’s about deficit and welfare reform. It’s about not having the kit that we need or the housing that, or the health and social care.

I don’t want to minimise those stories. I do everything I can to amplify those stories. But if we keep doing that, we do that at our own cost, and we have to call out some of the positivity. Without that we’re doing, not just non-disabled people, a huge disservice by not sharing the fun, the giggles, the irony and the humour that we have along the way, but we’re doing a huge disservice to those people who come behind us. So, for me, inclusive growth includes us making space for, and time for a celebration of disabled talent across the world.’

Purple Light Up

To conclude I asked Kate how can people: get involved in the Purple Light Up and get in touch with her about how PurpleSpace can help grow their organisation’s disability networks with confidence.

‘Purple Light Up is a digital movement that we’ve lost control of beautifully, in a good way. In the early days, we badged it as a campaign. It’s not a campaign, because a campaign has a start, and a middle, and an end. A movement has no boundaries. So this is a digital global movement. For Purple Light Up this year, we’re having a 24-hour virtual summit across the world, so we will start in Australia and we will finish in California. People can rock up according to their time zone and hear amazing people talk about what employers have done over time. To get involved, all you have to do is to commit to celebrating disabled talent digitally. It’s not about purple light bulbs, although some companies will use the existing purple light bulbs they have to flag that they are allies and champions. It’s about action. Get on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Wear a purple t-shirt or some earrings and share your personal story. Tell us why you want us as a community to celebrate human difference.’

In my opinion, Kate’s book”Secrets & Big News” is a must-read for anybody who is thinking of setting up a disabled employee network. It’s also vital for organisations that have a network but want to make sure that it’s a high-performing network. As part of the response to the impact of coronavirus, Kate has made the book freely available in the membership section of the PurpleSpace website. As well as downloading the book, visit the website to get more information about PurpleSpace and the Purple Light Up events this year.

Shining a Purple Light - Mildon