A few weeks ago, I had the honor of attending a conference that brought together some of the brightest leaders and entrepreneurial minds in the world- all under age 30. A well renowned and established institution hosted the week-long event that featured continuous networking opportunities, panels, speakers, and of course an open bar. Overall it was a wonderful experience and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to be part of it. But I’m left with one lingering thought.
The participants and speakers at the event were diverse. People came from countless countries and backgrounds to participate in the event. Different races, religions, and ethnicities were present. It was clear that the host organization had taken much care to take diversity into consideration. Those who spoke at the event demonstrated the highlights of the diversity at the event- which was great to see. Many of the speakers talked about the way that their upbringing and in some cases, minority status, affected the way that they do business today. Some discussed the barriers to entering into the American business world that exist when you’re not white. Women of all colors, religions, and nationalities took center stage at the event and provided some of the most powerful presentations and celebrated contributions. For the most part, those on the stage were candid about what motivated them and the barriers that they faced. One presenter told his story of how he went from being homeless to starting a company that had grossed over $1 million in its first year. Others spoke about the necessity of female empowerment in the corporate world. Some people held Ph.Ds while others had minimal education. It was great to see such diversity reflected and what appeared intentional curation of the speakers and presenters.
Yet, one crucial group was missing- the disabled.
Despite the hundreds of participants, I did not see a single person who was visibly disabled. The venues where the event was held were generally not even accessible. Though we heard from people hailing from so many different backgrounds and life paths; I did not witness an individual on the stage discuss either a visible or invisible illness or a disability as part of their life’s story. According to data gathered through the 2010 census, approximately 19% of Americans are disabled. In the US, a disabled individual is defined as “as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. This includes people like me who have a serious mental illness such as Bipolar Disorder. The disabled are the largest minority group in the United States. (Note: this was a global event, but due to the lack of information available about the global status of people who have disabilities in the world, and the discrepancies in the way in which these are defined internationally, I’m sticking with US stats. The majority of participants were American as well, which is why this data is more relevant than say data from the UK.)
Why sure- it is more than likely that I was not the only individual in attendance living with an invisible illness or a mental illness; what bothers me is that there was no effort to include the obstacles and barriers that come with any type of disability in the dialogue of the group. By not including these conversations in the program of the events, it perpetuates the notion that an individual’s disability/disabilities are of such a personal nature that they should be kept outside of business discussions. Why I respect one’s privacy and autonomy to decided whether or not they open up about any type of disability, I stand firmly against the idea that we should keep discussions regarding disability out of the professional world. Conversations need to be had about inclusion and the creation of physical work spaces and environments that enable the disabled to participate in the corporate world. This event posed the perfect opportunity to discuss such issues with people who the organization itself identified as being some of the brightest and youngest minds in the business world today.
Furthermore, is not enough for a company or organization to simply have an inclusion statement or say that it “values diversity.” To truly be an ally, organizations/companies need to be willing to give us the platform to advocate for ourselves. We need powerful institutions to give us the visibility we deserve. We need organizations to give us a chance to say “Yeah we have disabilities- some of us have really “severe ones”. There are days when my disability impacts my entire work day-. But that doesn’t make of less value to a company or project.” We need a chance to discuss how we are so much more than our diagnoses. Most importantly, we need a stage to demonstrate to the younger generation of those with disabilities; those who are likely still learning how to navigate the world with the very illnesses we have; that they are valuable to society, and that they belong in whichever professional field they choose to be in. Just as we need to validate and listen to African Americans, Lantinx, Native Americans, the LGBTQIA+ community and every other minority in the United States regarding their needs- we need to step up and do the same for the disabled community. A diverse and inclusive workspace is not only the ethical way to exist and practice business- but it is good for business. Diversity in people leads to diversity in ideas. This conference was the perfect time to set such an example and set the gears in motion to facilitate the creation of new business norms. But instead, it was a missed opportunity.
Photo: A totally unrelated but gorgeous photo of the sunset from a dhow in Lamu, Kenya.