There is nothing like the personal experience

Providing managers with a personal experience of what it might feel like to live with a disability – this was the idea of two Challenges, which the financial services firm EY held at their UK headquarters.

EY volunteers, including some of the firm’s leaders, took part in the Aspire Wheelchair Challenge in September 2016 and in a non-sight challenge (on the International Day for People with Disability in December 2016). The objective of the tangible activities included to raise awareness and to help employees and managers start a conversation around disability. It also offered the opportunity to promote the employee network ‘Ability EY’.

The nature of the challenges helped business people understand the perspective of a disabled worker. In September, eight non-disabled volunteers, including five from EY’s UK & Ireland leadership team, spent their working day in a wheelchair, provided by the London Wheelchair service to raise funds for the spinal injury charity Aspire, at the firm’s London headquarters. Maggie Stilwell, EY’s Managing Partner for talent said: “Creating an inclusive workplace is a top priority for us. We hope the Aspire Wheelchair Challenge will help (…) our people to think and talk about visible and invisible disabilities such as dyslexia, autism or mental ill-health.”

Accordingly, the International Day for People with Disability is an important date in the EY calendar, and the firm marked it by holding a non-sight challenge, just a few months after the wheelchair challenge. According to an EY new feature on ENEI’s website, the challenge involved a volunteer wearing a ‘blinder’, which completely blocks out their vision whilst navigating their lunch hour, with the help of a seeing ‘buddy’. The inspiration behind this challenge came from one of the founders of the employee network ‘Ability EY’, Arthur Young, who was deaf and had low vision. Although he had originally trained as a lawyer, his disability made it difficult to practice in the courtroom. In response, he turned to the new field of accounting where he could leverage his skills. He became an innovator not despite of his disabilities, but because of them.

The challenges allowed individuals to experience first-hand the difficulties that many face in the workplace. The feedback was very positive, and really helped those involved to appreciate the difficulties that people with a disability have to contend with. Their experience really demonstrated the importance of an inclusive and supportive environment that minimises barriers and makes reasonable adjustments.

“Disabled people have a great deal to offer our organisation; in addition to their professional skills they often have great strength and resilience”, said Maggie Stilwell. “We want to challenge the perceptions of disability in the workplace, be a disability confident organisation and unlock the talent of those with disabilities or long-term health conditions across EY.”

Aspire, which provides practical help to people who have been paralysed by spinal cord injury, had come up with the Wheelchair Challenge as a way to make disability more visible in the workplace. Yasmin Sheikh, an independent disability consultant, coach and trainer who works with Aspire to deliver the challenge and is a wheelchair user herself, said: “This initiative can seem uncomfortable – or even patronising for some – but we developed it to challenge that thinking; we all need to get over those feelings of discomfort about disability and start talking about it more. EY’s support of the wheelchair challenge will not only raise vital funds for Aspire, to help those with spinal injuries, it will help their employees to have a greater understanding of the challenges a wheelchair user faces on a daily basis.”

Similarly, the non-sight challenge provided strong experiences for participants. One Graduate who participated, said “Doing everyday activities became a real challenge and you had to put 100% trust in your buddy and try and rely on your other senses guide you.” An associate director reported “Doing this prompted a broader conversation within my team about our own personal experiences with disability; I found out about my colleagues non-sighted grandfather, another person in the team told how they were partially sighted and a third told me about their brother’s longer term health condition. It’s quite amazing when you scratch under the surface how many people have a link to or are personally affected by disability.”