Changing Perspectives: Forget having all the answers – embracing disability is about learning how to ask questions

Natalie Sareff
By Natalie Sareff | 9 July 2024
Natalie Sareff .

The MFA DE&I Council would like to see an industry where everyone can thrive, feel heard, supported, and safe to do their best work. Let’s meet the Changers who are sharing their own lived experiences to inspire us all to change for the better.

My mum likes to tell me I’m one in a million – sometimes even as a compliment! She’s not correct, but not as far off as you might think.

I live with a disability that affects 1 in 5,700, making me one of the 8% of Aussies with a "rare disease". While we’re a big group, we’re split across 7,000 conditions. If we’re aiming to promote understanding, that’s a lot of people to squeeze onto a panel!

People with rare diseases are not the only ones with unique experiences of disability. Common conditions can be visible or invisible and people can be disabled by illness, by their treatment and/or by what society thinks they can or cannot do.

So, if people with disability are split across thousands of conditions and millions of experiences, how do we improve understanding to make their work and life better?

I believe that one of the most important (and least frequently taught) tactics is learning how to ask psychologically safe questions. Asking questions that create self-confidence and welcome collaboration makes a workplace feel safe for people with disability to express their needs. It also promotes true, specific understanding, combating stereotypes.

Some awesome starting points for asking psychologically safe questions about disability are:

  1. Frame questions around the job, not the disability.

X Unnecessarily asking: ‘What disability do you have?’ ‘What are your symptoms?’

✓ Where possible, asking: ‘Which tasks in your scope are causing you challenges?’ ‘What sort of challenges?’

  1. Don’t start from scratch – leverage your colleague’s understanding of their needs.

X Providing a preset list of accommodations to pick from.

✓ Asking: ‘Are there techniques that you’ve found helpful in the past, that you’d like to explore using here?’

  1. Set a mutual cadence of checking in.

X Just asking: ‘What workplace adjustments might you need?’ in onboarding.

✓ Also asking: ‘How frequently would you like to check in about your needs?’ during onboarding, and proactively checking at potentially tough times.

Using questions such as those suggested here helps us recognise the diversity of experiences among the disability community. Did you know that 88% of employed people aged between 15 and 64 did not require extra support from their employer? Despite this, 44% avoided situations at work because of a perceived lack of acceptance of their disability.

While I don’t currently need any workplace adjustments, truth be told I was a bit nervous about the post-pandemic return to office as an immunocompromised person. I was grateful to have check-ins with my manager and my key client partner in the lead up to RTO, if only to receive their reminders that health comes first.

Don’t get me wrong – workplace adjustment policies are essential. I’m delighted to share my experience through Publicis Groupe’s enABLE employee resource group to better inform the business as we evolve our DE&I policies, including our recently announced Disability Access and Inclusion Plan.

But just expressing appreciation when a colleague makes a potentially intimidating disclosure about their life is one of the most valuable "adjustments" that we can make.

Refs: AIHW, People with Disability In Australia

Natalie Sareff is Strategy Director at Spark Foundry

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