Not a week goes by at work without Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) being mentioned. We have to complete online courses, attend regular EDI training sessions, promote EDI in the classroom through tailored lessons and competitions. We have an EDI working group and an EDI week. It is part of our role profile as teachers and we must demonstrate our commitment to it. But in practice it is not uncommon for managers to approach EDI as something we have to talk about but not engage with – a buzz word for our end of year performance reviews – and sadly this attitude seems to permeate corporate culture.
My employer is signed up to the Disability Confident scheme, which replaced the government’s earlier incarnation, the Two Ticks disability scheme and is supposed to demonstrate their commitment to disabled staff by advertising inclusive policies for recruitment and retention; including offering disabled candidates who meet the minimum criteria guaranteed interviews, and making ‘reasonable adjustments’ once in post. But both schemes have been much criticised for being just that – advertising. Employers can sign up to these schemes and display the logo simply by agreeing to five commitments and identifying ONE action that will make a difference to disabled people. They don’t have to prove anything and there is no way of monitoring compliance. Technically employers can advertise themselves as being ‘disability confident’ while breaching the Equality Act or without actually employing any disabled people. Interestingly, ‘Proactively offering and making reasonable adjustments as required’ and ‘Ensuring there are no barriers to the development and progression of disabled staff’ are core actions for the Disability Confident Employer (level 2) badge – which my employer advertises – but neither of these have applied in my case.
Similarly, when I disclose my disability to my employer on monitoring forms and in annual staff surveys, I boost their EDI stats so they can profit from my disability with good PR whilst I benefit nothing from working for this supposedly inclusive employer. Without action, it is literally an empty tick-box exercise.
Another popular corporate training exercise to promote inclusive workplaces is Unconscious Bias training. The intentions are good and seek to recognise and overcome the ingrained prejudices we don’t know we have and which can influence for example the recruitment, pay and progression of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people but it is not without controversy. This has been highlighted recently in the media with Starbucks’ attempts at damage limitation – using unconscious bias training to reportedly tackle racism amongst staff. Of course we have to confront our prejudice before we can do anything about it but is this ‘bias’ really down to unconscious individuals? I find this idea retrograde and insulting as if vaguely implying that people in positions of authority are not responsible for their actions, or that deep-seated bigotry can be addressed by ticking boxes. A recent report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission shows that Unconscious Bias training is most effective for awareness raising but not for eliminating discriminatory behaviour. They also found that it can actually reinforce negative stereotypes if carried out in isolation without structures in place to address bias. All the awareness-raising in the world won’t change rogue behaviour or organisational culture when systemic inequalities are at play – or as Caroline Waters, Equality and Human Rights Commissioner notes in her article, Unconscious bias training: no such thing as a quick fix; “Problems that are rooted in societal and economic issues and power imbalances are not easily dismantled – certainly not by a 30 minute online training session”.
It’s hard not to feel that these initiatives just pay lip-service to EDI when you are routinely ignored and excluded from the very policies they promote. The harsh reality of this hypocrisy is not just irresponsible but deeply hurtful: Not only are these policies completely meaningless if not delivering for those that need them but our employers and colleagues can look good in the process. It is virtue signalling while kicking someone in the face.
This spectacle of awareness and solidarity was illustrated spectacularly by the fake sign language interpreter controversy at the Nelson Mandela memorial service in 2013 – as exposed by the Deaf blog, Limping Chicken. Writing about it for the Guardian, The ‘fake Mandela memorial interpreter said it all, Slavoj Žižek makes some interesting points about who this show is for: “are sign language translators for the deaf really meant for those who cannot hear the spoken word? Are they not much more intended for us – it makes us (who can hear) feel good to see the interpreter, giving us a satisfaction that we are doing the right thing, taking care of the underprivileged and hindered.” These not so subtle messages make the general public feel good and signal to disabled people that they are not important: not valued enough to be included. Not only that but we will make a mockery of you too. This kind of double-exclusion happens in every day life all the time.
As if I didn’t already feel excluded by their continued refusal to acknowledge my disability, this hurt and frustration is compounded when having to attend EDI training sessions in which I can’t participate fully due to my hearing loss. These happen annually but I realised I had truly entered the twilight-zone when this year, two non-disabled members of staff were instructed to pretend to be blind and deaf so we could try to understand the communication difficulties they might face. The irony of being excluded in a meeting about inclusion was not lost on me. This approach was tone deaf at best. Ha. And I am not convinced it wasn’t deliberate harassment. But joking aside, this performance proves how ‘other’ they think disability is even when it’s standing and struggling in front of you. It’s so hard to know how to handle these experiences but it took a lot to stay in that meeting and after dealing with my shock, anger and upset and deliberating for days I decided to tell management how it made me feel. When I tried to communicate this by email, it was of course completely ignored.
So we’re ignored if we don’t tell them we’re disabled and sometimes we’re ignored if we do. Either way, we’re excluded by their policies or worse, made to feel as if we don’t even exist while they lecture us on how to behave. And then we’re ignored when we summon up the courage to offer our personal perspective on inclusion. It takes a special kind of cognitive dissonance to do all this excluding under the guise of EDI.