Diversity – a lot is talked about it but, somewhat incongruously in our business that specialises in words, what actually matters is action.
Management and employees agree that they want equal opportunities for all, including disabled and chronically ill (DCI) staff and authors, but how do they go about actually achieving it and changing their company culture?
One of the answers is not to expect the few DCI employees to do all the groundwork. There’s a moment in Zakiya Dalila Harris’ satirical novel The Other Black Girl where the boss of Nella, who at the beginning of the novel is the only Black woman in the publishing company, implies she should work as hard in extracurricular diversity meetings as she does in her job. It’s an occurrence many DCI people can relate to. The only visibly disabled person in the room? You’re expected to be the voice of a fifth of the people in this country – even for conditions you have little or no experience of.
If you want to be on that committee, great! But what if you’re fed up with being objectified as ‘the disabled employee’ or you’re just too tired after working many more hours than you’re paid for in your core job? If a company is interested in including a disabled employee in their diversity plans then confidentially ask them rather than expecting them to do it. Make it clear that there will be no impact on their career if they say no and if they do say yes ensure that time is released in their working day to take on the extra work and that any suggestions will receive full consideration. Too often consultation is a HR box ticking exercise that results in no change to the status quo. That’s soul destroying to be part of.
Another answer is to employ more DCI people. Embed in your company values and on recruitment material that you welcome applications from this community. Set up mentoring schemes. Encourage submissions from DCI authors. Some people with an invisible condition may be reluctant to declare it for fear of discrimination or pigeonholing, such as the assumption that you’ll need lots of time off for medical appointments or that you’ll require workplace adjustments that are too much hassle. Be clear disability declaration is confidential. When recruited give a questionnaire to all employees/authors asking about any needs they may have in the office or flexibility that will help them do their job.
Historically many disabled people have been excluded from general society; educated in separate schools, put in institutions and either not considered capable of working or employed in specialist disability companies. From the 1980s a push for inclusive education, independent living and initiatives such as Access to Work have helped changed that. Yet still some people have never met or been friends with a disabled person and certainly not with many, gaining knowledge on all the different conditions that exist.
Once, way back when I had an office job, our team was going to the local pub after work. Back then I used a walking frame but was slower than my colleagues and was concerned about being left behind and not knowing the way. My workmate friend walked with me and helped me up the steps into the pub. Afterwards he said it had opened his eyes – he had never known anyone with walking difficulties and therefore had never thought twice about things such as pub steps.
That brings us on to another answer – open your eyes and use your common sense. Don’t expect your colleague to have to tell you about any barriers they might incur (it can be embarrassing and exhausting when you’re the one who must explain your condition so many times). Have an employee who uses hearing aids? Always have a hearing loop in staff meetings and check it works beforehand. Booking an away day? Ensure all members of staff can join in. No-one wants to be the person who has to sit out a session because it’s not inclusive. Organising a staff party? Check it has disabled access, an accessible loo and is somewhere that all staff can manage to travel to. All are no-brainers but examples of things I’ve encountered.
My lived experience is with a physical disability. I’ve learnt a lot talking to author friends with conditions I have no direct knowledge of, such as neurodiversity. We all should do our research. Communication, common sense, a willingness to learn, forward planning and a concrete commitment to active change are key if publishers are serious about becoming a disability ally.
One of the criticisms of this industry is its inequality. To change that, to have employees who reflect the population of the country and writers who author great books that reflect the wonderous diversity of the people in it - including DCI - will take real corporate change, not just lip service in a committee.
Penny Batchelor is the author of two psychological thrillers: My Perfect Sister (out now) and Her New Best Friend (to be published on 5th August by RedDoor Press). She champions positive disability representation in fiction. Along with EC Scullion Penny is the co-founder and editor of the Thriller Women blog which publishes interviews with female thriller writers.