Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson is one of the UK’s most successful Paralympians. Trading the athletics track for the benches of the House of Lords, she reflected on the hard yards behind her success at the 2019 CIPD annual conference and exhibition.
Inclusion was a major theme running through CIPD ACE 2019, attracting speakers across the two- broadcaster Trevor Phillips OBE, Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith, author of the Race in the Workplace review, as well as case studies from Network Rail, Sodexo UK and Ireland and others.
Speaking from the perspective of intersectionality – that of being a woman, a person with a disability and, in her own words, being Welsh – Dame Grey-Thompson looked at her experience through the lens of today’s “really weird political times”.
“A lot of people are feeling very challenged at the moment. If we look at the opportunities, we can try to figure out what we are doing to protect our workforce.
“Being a woman and being disabled – how are you going to discriminate against me first? I do get a lot of ‘you can’t do that’ and ‘people like you should travel when it’s less busy because people have important jobs to go to.’ My response is, what, like Welsh people?”, said Dame Grey-Thompson, pithily to illustrate the mindsets people have around ability.
The disability employment gap in the UK
Nowhere is this clearer than around people with disabilities and their access to the workplace. Despite the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act, the disabled employment gap is double that of the general population. Not only do people find it difficult to get into work, they also often find it difficult to stay in it.
Clearly, Dame Grey-Thompson is one, albeit high-profile, exception to this rule.
The route to success and her battle to live her life on her terms was the subject of this inspiring talk to delegates in Manchester.
Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson: a lifetime demanding inclusion
There were many lessons for delegates and across the whole inclusion spectrum. First among them was the adage that it helps to achieve if you can see someone who looks like you trailblazing.
“As a person growing up, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me,” recalled Dame Grey-Thompson. “Disabled children were locked away. That was the education policy at the time. The only role models were men and fictional characters. I remember age six thinking this isn’t right.”
The second aspect was having people around you who can help you achieve your aspirations for fitting in the world around you, rather than the other way round. “I was lucky as my family were really supportive,” said Dame Grey-Thompson. “They ignored what they were told. Dad told the medical team I needed a wheelchair. He was an architect and knew it’s not about looking a certain way, but how are you going to fit into this world. The chair for me meant a sense of freedom.”
A third pivotal moment was the transition to secondary school. This again required Dame Grey-Thompson, her family and advocates in politics to challenge the status quo. “I had this attitude about being a bit stroppy, a bit independent and standing up for the things I believed in.”
When her primary school headmaster forgot to tell the secondary school she was moving up to that Dame Grey-Thompson used a wheelchair, it took until after the induction day for the secondary school to rescind her place on the basis it believed the school would not be able to accommodate her. It was her now House of Lords peer, Baroness Warnock, who looked at the detail and letter of the law, concluded and fought for Dame Grey-Thompson’s right to go to any school. “Because of her, I am here,” said Dame Grey-Thompson.
“For me, it’s about finding the way you can pull levers and get through to people,” she said, referencing the increasingly important aspect of HR around influencing policy, practice and organisational culture.
Inclusion - a team game
Dame Grey-Thompson’s sporting achievements and the road to 11 gold medals, four silver medals, one bronze and more than 45 world records, holds further valuable insights for people seeking to make a difference in the workplace on inclusion.
“Individual success is not always about individuals, but about how can I get the best team and how can I be the best that I can be?” said Dame Grey-Thompson, drawing on her years of training for life on the racetrack.“Look at the barriers to employing people and turn it around. Research from Scope shows people are scared of talking to people who are disabled. We all want change to happen now. But it’s about people with busy schedules trying to do something. We need that top-down message.”