What gets lost in all the talk about diversity statistics these days is the experience of being different itself, especially for groups who aren’t often represented in the debate. What can we learn from blindness or autism, and what does it teach us about ourselves and about the future of work? A panel at the Tradeshift Sanctuary at Davos on Tuesday picked those questions apart.
It begins with personal stories.
Caroline Casey was born legally blind, but her parents decided to bring her up as a sighted child. “They believed labels are for jam jars and they didn’t want me to be defined by a medical condition,” she said.
Casey made it through 17 years of her life without really knowing she was blind, she says, and only realized when she applied for a motorcycle license. She then hid her visual impairment for the next 11 years. “I was so worried that if I owned it, I would be left out,” she said.
She’s now an activist and founder of Aisling Foundation. “My obsession is to put disability equality in the global business leadership agenda,” she said.
Thorkil Sonne’s son had just started kindergarten when Sonne discovered his boy had autism. He learned that autistic kids have a higher risk of dropping out and struggle to find work later in life, “because they don’t have the right skills to impress a recruiter,” he said.
So he decided to change that—not by teaching autistic people to fit into the workplace, but by teaching workplaces why they should accommodate people who are different.
Autistic people tend to have good memories, see patterns others miss, and have great attention to detail, Sonne said. But more than that, employers that accommodate people with autism are better places to work. Why? Because everyone can see they respect difference, and they have policies in place that benefit everyone, like places to go for guidance and help.
As neuroscientist Olivier Oullier explained, we’re all different, and often not in the ways we think. And it’s not about skin color or even blindness; it’s about what’s invisible underneath.
“Everybody hides something,” Casey said. “Self-acceptance is a continuous journey.”
Some people handle stress well, others don’t. Some can concentrate for hours, others need a break. If we recognize those traits and, say, allow people who need it to get up and walk around to do so, they’ll get more done and everyone’s better off.
There are financial reasons to accommodate difference too, of course. Autistic people make up 20 percent of the global population with disabilities, a market worth $8 trillion. “How are you going to know that market if it’s not in your business?” Casey asks.
But it’s really about understanding what it means to be different and allowing everyone to achieve their potential. And that’s not so hard for businesses to achieve, said Troels Lund Poulsen, Minister of Employment for Denmark, which set a goal of 50 percent employment for people with disabilities by 2025.
His government began a program that makes it easy for people with disabilities to work just a few hours a week. “We’ve created 25,000 jobs for people in the last couple of years because of that,” he said.
A common thread throughout the panel was “how can we bring what we perceive as different and make it part of the whole,” said Sarika Garg, Chief Strategy Officer of Tradeshift.
Garg has Indian parents, grew up in Africa and went to school in the U.S. She hasn’t let her difference hold her back, but it was harder than it should have been to feel at home. “When you’re at the edges it’s difficult to understand if you’re accepted or not,” she said
“You have to look for places of work and people who see what you bring to the table rather than what you look like on the surface,” Garg added.
Data will change our understanding of difference, but it needs to be the right data. Almost 80 percent of the available brain data is from Caucasian males in Western Europe or North America, said Olivier, whose company, Emotiv, studies the brain.
When AI and machine learning are added to the mix, Garg noted, we need a broad set of data to avoid reinforcing our biases.
“I hope in five years we don’t talk about disabled people, we talk about people instead,” Sonne concluded.
Everyone in the room nodded in agreement. “I want to see a la carte inclusion ended and see the human experience properly represented in our companies, which are the most powerful entities for bringing about change,” Casey added. She continued, bluntly, that “in five years time I’d love to not be on a panel like this.”
You heard her, Davos; go do something about it.