We need to get our namby-pamby heads out of our full-of-fear asses. We need to quit worrying about feeling a bit embarrassed. We need to stop making assumptions. We need to educate ourselves and start thinking of others a lot more.
I’m talking about equality and growing our awareness – and compassion – when it comes to people in society slapped with the label ‘disabled’.
Some of you will have heard me talking about Emma Sheardown before. She’s one of my coaching clients and, frankly, she is nothing short of amazing.
Emma was born with Quadriplegic Cerebral Palsy, which means her limbs don’t do as she tells them to, and her voice sounds a little different to yours or mine.
When she was a child, the medics feared Emma would never be able to walk or talk. She went on to bring home seven medals for Great Britain, in the sport of para dressage, including those for World and European championship titles.
These days, Emma is inspiring people the world over as a motivational speaker.
Imagine that for a moment – the girl who was supposed to be unable to walk or talk is now standing on stages and using her voice to positively impact large audiences. She’s even delivered a TED talk – you can watch it here.
That might all sound grand but, having worked with Emma for some time now, I get to see life from an entirely different viewpoint.
Just this week, I was working with Emma to create a new talk for corporate audiences; she’s calling it ‘Don’t Dis Ability In Disability’. It’s designed to make people sit up and take notice, to help them open their eyes and SEE people in their street, their town, their city, who might otherwise remain invisible.
There was a time – after she left the para dressage squad and before she carved out a career as a motivational speaker – that Emma wanted to find a job. This woman is one of the proudest people I know and she wanted to pay her own way.
However, with limbs that sometimes have a life of their own, and speech that sometimes takes a little while to tune into, Emma couldn’t find a single employment opportunity to suit.
Emma Sheardown is one sharp cookie – that brain of hers could benefit pretty much any business willing to bring her in, yet opportunities were not to be found.
We’ve talked about equality before but, in helping Emma to form this talk, we delved deeper.
This brilliant, champion athlete has had service providers hang up on her when she called to talk about mobile phone plans or internet provision. She’s had people assuming she’s drunk as well. Is that what we’re training our customer-facing staff members to do? Just hang up, rather than persevere or find someone willing to listen for that little bit longer?
Worse than that, she says, is when people see her out with family or friends and make assumptions about her condition. Rather than speak to her directly, they look for the person they assume to be Emma’s ‘carer’ and talk to them instead.
To quote Emma: “My arms and legs might not work as I’d like them to, but there’s nothing wrong with my brain!”
And then there are the people who unwittingly ‘overhelp’. Sometimes, we might leap to the aid of someone with a disability without checking to see if they actually need our help. We might be unwittingly disempowering them.
I’ve witnessed this first hand.
I’ve seen the strangers who stare, but don’t ask, when we’ve been out with Emma, and I saw it for years when my dear old mum-in-law was still with us.
Gwen was in a wheelchair and, time and time again, people would ask us “How is she?” instead of just asking her. Gwen had MS and she was hard of hearing in the later years, but there was nothing wrong with her mind!
Thing is, both Gwen and Emma would, after a while, just get small and not say anything. It must be awfully disempowering to have people effectively ignore you when they’re standing right in front of your face.
So, what’s needed?
Well, this is where Emma is a much better person than I! You might have gathered, from the way I started this week’s column, that I sometimes feel really hacked off with society’s lack of manners and compassion. Emma, though, wants to educate people through her talks.
Sometimes, she reckons, it’s just embarrassment. It can be hard to know how a disability might affect someone at first glance and, in the majority of cases, people just don’t know how to communicate.
Maybe they’re afraid that the person in front of them isn’t actually capable of communication, so doesn’t want to cause any distress by attempting to engage them in conversation. In talking to their ‘carer’ first, they might be attempting to avoid embarrassment by saying, or doing, the wrong thing.
The same goes for ‘overhelping’ – we don’t know what’s required, so we go all in without checking.
What’s needed then? Well, when I ask Emma that question, the answer seems simple: “Just ask me.”
In Emma’s mind, the solution is clear – we need more education and awareness when it comes to people with disabilities, and we need to stop making assumptions.
Back to those jobs then, what could she have done?
Again, it’s so simple when we think about it.
Many people with disabilities, Emma explains, live their lives with computers – they can be lifelines, and many know them inside and out. Office jobs, that involve working with computers, might be ideal.
Really, as much as we might bang on about equality, we’re falling a long way short when it comes to creating inclusivity and understanding for people with disabilities… and that’s what Emma is determined to change.
Laughing, she tells me: “People have no idea what I can do. Sometimes even I have no idea how much I can do, so how can I expect others to know?”
And that, perhaps, is how Emma Sheardown has come to achieve so much. When she’s not sure if something is possible, she gets out there and gives it a try. Very often, she surprises herself AND her supporters.
I still believe we need to get our namby-pamby heads out of our full-of-fear asses.
I still believe we need to quit worrying about feeling a bit embarrassed.
I still believe we need to stop making assumptions.
I still believe we need to educate ourselves and start thinking of others a lot more.
But… Emma’s way forward is by far the more considered and intelligent approach: people don’t need a telling off, they need education and awareness, and THAT is what she’s so brilliant at delivering.
Until next time,