The Long Shadow of Non-disabled Privilege

Not all diversity characteristics are born equal: disability is definitely one of the ‘poor relations’ at the diversity table. According to Marianne Waite, Inclusive Design Consultant whilst 60% of boards talked about diversity in the last year, only 4% discussed disability equality and access. We could speculate that Boards are overwhelmingly composed of non-disabled people: blind Senior Executive and Board member Neil Barnfather tried to find out about the representation of disabled people on UK boards, and discovered that ‘that no official or reliable data exists to show the number of disabled board directors… Any data that does exist focuses on the most disadvantaged in this group, such as those not in work or with low skills etc., and the discriminatory barriers they face, but there is nothing to show that disabled people are also high achievers. Disabled people who have talent, skill and experience should have fair and reasonable access to the board room and we cannot ensure this is happening, let alone improving, without us first knowing the numbers of [disabled] people currently serving on boards.’

For the last 45 years the equality diversity and inclusion industry has consistently shone the spotlight on discrimination, negative bias and exclusion. Now this is understandable, because the suffering that is caused by these realities is undeniable. However, we often talk about them as if they occur in a vacuum. In doing so, we omit half the story: the half that talks about the advantages, positive biases and in-group inclusive practices (however inadvertent) which preserve the privilege of that those who benefit from inequality.

Here’s the rub: you cannot have exclusion without inclusion; you cannot have inequality without people who benefit from it as well as people who suffer because of it. The problem for society – as for any living system – is not diversity. It is homogeneity. The places of power in our society are occupied by people who share too many common characteristics. Those that occupy those places of power are simply too homogeneous in certain ways. Consequently, they collectively lack important knowledge, awareness and skills to deal with the issues of our time. This is one of the reasons our world is in such difficulty. This is not a personal attack on any individual: it’s an impersonal, societal fact, and it needs to change. It is therefore time we in the ED&I industry spent more of our efforts helping to intelligently dismantle the causes of homogeneity in the places of power and influence.

Nowhere is this more salient – or urgent – than in relation to disability. Paralympians may make the headlines on occasion, but the material and psychological impact of Government policies on (and outright criticism of) disabled people over the last decade or so under the shroud ‘austerity’ has been devastating, as is eloquently described through the personal stories recounted in Frances Ryan’s book Crippled: austerity and the demonization of disabled people. This is an unacceptable situation, which is made worse by the barriers still facing disabled people trying to access work. The greatest barriers are not physical but attitudinal: research by Leonard Cheshire in 2018 showed that nearly 1 in 4 employers UK said were less likely to hire a disabled person, with 66% of managers citing the need for workplace adjustments as their rationale. In part because of attitudes like this, non-disabled people are nearly three times more likely to be in employment than disabled people. There are certainly dividends to belonging to this particular club!

I don’t think that non-disabled people are bad people – I am one after all. And our experiences are very different – both as individuals and as members of other social groups (for example by gender, class, age and ‘race’). Still, in whatever circles we move, we enjoy the privilege of a world designed for and mostly run by non-disabled people. Like fish in water. And I am puzzled: what is it about us non-disabled people that we find disability so unappealing a subject as to so rarely have a serious conversation about the need to address inequality and access? So much more airtime gets given to gender, ‘race’ and age in the workplace. Why are the struggles of disabled people somehow less compelling? And what is it about our mindset that we seem to fear the potential disruption, change in habits and financial costs of reasonable adjustments so much that we don’t even bother to put a value on the benefits to our organisations and businesses of contribution disabled people might make to the success of our organisations?

Our incapacity (to coin a phrase) when it comes to addressing disability seems impossibly contradictory and self-defeating when we consider the following facts:

It is hard to the level of denial amongst non-disabled people without understanding the long shadow of non-disabled privilege. We are used to thinking of privilege as consisting of ‘good things’ – and certainly non-disabled people enjoy a level of ease, entitlement and absence of barriers that most disabled people can only dream of. However, every ‘good thing’, accepted unthinkingly and enjoyed without awareness, has its shadow. We live in a society which values a narrow idea of normality. For example, our media and entertainment and advertising idolises an ideal of youthfulness, capacity and beauty as if it were something we could have and hold onto forever. The promotion of this unrealistic aspiration has an insidious effect on everyone, spawning fear and shame about disability, ageing and disfigurement. This fear and shame has a very long history, which cannot be examined here: but it has deep roots and is rarely openly acknowledged.

Those of us leading impairment-free lives, however temporary and fragile, bathe a while in the light of our privilege, mostly unaware of the long shadows we cast, and the inner and outer barriers we erect, which are glaringly obvious both to disabled people and those non-disabled people who have an understanding of how the world is experienced from another point of view. We also prefer not to deal with our inner shadow, which has two aspects: the fear of becoming impaired in a world that idolises a pristine, non-impaired mind and body; and the shame that arises when we realise we are losing capacity, for example through ageing or illness. We all know that impairment is our likely destiny – a fact we would rather push out of awareness than directly confront. Is it any surprise that workplace monitoring forms usually have a high level of non-response to the question about disability? It’s about time we were honest about this and starting modelling leadership that is transparent and compassionate: to ourselves and others.

As a result of our the conflicted state we find hard to acknowledge, non-disabled people tend to rely heavily on two basic ways of relating to disabled people: as victims or as heroes – people we need to ‘rescue’ from tragedy, or people we can admire for their ‘triumph over adversity’. Both have the effect of making us feel better about ourselves: one redeems us and the other exonerates us. Our ‘guilty secret’ about disability is left basically intact. Through their policies and pronouncements, senior politicians seem in recent years to have legitimised a third approach: disabled people as a burden. This idea has a long and shameful history in our society, and despite the advances we have made on disability in the last few decades, has now returned in a new form. From effectively labelling disabled people as benefit cheats to identifying the disabled workforce as a drain on productivity, this has represented a significant shift in the way disabled people are viewed in the public arena. Yet again, this time by putting the blame on disabled people themselves, non-disabled people get away unscathed. This avoidance of responsibility for the exclusion of disabled people is a habit of what I call, in a forthcoming article on non-disabled privilege, the Non-Impaired-Normative-and-Ignorant mind – or NINI mind for short. It’s time for some major self-examination fellow NINIs. Why?

Because the setbacks of recent years notwithstanding, there has been a sea change in the lives of disabled people in the century since the First World War returned so many people with impairments to a society ill-equipped to receive them. A situation in which disabled people in our society lived completely segregated lives, rarely seen by the mainstream is within living memory. As this ‘social apartheid’ is gradually dismantled, disabled people increasingly claim their place and are contributing in previously unimagined ways to society. Non-disabled people are therefore more and more in relationship with disabled colleagues, peers and friends at places of education and in the workplace. We are challenged to reject the three toxic ways we previously had of relating to disability, and to build a new relationship of equality – how well do you think we are doing?

It is time that non-disabled people confronted our inner and outer shadows with a greater sense of urgency. We need to do the inner work of addressing the fear and shame many of us have about disability. And we need to do the outer work of engaging in serious dialogue and actions to increase access, inclusion and participation of disabled people in decision-making at all levels. We need to build relationships of respect and equality in order to become whole, to be effective allies to disabled people, and to help create the conditions in which they do not have to fight for the right to be whole.

Further, we have a crisis in social care, a climate crisis, a refugee crisis, a rise of anti-equality and anti-diversity forces globally… must I go on? Disabled people are both under considerable, sometimes unbearable, pressure and they can bring with them a goldmine of much needed insight, intelligence, talent, knowledge, skill and innovation to the table. The time when we can interact as genuine equals cannot come too soon. As a diverse species we most definitely need each other in order to face together the challenges of conscious leadership in an increasingly complex and conflicted world.

This is the true meaning of diversity & inclusion: coming together of different perspectives, experiences, skills and insights to address the things that matter in new and unthought-of ways. It cannot happen whilst large swathes of our society – or the rejected parts of ourselves – are left out of the equation. We can solve the challenges that matter to all of us if we learn to get out of our privileged comfort zones and become dependable friends and allies to disabled people.


Razia Aziz