Thursday, 22 February 2018

International work

Whilst chatting with a long standing client she exclaimed “Simon, I had no idea about your work internationally. You need to tell people about it!”  

We were attending a meeting at Middlesex University to hear about new research in to how diversity strategies have been implemented in global organisations. I was invited by the British Council, an organisation I've worked with for many years, who had commissioned the research. I was asked to speak outlining my experience and the work I’ve done. This is work I love and have enjoyed immensely over the years. So here we go...

Simon is greeted and shaking hands with a number of Hong Kong people.
Meeting bankers in Hong Kong
I should clarify I specifically work in field of disability rather than the broader diversity arena. I have been working internationally since 2002. Around half of those trips have been because the British Council have asked me to go to a region. The other half has been for a range of organisations including Bank of America, Google, Goldman Sachs, HSBC and McDonalds.  I’ve a long term relationship with Community Business in Asia who ask me to help out from time to time. Finally I’ve chaired international conferences or hosted a Dining with a Difference event for senior leaders. 

Much of this work is speaking, be it a keynote or within a training course but it’s not just that. Dining with a Difference has become something rather special when I'm abroad. I host the dinner, provide structure, take feedback and keep things on track but individual tables are hosted by a local disabled person (whom I've briefed beforehand) and they lead the discussion on their table. It's been amazingly powerful, impactful on the night and a starting gun to longer lasting change. Consultancy projects pop up from time to time, be it writing a disability and employment guide for the Bulgarian government or creating a disability and media organisation with Disability Rights and Education Fund (DREDF) in Berkeley, California. This project was to show US news media how to be more accurate and inclusive when reporting disability stories. I met with the Washington Post at their offices, and was overawed by the journalistic history. As a comedy fan, meeting with television executives at 30 Rockefellar Plaza was a treat.

Enough of the work, tell me where you've been, I hope you're asking?  

Simon in the middle of five Google people, after a dining event
With the Google team in California
Albania, Australia, Austria, Canada, China, Croatia, Denmark, Dubai, Egypt, France, Greece, Hong Kong, Japan, Jordan, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Ukraine and the USA  Several of these I’ve visited multiple times. 

What have been my observations? 

A different country often means a different cultural view of disability and of disabled people. I try to understand this approach, see where it is strong and useful to progress towards the independence and inclusion of disabled people. I also look for where it’s a hinderance, often where disabled people themselves have not had input. The cultural differences fascinate me, and they can frustrate me. I cannot ignore them, nor assume I have all the answers. If I arrive and expect the same as the UK and don't develop my thinking, I will miss a trick. There’s diversity in disability! 

Some of the eye opening conversations have included the impact of religion in a country, and how this informs how disabled people are viewed. Some cultures see disability as bad karma, paying for sins in the past. Perhaps the biggest hurdle, and not unique, is the soft bigotry of low expectation*. This is not limited to overseas of course, nor to just non-disabled people's thoughts - it can be the disabled people themselves. If you’ve had a limited education, been excluded, not spent time with independent minded disabled people and been wrapped in cotton wool, or worse, hidden away by a family or in an institution, maybe you won’t think you can do much. 

Simon sitting on some conrete steps, with an Egyptian man wheelchair user and two other people
In Cairo, with some trail-blazers
Then there are the trail blazers. There's a pride and kinship that swells up inside me when I connect with another disabled person in a very different country, and realise they ‘get it’. They’ve learnt to how to achieve change, often in extremely trying and isolating circumstances. Their aim to remove barriers to enable them to participate. They know how to educate people of their abilities. Medicine, religion, charity might try and help, but sometimes hinder. In the meantime, the trail blazers want to get on the bus, get to the University, the shop, the local council meeting, earn a living. They want to be included, be productive and engaged with society. They want to be able to make decisions for themselves. I’m not one who goes in for inspirational fluff, however I have met half a dozen accidental role models who in incredibly difficult circumstances are leading the social and cultural change towards disability in their country. Their brilliance, skill and resilience impresses me no end.   

In the UK we can be a little complacent, or better put, our expectations are high. Nothing is perfect but access has improved, we have funding for adjustments in work, an enviable car scheme to keep us mobile, accessible buses and taxis too and for some, welfare support. We have anti-discrimination legislation, disability is recognised as something that needs legal protection. Slower but ever present, are a multitude of schemes aiming to increase employment and service provision for disabled people. We have funding for our Paralympians and disability art. These existing measures I suspect is why United Nations efforts, such as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with a Disability and the International Day of Persons with Disabilities haven’t gained real traction in the UK, although that is changing. Travel abroad, particularly to the countries that don’t have anti-discrimination legislation or positive action programmes, and the UN efforts become a big deal. They are solid, internationally recognised symbols that can help focus the mind and help individuals to bring about change. 
Eating out in Guangzhou with Fiona

Often, it’s down to individuals interaction with one another that gets things moving in the first place. At a dinner event in Paris one (not disabled) person said to me, ‘Ah, but we’re different here. We don’t like talking about this stuff, it’s awkward. Not like you British people.’ I smiled and said it was the same in the UK, people tend to feel awkward. As I explained to her, my worry is if we never speak of it, will anything change? I quoted a gay Italian friend who spoke about the development of gay rights and he suggested to me, ‘Simon, sometimes you have to make it an issue, and only then can it become a non-issue.’ 

In Tirana, in Albania, I was asked to speak at a theatre with seats for 300 people in the round. Ten minutes before the start time, there were perhaps 30 people there. Of course I was disappointed with the low turn out but from experience I know that a smaller group can mean greater interaction. However, with barely a minute to go, 200 people turned up. As they filled the seats I felt some apprehension, this was a big crowd. In my speech, amongst other things, I suggested putting people in care homes wasn’t the best way. I said the right equipment and technology can improve disabled people’s lives, if they could just access it. The atmosphere turned frosty, almost hostile. Several hands shot up and people angrily disagreed, saying ‘You’re wrong, we care for people, not push them out. That is what our politics stand for!' Or 'Technology isn't the answer. You're cold, and not helping these poor people!’ I acknowledged their points but suggested there were problems with such an approach, as it continued dependency, and asked them if they’ve spoken with disabled people? The atmosphere didn’t improve and I wondered if I might need to make a hasty exit. Luckily, two women who worked with local disabled people stood up and eloquently explained that those they worked with, provided services to, wanted what I was suggesting: independence, equipment that helped. Of course, human help was part of that but the thinking needed to change. I finished my talk and was very happy that many in the audience came over to continue the discussion. I'm still friends with the two women who rescued me. Later that day, I found myself in the front row of a live broadcast of Albania’s version of BBC's ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. Well, I was in the front row but a teenage Albanian pop star turned up and I was bumped to the second row. It was one of my more memorable working days and reminded me of the fun of working abroad, you never know what might happen next. 
Simon on a stage,  in a suit, arms raised mid speech
Charing a conference in Qatar

A small but important victory happened when I visited Oman. I met with a Facilities Manager for an international bank. He arrived, sat down letting out a weary sigh. He started by explaining to me I didn’t understand the country. Specifically he told me that the system worked differently there, there were bank branches in remote mountainous regions and wheelchair access wasn’t at the top of his priority list. He was resistant, reluctant and couldn’t wait for our meeting to be over so he could get back to his real work. Between you and me, these are the people I quite like. They tell me exactly what they’re thinking and what’s important to them. I can work with these people. It’s the ones that nod, weakly smile and say a few platitudes that are harder. I can’t quite remember what I said to him, I know I acknowledged his position and the local differences. However, within thirty minutes he had completely changed and became an evangelist, wanting to change things. I like to think somewhere in Oman there’s a remote, high on a hill, lonely branch of a bank that now has good wheelchair access.  I might not have changed the world but such changes may mean the world to someone. 

*A quote from Susan Daniels, a US civil servant and disability campaigner.