Tuesday, 29 May 2018

'That's not normal!'

The team are lined up. Georgie and Juliette on each end standing, Simon standing in the middle and Ben and Donsat either side.
Acting on Disability team, 
L-R Georgie, Ben, Simon, Don and Juliette

Just back from a trip to the USA to provide training for a global tech firm. The Sminty team, all five of us, decided to walk the ten blocks from our hotel to our first event in downtown Manhattan. We thought we would make a striking alternative to the famous Reservoir Dogs photo - two men on mobility scooters, two women with hidden disabilities and a man who has Aspergers. 

As we walked I was talking about how polite New Yorkers were, how they move out of the way for wheelchair and scooter users and often say hello or smile. An older lady, wrapped in a thick scarf in sweltering heat, saw us. She stopped and as we passed her, pointed at me and yelled ‘Now that is not normal!’ My fellow scooter user waited a moment and then asked me ‘Well how do you feel about that?’ I paused to process it and then answered, ‘I feel I should be angry or upset but actually I am rather pleased. I now have an opening line for the event we’re about to do’. And so it proved to be. 

This trip had a few firsts for me. I wasn’t alone and had a team of talented people alongside. What was more familiar were the demands, many hours of flying in short space of time, delivering two three hour events in different locations, being New York City and Silicon Valley. Then there was the client: they employ the brightest of people and there was a subtle but evident pressure. Before the trip, they were extremely thorough: scripts and slides had to be approved by many of their people. I'm not used to that.  

Ben and Juliette stand near one another, Juliette has a scrip in hand.
Ben and Juliette on stage
We were delivering Acting on Disability, a form of training using interactive theatre. The actors play out management scenarios, live in front of an audience. As MC, I interrupt the scenes at specific moments to ask the audience for their thoughts, what they think of the manager's behaviour, what could be done better. Whilst writing the scripts, I researched common first names used in the US, what American companies call departments such as UK ‘occupational health’ being 'employee benefits' in the US. Place names were changed, for example we talked about Whole Foods not Sainsburys. This helps the audience to identify and adds to the realism. 

This style of training is highly interactive, it can pack a dramatic punch and more importantly, it is practically helpful. I like it when a member of the audience puts their hand up to say ‘The manager has a point, and yet I can understand what the individual is saying. I’m not sure what to do!’  Many years after such an event I’ve had people tell me ‘I still do that thing suggested in the scene’. 

This performing of complex but relatable situations allows us to develop the skills of the manager, showing how they can navigate their way through what might feel like an impasse. Sometimes making an adjustment ('accommodation' in the US) is simple, but you don’t need training for that. We’re more about the shades of grey, when personalities and assumptions override need and impairment. Making an adjustment can affect other people, it can be complex and awkward to talk about and the question of reasonableness is part of managing disability at work. Individuals can be forthcoming or secretive about a disability. That’s the stuff we like to talk about. 

All of the Sminty team have a disability or impairment. It’s one of our professional rules. So if a character has sight loss or a mental health issue, so does the actor. That can make it hard to find the right skilled people but I constantly search, assess and collect email addresses. The insiders' knowledge they bring adds depth to the scene and delivers the most impactful moments when they step out of character and talk of their real life experiences. 

Simon is on stage, dark background. He is looking to his left with his left hand on chin and has a half smile.
Simon on stage, looking thoughtful and happy
Our team comprised of me, a short person who uses a mobility scooter, someone with cerebral palsy, someone with sight loss, someone with mental health issues and someone with Aspergers and dyspraxia. The trip included three 7 plus-hour flights, multiple transfers and never more than two nights in any one location. A combination of detailed forward planning and open conversations with the team about needs and preferences allowed the trip to pass smoothly. A brilliantly helpful airline in Virgin Atlantic (thank you, thank you!) lovely staff at Yotel in New York (one offered to walk three blocks with me just to hold an umbrella) and Aloft in Silicon Valley (those big rooms, a pool and a robot that delivers items to your room!) Plus, a diverse team where one would support another if needed as we played to our strengths. 

Feedback has been amazing. In New York they’d had the cast of Hamilton and Hilary Clinton visit in recent months, tough acts to follow, especially with the word 'disability' in your title. Satisfaction scores for our events, by asking attendees ‘was this worth attending? would you recommend it?’ were 98%. Being the perfectionist task-master that I can be, I want to know where we lost the 2% but I’m wise enough to know this is pretty good. 

This type of training might seem risky for the client, for their teams, their reputation. They’re bringing over people from a different country to talk directly about a difficult subject. But sometimes taking the greatest risk gives the greatest reward. I received a lovely compliment  from the individual at the tech firm who asked me over to do this work. I was told during the planning there was concern, even hesitation, about the project. My supporter apparently said ‘It’ll be ok, it’s Simon’. In fact, it wasn't just me, I had a great team alongside me. And thankfully I was told this bit afterwards.