A few weeks ago, I was on Zoom hook up arranged by AND and PurpleSpace with an array of DEN representative from the public and private sectors. One of the things we discussed was the idea of “Inner Confidence” – a condition experienced by a staff member with disability in their workplace – if things happen the right way.
PurpleSpace has been a constant inspiration to me. In 2018 I encountered Kate Nash, the PurpleSpace CEO, at the AND National Conference, where she was the keynote speaker. The next day she ran a separate workshop on “Networkology”. The power of a well-thought through professional approach is extraordinary – if you trust the process. Sometimes just a few key words that dwell in a coherent framework can be enough to inspire powerful action. That was true for me.
And here it was happening again. “Inner Confidence” is a powerful idea.
What makes Inner Confidence?
First, let’s think about the ideal – a staff member with disability is empowered by the culture they work in to be open about their needs concerning their disability – it’s not a big thing – it’s just part of who they are.
Inner Confidence is something we should wish on everyone we work with. Not every need for an adjustment or an accommodation is disability related. But then maybe it is. It’s about not being able to do something the usual way, or the accepted way, for some time – short or long term – one off – or ongoing.
Inner Confidence happens when you know the people you work with, and the culture of the organisation, have no problem with responding to your needs in a compassionate and respectful way. It’s okay to be different. Not only is no one bothered, different is honoured.
There is no uniform ‘norm’ to be violated or measured by. This is because diversity is usual. What is normal is that human diversity will express itself in sometimes unexpected ways; and adapting to that diversity is what is expected of you, of everybody.
Of course, Inner Confidence can be won through adversity too. Continual struggle for equity and inclusion will craft a sense of certainty that may have to be asserted repeatedly. It is easy to get good at doing that. But it’s a harder form, born of necessity, not preference.
For some, disability confers struggle and pain that will not go away, even under the best of circumstances. While disability is on the spectrum of being human, not all expressions of being human are kind to the experiencer. For some, it can be hard enough getting through a day because of the nature of one’s disability – without having to navigate and negotiate non-inclusive attitudes and behaviours, and inaccessible systems, processes, situations, and places as well.
The ideal is the opportunity to express one’s Inner Confidence in an environment which respectful, responsive, and accommodating. In essence, in an inclusive, compassionate, and amiable work culture.
How Do We Make That Happen?
Sometimes we can be so focused on challenges that arise directly from our disability that we forget that what we want is not a solution to what is exclusively a disability related problem.
Disability highlights themes that impact everyone. It is just that our sense of exclusion, or experience of inaccessibility is so constant and obvious, there has been a concerted determination to change what is usual and normal. We want to make inclusion and accessibility real for everybody.
The themes of Bring your authentic self to work and Inner Confidence are especially meaningful for a person with disability who feels that, because of their disability, they can feel neither whole nor confident at work. But we know the same need for these attributes is felt by everybody at some stage in their lives – and always on spectrums of intensity and of time.
We define an array of ‘diversity’ groups – of people we agree are disadvantaged in some way by ‘business as usual’. This is a narrow band of what is normal – and hence what sets the parameters of design and social conventions – excluding those who fall outside the parameters.
We are very forgiving and accommodating of people who belong to our intimate groups of family or friends. It is natural not to be so open to those who are not intimates. Workplaces are a different matter. In the public sector, we are bound, in theory at least, by legislation, policy and codes of conduct to treat the people we work with, and the community we engage with in a relatively novel way.
They are not our intimates, but neither are they ‘others’ we can ignore or treat in an offhanded way. A public servant has an unusual obligation placed upon them. They have a duty to behave well to the members of their community whose taxes pay their wages, and whose laws set the standards of their conduct as employees. Personal ‘business as usual’ is not okay.
For profit entities understand that the desired conduct is good for business, so they require employees to behave in a manner consistent with the business’ imperatives. That same business logic applies to not-for-profits too. The public sector goes a step further because it has an implicit moral obligation as well (backed up by legislation and policy).
Okay. That’s the ideal. The reality is that the public sector is rife with employees asserting the conditions under which they will work. They will respond to dignity and respect policies to the extent that this does not impose upon them a burden of self-reflective change. This leads to hidden reservoirs of dissent from ideals, which become toxic when leadership is weak and unaware.
This must be addressed in an active, determined, and intelligent way. There is no other way to ensure that workplaces are welcoming of people with diverse attributes.
I spent 7 months in a rehab ward struggling to recover the capacity for coherent movement. I also struggled against incompetent management of my case, so I escaped and went home. There I could, and did, do physio 6 hours a day for 6 months. In the rehab ward I was confined to 1 hour day, though I did get another hour as often as possible.
I developed an Inner Confidence born out of adversity. I returned to work after a harrowing 18 months. My colleagues were wonderful. Management not so much. I came to understand that most workplaces are wellsprings of good will and compassion, hindered by poor management and leadership practices.
Getting and keeping Inner Confidence is, first of all, a personal challenge for a person with disability. It can then be embraced or attacked in a workplace. A toxic workplace culture is always the responsibility of managers/leaders. There is no mystery here.
Inner Confidence is what we hope everyone feels free to express at work (through their authentic self). Disability has brought a magnifying glass and a spotlight to a universal challenge. The solution we devise will benefit everyone.