Embracing a valuable talent pool: the barriers and gifts of living with a disability

Guest post from Andrew Stranack, who argues that society’s continued marginalisation of disabled people means that we are missing out on a valuable talent pool.
This article was originally published by Theos Think Tank on 10th March 2022, republished by kind permission, and with thanks from The Additional Needs Blogfather.

One of the most inspiring articles I read in 2021 was an interview with Steve Ingham, CEO of PageGroup, who became disabled after a skiing accident in 2019. One particular quote from that interview stayed with me throughout the year: “Bosses increasingly see a business advantage in recruiting disabled people. Most are overcoming significantly bigger challenges – probably daily – than somebody who is able bodied,” said Ingham. “People who have had to overcome challenges have usually learnt quite a lot from that and therefore have that to offer. It is sadly not talked about a lot.”

In August, the screenwriter Jack Thorne also captured my attention, by delivering the James Mactaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival. In a wide–ranging speech on disability discrimination, he highlighted the fact that between 24 January 2020 and 28 February 2021, people with disabilities accounted for 60% of all COVID deaths.[1] These people were labelled as “people with underlying health conditions”. Therefore, it was often implied by the media and wider society that their deaths were acceptable.

And again, in September, I read a report produced by Goldsmiths and Strathclyde Universities and published by the Government’s Equalities Office, looking at the barriers to elected office for disabled people. The report authors note that only five MPs publicly identified themselves as disabled after the 2017 election – yet if Parliament was to be truly representative, 130 MPs should have a disability. The report highlights five barriers to participation for candidates with disabilities: venue accessibility; lack of interpretation; inaccessible formatting of materials; lack of facilities; and cultural barriers (including a lack of awareness, knowledge and interest on the part of some local parties to make politics more accessible for disabled people). Additional barriers are recognised around selection, election, and representation.

All these examples point to the practical barriers facing people with disabilities – but also, more profoundly, to the gifts that society as a whole fails to receive when accessibility is not prioritised.

As a disabled Christian who was born with cerebral palsy, I have daily experiences of living with disability – including some of the barriers it creates. It is painful to walk and stand for long periods, though I can get to most places with the aid of a car and occasionally a walking stick. Stairs and steps are a challenge, but if there is a lift, handrail or someone else’s shoulder to lean on then these challenges can be overcome. Getting my socks on in the morning is often the first challenge of the day, but given a little time and effort this task can be successfully completed.

At the same time, my disability has also created some very positive character traits. 

For example, it has given me an ability to find strategies to overcome challenges; in my fifty years of life some of these have included cancer, being spat at and laughed at in the street due to the way I walk, and dealing with chronic pain on a daily basis. 

It has given me greater compassion to empathise with others in their suffering. When every day has a degree of pain and ostracism from mainstream society, it helps build an understanding of others’ challenges. For example, as part of my work I mentor a number of young people who are involved in the criminal justice system. There, my disability is often an advantage as the young people do not see me as a ‘threat’. It is my vulnerability that allows them to be vulnerable.

And it has given me an ability to problem solve quickly. After all, when every day is a series of challenges you quickly become a natural born problem solver: how am I going to get to my next meeting? Can I walk from the nearest tube station? If I take my car, where is the nearest disabled bay? Are there steps into the building? If I am offered a coffee, will I be able to walk without spilling it? And on and on. 

In other words, my disability has brought challenges, but also gifts.

In the same way, scripture offers a rich resource for understanding both the barriers and gifts that come with disability – and it goes far beyond simple acceptance and visibility of disability. More radically, it recognises that disability can be revelatory and even redemptive for society as a whole too.

At first glance, it is clear from the Old Testament (in passages such as Leviticus 21:16–24) that the people of God saw disability as an imperfection. People with disabilities were not allowed to enter the inner part of the temple or use the altar to make sacrifices to God. Disabilities were often framed as signs of unholiness from God (Deuteronomy 28:27–28), leading to people with disabilities being shunned by mainstream society and ostracised to the outskirts of the community. Sadly, these unconscious biases still persist today.

Yet many of the heroes of the Bible also clearly had – or were given – disabilities. Moses had a speech impediment (Exodus 4:10–11). Isaac was virtually blind at the end of his life (Genesis 27.1), and Jewish tradition suggests he suffered visual impairment from a much younger age. Jacob was given a mobility impairment by God in a fight (Genesis 32:22–31). Paul was made blind for three days whilst Jesus downloaded his message of grace and love (Acts 9:7) and recognised that God’s power was made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:7–10). These don’t seem like the servants of a God who excludes those living with a disability.

Then, Isaiah 53 foretells the coming of Jesus precisely through the lens of weakness and disability. The Messiah is a suffering servant whose glory is found in his suffering. In John 9:3–5, Jesus even directly challenges his disciples as they confront a man born blind. The disciples are convinced that the blindness was caused by sin undertaken by the man or his close family, but Jesus corrects them by saying that the disability is being used by God to demonstrate his glory: “this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” 

Perhaps most importantly Jesus’ resurrected body has clear disabilities with holes in his hands and feet and a large wound in his side (John 20:27), showing once again that God’s strength is most clearly demonstrated in our weaknesses. 

Historically, society has tried to hide away people with disabilities by placing them in hospitals and institutions. Thankfully, in recent years, people with disabilities have become more visible and vocal. But the Bible introduces us to a vision of something greater than visibility alone, in which we all recognise our own need for the gifts that people with disabilities can bring. 

Consequently, the marginalisation of disabled people not only adversely affects people living with disability, but it also deprives society of a valuable talent pool – the unique gifts of huge numbers of people within our society. There is still a long way to go if disability is going to be used as a sign to celebrate God’s glory. 

I wholeheartedly endorse Steve Ingham’s call for business leaders to recognise the talents and diversity that people with disabilities can bring to the workforce. 

I stand with Jack Thorne as he challenges media and cultural organisations to portray more positive images of disability and make it easier for disabled people to partake in the arts. 

And as someone with a disability who is involved with politics, I am calling for all political parties to employ head–hunters to identify and assist our most talented disabled citizens to become Members of Parliament, so that our parliament can become a more representative reflection of the population it serves. 

These measures will not just empower people with disabilities, but enable society as a whole to benefit from their unique talent. 

This article was originally published by Theos Think Tank.

Header photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

[1] From ONS data using the census definition of “disability”, so capturing self–identified disability based on the question “Are your day–to–day activities limited because of a health problem or disability which has lasted, or is expected to last, at least 12 months? Include problems related to old age.”

Andy Stranack
Andy is a Councillor in Croydon and the Conservative Spokesperson for Crime, Communities and Economic Recovery. He is the CEO of Ment4, a charity that provides intensive mentoring to young people from Croydon involved in the criminal justice system or excluded from school. Andy is on the leadership team at Innovation Church: Forestdale.

Andy Stranack

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