Telecommunications organisations are used to dealing with disabled people. After all, within their customer base, which covers virtually every household in the UK, around 20% of their users will be disabled. Telecommunications, covering everything from WIFI internet connectivity through to traditional landline phones have been subject to innovation to make it possible for people with a variety of disabilities to use the various services on offer.

Because telecommunications is essentially a technology based industry it is little wonder that most of the big players are more than able to extend good practice (as exercised with customers) to their employees – in reasonable workplace adjustments and in their HR policies.

British Telecom (BT) encourages its people to take ownership of diversity issues and as a result BT now has seven employee networks (including one focused on disability) operating across the organisation. These networks collaborate with the Diversity and Inclusion team to develop the diversity strategy in BT in order to “provide the best, most creative and diverse products and services to their diverse customer base” and to “create and deliver the solutions their customers need now and into the future.”

Best practice

BT is also a partner organisation with the Business Disability Forum (BDF) (a group made up of organisations that have committed to highlighting their commitment to becoming a disability-smart business and to help to develop and share emerging best practice).

Of course, all telecoms organisations want to look like the broadest and most inclusive to their customers and as such, these themes need to echo through their HR policies. Saying that, authenticity, is highly important. Quoted on the Virgin Media website, Sir Richard Branson was commenting on the importance of commitment to diversity saying: “Commitment to embracing diversity sets an important tone and echoes throughout an organisation, influencing its actions and priorities.”

EE are also a partner organisation with BDF and are equally enthusiastic about the benefits of diversity to overall business results, saying: “We recognise differences and celebrate diversity within our company. We’d like the employee mix to reflect our wider communities, because that will help us to understand our customers better and give them truly brilliant service”.

They have four employee interest groups related to diversity with one focused on disability and gather regular feedback on relevant diversity issues within the organisation, consulting these groups when developing relevant policies and processes. As well as this, EE trains employees to help them give better service whilst working with a wide range of people, this includes guides from charities, disability confidence training and a quiz to test unconscious bias.

A chance to succeed

Meanwhile, Vodafone echo that thinking, adding that: “In our most recent annual employee survey, we scored 79 out of 100 for supporting employees in an environment that welcomes diversity and ensures an inclusive culture where everyone is given the chance to succeed.”

Practical measures are always useful for keeping ideas that could easily fizzle out, up to date. To this end Vodafone organised a series of webinars for senior leaders to share best-practice examples with employees around the world on how the business supports people with disabilities as a simple refresher exercise.

The telecoms sector has clearly found that it’s essential to ‘think inclusive’ to truly be inclusive – and that only a culture of diversity can lead to the required level of innovation required to succeed in such a tough business environment.

Taking The Chair

Derek McManus is a senior manager at telecoms company, O2. A diversity and equality sponsor on the O2 board, he wanted to gain first-hand experience of the challenges disabled people deal with. He spent a day using a wheelchair to find out.

IMG_0261Where did the idea of spending a day in a wheelchair emerge from?

I’m the board sponsor for diversity and inclusion so it’s already a topic that I’m passionate about. We have a graduate who works in my team, who is a wheelchair user, Jo Dowdall. Jo and I talk about a number of things because she’s quite active in helping us think differently about the challenges she has.

I was chatting to her and she asked if I fancied the idea – and I can’t help but to take up a challenge. Jo’s been great, she’s done a lot of work with our website and our diversity and inclusion.

What were your expectations of what it would be like to sit in a wheelchair for a day?

It sounded like a really good idea because I could learn a lot. We have two buildings that are inter-connected so it is quite a distance from one end to the next so I was concerned about getting around because we have a ‘meeting culture’. That was my worry.

What was your experience like?

It was a bit of a novelty and people actually came up to me to ask me what was wrong and what had happened. I was worried about moving around and getting from one room to another but it was a lot easier than I thought.

What I hadn’t thought about was being a lot lower down and actually having to use my hands for transportation. I normally carry my cup of tea in one and hold my laptop in the other. You can put your phone and laptop on your knees but you can’t put a cup of tea on your knees so many of the things I took for granted become a lot more awkward; in fact I still haven’t figured out how you sit in a wheelchair and go and grab a cup of tea! We have a self-service machine, so I hadn’t thought about that.

It’s quite awkward when you’re in a room. Although our rooms are fairly big it’s OK to sit by the door but if you have a really busy meeting room, then you, sat by the door, means that it’s awkward for everyone else, because you’re taking up a bit more space.

When you’re able bodied you can jump out of your seat and go and get x,y and z but it’s a lot more awkward for a wheelchair user. I was sat in the corner and although there was enough space to move around there’s not a massive amount of space to do it quickly.

I was quite happy asking people to do stuff whilst I was sat in a wheelchair but if I was doing that all the time I’d be less comfortable constantly asking people to do stuff for me. I’d want to do a lot more for myself so I was very conscious of how much I was asking people to do for me that I wouldn’t normally.

Were there any surprises?

Moving around – wheelchairs, I thought, were hard and clumsy but they’re actually quite manoeuvrable. It’s the little things that people that use all of their limbs take for granted – because I like a cup of tea, I can wander over to the canteen!

Do wheelchair users miss out on those small interactions by the ‘watercooler’ then?

You do and you’re relying on people approaching you. I’m quite sociable and I’ve been here a long time so I often speak with people. But because it’s incredibly slow and more awkward and I had to use the lift and a new set of routes, you are robbed of the serendipity of unscheduled moments, when you might find yourself talking with people. It’s much more rigorous about how you get from A-to-B.

How did your organisation’s existing infrastructure stand up to your own scrutiny?

From an accessibility point of view we have a pretty good layout. There’s the odd exception, where things are still ‘doable’ but not that easy.

Although I being in a wheelchair was a little bit of a sideshow I was surprised; I was sitting in some fairly intense meetings and I’d ask somebody to fetch me a bottle of water from the fridge  – they’d say, ‘sure, no problem’ rather than, ‘get off your wheelchair’. We came out of it culturally, as well as in terms of infrastructure, in a fairly positive light.

People bought into it as a project that had value then…

Yes. I didn’t want this to look like a stunt. I really didn’t want to glorify it because it’s a really serious topic so people did take it seriously and were going with it so when I was asking them questions or was doing stuff – I didn’t once get out of my chair. The one thing I didn’t do was use the disabled toilet because I didn’t think that was right.

What would you be wishing for or asking for if you were a permanent wheelchair user at O2?

I don’t have a big checklist of stuff that I think we’ve got wrong. It was a really positive thing but I do think that loss of independence has certainly opened my eyes to the challenges.

Was there any overriding notion that you’ll take with you?

That loss of your own personal independence and the other thing I thought about, although I do spend a lot of my day sitting down, I do value the opportunity to stretch my legs. As I came towards the end of the day I was shifting around a lot because I was quite uncomfortable. That struck me too. The loss of independence and just how physically challenging it is being a wheelchair user – which people who aren’t, take for granted.