Challenging Perceptions With Shani Dhanda
British Vogue, 2020
Shani Dhanda on the importance of universal design and how the pandemic could prompt a paradigm shift in disabled people’s working lives.
Anyone who’s bumbled their way through the deflated greetings and ‘Can you hear me?’ queries of a video conference call knows that meaningful conversation in the land of Zoom is no simple feat. Unless you’re Shani Dhanda.
“The powerhouse that is Shani Dhanda is back up again!” she says to kick off our interview, after sharing that she recently tested positive for Covid-19. Despite being asymptomatic, the magnitude of her subsequent fatigue was severe enough to land her in a three-week-long period of inertia. The idle lifestyle doesn’t suit a multi-hyphenate like Dhanda who usually can’t stop moving, motivating, and problem-solving. So, it seems a global health crisis is just about the only thing that could get in the way of her role as a workplace adjustment specialist at Virgin Media, a practitioner of equality, an award-winning keynote speaker, a LinkedIn Changemaker, not to mention a budding entrepreneur.
Being stagnant may not feel natural for Dhanda these days, but that wasn’t always the case. Standing at 3ft 10in, she has a genetic disorder called Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a disease that results in bones breaking easily. When she was younger, Dhanda’s bones would break without any external trauma, and she recalls not even being able to get up for months on end. Challenging as that sort of inactivity can be for a child, it required her to navigate a sense of aloneness in a way that, as government-imposed quarantines persist, many of us are struggling to do at present. By contrast, Dhanda learned to be comfortable in her own company at a young age and, thanks to her mother, she learned to be resilient.
“She never let me use my condition as an excuse to not do anything,” Dhanda says, describing how her mother refused to treat her differently from her siblings, particularly if chores were involved. “I remember one time she gave me this whole pile of laundry to fold while I was sitting in plaster and was like, ‘You’re not getting away with this!’”
Her mother’s influence shaped the foundation upon which Dhanda built a life of independence and purpose. Inspired both by her father’s dedicated fight for human rights and the Sikh principle of Seva, which translates to “selfless service,” Dhanda has committed herself to make the world more inclusive for disabled people, who account for about 15 per cent of its overall population, and anyone else that’s been pushed out into the margins of society.
Knowing first-hand what it’s like to face further stigma as a woman from an ethnic minority background, Dhanda hasn’t formed blind spots when it comes to her advocacy. She shines a positive light on communities that have been largely ignored by the mainstream while transforming what are supposed to be our communal spaces – physical, digital, societal — into accessible areas for all.
In recent weeks, Dhanda’s work has been propelled forward with the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement. “People are finally beginning to understand intersectionality,” she says, recognising the problem of anti-Blackness and colourism inside her own South Asian community where lighter-skinned people are still deemed most desirable. “It’s helped people to understand that there are voices missing and that amongst those voices there are so many different characteristics as well. So not only are we seeing the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, but also of Black Disabled Lives Matter as well.”
Dhanda has sought to amplify the voices of minority groups in the United Kingdom by developing a support platform called the Asian Disability Network and organising the first-ever Asian Woman Festival. This event is an annual celebration of her multicultural cohorts through programming, content, merchandise, and an impressive contact directory. “Until I created the festival, I didn’t feel like there was a place for me to go and take my whole identity with me,” Dhanda explains. “I would always have to dissect myself into either being a woman, Asian, or disabled.”
Dhanda is also working towards launching the Diversability Card later this year, an initiative that will provide impaired consumers with exclusive discounts across popular brands, services, and travel and entertainment providers. Disabled people and their families incur unavoidable extra costs of up to £583 per month for things such as expensive equipment and higher energy bills, and the card offers a way of alleviating some of that financial burden. What’s more, the concept is two-pronged, functioning as a market research tool for companies that have traditionally overlooked this type of consumer and want to better gauge the demand for their products.
“Businesses, for example, don’t realise that if you’ve got a manual wheelchair user, that person is more likely to buy more tops because they’re going to scuff their sleeves from pushing their wheelchair,” Dhanda says. “If you don’t have that lived experience, you’re never going to think [about it]. It comes back to having different people around the table to give you that diversity of thought.”
While such initiatives are effective in promoting awareness and empowering those that they serve, this work can’t be done exclusively by the subjects of discrimination themselves. Allies, employers, and leaders alike have a collective responsibility to ensure that ethnic minorities are seen, heard, and valued. Simply acknowledging that they exist is not enough, and public discourse relating to diversity is due an overhaul.
Language matters, too – as a starting point, Dhanda suggests that by replacing words such as “diversity” with “intersectionality”, a more authentic approach to representation will ensue. Furthermore, by stripping identifiers such as “disabled” of their negative connotations, we can allow for progressive discussions on tackling accessibility to unfold. If we have the right words, Dhanda explains, we’ll be less afraid to talk about the things that make us uncomfortable.
“Maybe I should wear a badge: ‘I’m happy to talk about disability!’” she says, only half-joking as she references the statistic from a report commissioned by the disability charity Scope that two thirds of the British public admit that they have actively avoided a conversation with a disabled person, mostly out of fear of causing offence. “Just imagine if one of those people is a line manager and all of a sudden they have to manage a disabled person. They’re just not going to have the confidence to talk openly and honestly and say, ‘How can I support you?’”
This kind of support in the workplace is essential to improving outcomes for members of the disabled community, especially considering that only 53 per cent of that community is employed. The impact of the coronavirus within the professional sphere has revealed major gaps in the employment process that can now be filled with revolutionary action — which applies to both how talent is recruited, and where they’re asked to operate from. The myth that working from home is unproductive has officially been dispelled, and when looking at that paradigm shift through the lens of accessibility, Dhanda sees tremendous potential for change.
“When you live with a condition, especially a fluctuating condition, it’s very hard because every day when you wake up you just don’t know what your health will be,” she says. “Meetings are still going to take place, and you want to be part of that work cycle and make a contribution. But it’s not just going to stop because you’re having a painful day, unfortunately.”
Having the choice to work remotely, however, is a solution to this problem. In fact, greater flexibility, in general, can eliminate a number of hurdles preventing disabled people from getting hired in the first place. For instance, if companies were to offer multiple options for connecting with a hiring manager, candidates with visual impairments wouldn’t be excluded due to automated methods and pre-recorded video requirements that fail to account for their conditions.
The pandemic has also meant that, as a result of individuals suffering from long-term Covid-19 symptoms, they’re actually experiencing disability in one form or another. Chronic pain, being stuck in bed, and having to cancel plans because of sudden health complications are the realities faced by people like Dhanda every single day. With this heightened understanding of the prevalence of disability, along with the knowledge that it could very well happen to anyone, anywhere (she points out that almost 80 per cent of disabled people aren’t born with their condition, they acquire it) our attitudes around this topic are poised to evolve through empathy.
“The way in which I view disability is that my condition doesn’t disable me, I’m only disabled when I experience barriers or bias,” Dhanda contends enthusiastically. “I don’t think everything will suddenly change overnight to be built at my height — we need to keep perspective here. But what I do expect is universal design in everything. That is reasonable to ask, and demand.”