This is an expanded article from BusinesstoBusiness, a business magazine for Banbury, Bicester and Buckingham.
Equality is one of the seven values that are central to the Olympics according to the International Olympic Committee. Each competitor is treated equally regardless of race, colour, creed or nationality. Everyone makes a contribution to the event. What can businesses learn from the London Olympics experience? Is there a message there for business owners?
Yes, there is, especially when you watched the Paralympics, where disabled people played a whole range of sports including wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby. That should really make us think. This is certainly the view of Ian McCleave, who specialises in helping organisations see the value of disabled people both as customers and employees.
McCleave doesn’t confine the term disabled to the physically disabled but also to those who have behavioural difficulties, for example, those who are autistic. Autistic people in the right environment can make an amazing contribution to a company.
When companies say they have a positive policy in helping the disabled they usually mean that they have favourable employment practices. But McCleave argues that disabled people are a significant group of customers. The potential market for goods and services to the disabled is £8bn a year. However, the market could be larger if companies changed their advertising to be more inclusive. He says that market surveys show that most marketing and advertising does not appear relevant to disabled people. So a lot of companies are missing out on a key customer base.
McCleave makes the telling point that diversity can strengthen an organisation, and nowhere more so than in employment practice. Race and colour are aspects of that but so is disability. What so many companies forget is that disabled people have learnt to live with adversity and to overcome it. “The disabled have faced difficulties that you and I don’t have to deal with. Because of their circumstances they have learnt to be very innovative and imaginative.” It is this ability to improvise and come up with unusual solutions that can make a disabled person such a valuable contributor to a business.
McCleave cites the case of a blind woman who made an exceptionally good receptionist. Because she was blind she tended to engage staff and visitors much more in conversation than a receptionist normally would. This proved valuable on a number of occasions, as she was able to suggest solutions to some of the issues that she was told about.
In another example an autistic young man proved so useful as a programme analyst for a software company that it now prefers to employ autistic people. McCleave comments: “It’s said that autistic people can’t see the wood for the trees, but sometimes you need someone who only sees the trees.”
Many of the best-run businesses thrive on the Olympic ideal of equality. Their diversity of staff makes for a stronger organisation. and broadens their outlook, rendering them more adaptable in an ever changing marketplace. So cherish those who are different from you. It could pay you dividends in more ways than one.