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The diversity and disability advocate: Yasmin Sheikh

Yasmin Sheikh left her job as a personal injury solicitor at Clyde & Co in 2015 to set up Diverse Matters, a consultancy that trains organisations to approach disability and health conditions (whether visible or non-visible) with confidence. Her goal is to change people’s perceptions, make workplaces more welcoming and give employers confidence to tap into the wealth of diverse talent.

Diverse Matters has worked with several large law firms as well as major companies such as Thomson Reuters, EY and JP Morgan. It offers consultancy and training, runs workshops and webinars, holds talks on issues such as unconscious bias, speaks at corporate events and helps organisations launch disability networks.

One of the challenges, Yasmin explains, is that disability is often not included in the diversity agenda.

“There has definitely been progress in recent years,” she says. “Gender inequality, LGBTQIA+ and BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) are all being covered in law firms and disability has, in some respects, been a poor relation, but we are seeing a shift in culture. One of the reasons is that health and wellbeing are now taken seriously and considered business issues, and that has given licence to talk about this. These days, people are approaching me for advice because they want to launch a disability network, instead of me ringing them up.”

Another challenge is that people can be nervous around disability.

“People are fearful of the subject and don’t have the language to talk about it, so end up not doing anything at all,” says Yasmin. “Often a law firm wants to do something but doesn’t know what to do. There are misconceptions, for example, most disabilities are non-visible, and there is still a lot of stigma – people sometimes hide their health condition because they are scared of looking weak or being stigmatised.”

So, how do you help people become more comfortable with it? “Panel discussions are a good way. Story-telling is very powerful. I’ve always been a bit of a performer and I like using humour to make a point.”

Yasmin has recently been doing stand-up comedy andacting, and has an agent, Louise Dyson of VisABLE People. She has also worked with the BBC, holding panel discussions and advising writers and directors about the importance of people with disabilities being in control of their own narrative.

As she points out in her TEDx Talk, James Bond villains are usually disabled, while modern films tend to portray disabled people as objects of pity, whose disability is all-consuming and the main point of their story being told instead of characters whose disability is only incidental. “These stories plant seeds in our subconscious,” she says. “A person’s disability is presented as their whole identity instead of only a small part of it.” In her own life, her interactions with strangers have often largely been about her chair, including awkward, thoughtless comments like “don’t drink and drive”, “you’re inspirational”, “you’re really brave being out” or “have you got a licence for that?”

She describes setting up Diverse Matters as “one of the hardest but also easiest decisions I ever made”. She qualified in 2003, and had always worked as a lawyer. Her father was a lawyer. Law was a secure career that paid reasonable money, and she became a wheelchair- user after sustaining a spinal cord injury, while at Clyde & Co so knew the workforce. “It felt safe but I was limiting myself because I was coasting along,” she says. She felt compelled to use her experience to create change, so joined her firm’s diversity forum, became involved in Law Society work, took part in diversity panels and saw there was a space for her to fill. She says: “I still use my legal experience in my current role. Being a lawyer gives me credibility and I can talk knowledgeably about, for example, the Equalities Act.”

She has been vice-chair of the Law Society’s Lawyers with Disabilities Division committee for more than three years and has been a Law Society Council member for two years. The committee, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, supports lawyers with disabilities and long-term health conditions and runs a mentoring scheme for people who want to join the profession. It runs events for human resources and law professionals who want to learn how to be more inclusive. Other recent work includes a ground-breaking research project, Legally Disabled, with Cardiff University – a survey of people who are in or want to be involved in the legal profession and who have disabilities. No similar survey has ever been carried out.

Meanwhile, Yasmin continues to work to change attitudes so that people realise disability extends beyond “sticks and wheelchairs”. “People with disabilities make up the largest minority group in the world, and most have no outwardly visible sign. All people see the person not their disability.” As for the future, she is optimistic. “It has to change. The workplace will adapt. People are more open about diversity and will demand that it become more inclusive.”

 

This article was first published in our Verdict magazine - Pioneers and Innovators Special, read the rest of it online now.