Do we practice what we preach?

The discrimination we face while advocating on disability
An illustration of a ramp that becomes a series of steps. Surrounded by pleasant greenery. Signed Tan Kuan Aw 2023.
Halfway Inclusion, by Tan Kuan Aw

Hello Debriefers,

It's an open secret that work on inclusion is often not very inclusive.

I know too many disabled people that are held back in the spaces that they're raising disability issues. Sometimes it's implicit attitudes or inaccessibility, but just as often it's ill-treatment and outright discrimination from the colleagues we're meant to be working with.

We don't say it in public because we'll get into trouble if we make a fuss. Meanwhile the organisations mistreating their staff broadcast about how wonderfully inclusive they are.

It's time for a reality check. In this edition I share how my career with international organisations working for a better world has been profoundly shaped by exclusion and discrimination.

I need your help to bring this to light. If you've faced discrimination while working on disability advocacy or inclusion, let me know. See below for contact details and further questions.

Join me in sharing your experiences. Let's understand what's happening and how it might be fixed. Let's make a fuss.

Disability Debrief is supported on a pay-as-you can basis by the people and organisations that read it. If you can, please join them.

Kept downstairs

When I first started wondering about how my disability impacted work opportunities, I was struck by my privilege. I'm white, British and male, and I was working in Bangladesh. I earned in US dollars while “national” colleagues earned much less, in Bangladeshi taka. It took me a few days to remember that I was on the ground floor of the office, while my colleagues worked upstairs.

That's just the architecture. As my working conditions have improved, I've gotten adjustments and support for access needs. But they've always felt arbitrary, as if I was lucky or getting favours. This is especially compounded by short-term contracts and the precarious conditions so frequent in the sector I work in. It's been touch-and-go as to whether I get what I need while I work on disability inclusion. And if I'd been working on other subjects I might have gotten even less.

While I was sitting separate from my colleagues, I was applying for jobs, including one that was outside of disability issues. After much reflection, I asked for the guaranteed interview scheme for disabled candidates. I did not receive the guaranteed interview. A couple of years later I was interested to see that same organisation lamenting not having enough staff with disabilities.

As my career progressed, I got further in job applications. Highlights of those include being asked in an interview, by a UN agency, whether I could travel unaided. They did this at interview stage, on two separate occasions, explicitly saying they could not provide an adjustment. The job description did not describe travel requirements, and they did not ask about other reasons someone might not be able to fulfil them. They were recruiting a disability specialist, but didn't want them to be too disabled.

Those are just the recruitment processes. Many colleagues immediately stereotype the disabled person working on disability issues. Much of my inclusion work is to try to climb out of the boxes we get put in, or to make them a bit wider. Inaccessible environments and ableist assumptions underpin both our work cultures and the social environments around them, the latter especially important in international careers shaped by movement and networking.

Not sweet for me

Content note: sexual harassment.

About a year into my career, I was on work travel in Bangladesh, staying at a rural guest house where fireflies glittered in the dark. A male colleague kissed me goodnight on the cheeks. This is not normal in Bangladesh. I joked it was the French way. The next day we were working in the office, he got up to close the door, and started trying to kiss my cheek, telling me it was “misti”, sweet.

It was not sweet for me. That was the limit of what happened, but of course not the limit of how it played out for me. I was scared of, and tried to avoid being alone with him again. It did not even occur to me that I might mention to this to colleagues.

I was ashamed, and not able to speak to why a seemingly simple action made me so uncomfortable. Even now it's hard to speak to it, knowing how sexual harassment can be much worse. It's hard for me to reconcile with “being a man”, whatever that means. As in the moment itself, I don't like being unable to control things and I would prefer to turn it into a joke. I don't want to be a victim.

Of course, I now see clearly that these are the same dynamics that stop others speaking out too. Whether it's harassment or other forms of discrimination and exclusion, it's hard to understand when we're in the middle of them. That's another reason why we need to learn together to share.

On the outside

There's a considerable professional and emotional load to navigate how and when to disclose different aspects of disability and access needs, and how they fit into other workplace dynamics. This emotional load is almost entirely on the individual that experiences them. Sometimes we find community to share it with, but often that's something that we need to make ourselves.

I've always preferred to see my freelance career – and now my work on this newsletter – as an expression of my independent nature. But it's not just that. I did not find comfort within organisations supposedly dedicated to making a better world. No wonder my soul searches for professional independence.

Part of the problem

I've been on both sides of these dynamics, of course. Colleagues and friends have pointed to where I've been ableist or not given sufficient space for other disabled voices. Working in a gender and diversity unit, a friend pointed out I was part of an environment diminishing the contribution of women. Working for so long in a sector that segregates people based on nationality, I have for sure contributed to those dynamics too.

Did I love being told I was doing these things? No, I absolutely did not. The most explicit time a colleague said I was being ableist was while I was delivering a training on disability inclusion. My first reaction was denial, and to displace my anger onto critiquing the way that she raised it.

Only with distance can I be more grateful to those who showed I was behaving contrary to my values. I've tried to grow in my ability to take feedback constructively. And I also understand that as individuals we're always going to find that difficult.

Unfortunately, organisations are even worse than individuals at hearing they're doing something wrong. As Sara Ahmed has so compellingly identified in academic spaces, the complainer becomes the problem. Because of these dynamics, most of the disabled people I've spoken to aren't able to share publicly what's going on with.

At the same time, it is increasingly fashionable for organisations to make commitments to diversity and inclusion. Some conditions might be improving, but in other areas the gap between narrative and reality just widens. Fundamental changes are needed to inaccessibility and work conditions that perpetuate ableism and exclusion. This will take time, and much more transparency than we have now.

We can't improve the way we work on disability advocacy if we don't know what's happening inside the organisations doing the work. If we're not practicing what we preach, we need to adjust both our practice and our preaching.

Sharing what happens to us

My own experiences are mostly in larger international organisations and it would be great to hear more of those. These dynamics also play out business, government jobs, or non-profits. And, sadly, they also can play out in organisations led by disabled people.

Discrimination or ill-treatment take many forms, and we all have many identities. Maybe you're a disabled person but you've faced racism, discrimination on sexual or gender identity, or ill-treatment that's hard to categorise. Maybe you've been working in a different area of inclusion and found ableism there. Maybe you're not a disabled person, but you've faced other forms of discrimination in our sector, or when you raised disability issues.

If you're comfortable to do so, please share with me how you've faced discrimination or ill-treatment while working on disability advocacy or inclusion. I assume most experiences are better to share anonymously, but if you're able to put your name to it, then let's do that.

In particular I'm interested to hear from people about any of the following:

  • The discrimination and ill-treatment you've faced working on inclusion
  • The impact that's had on your career, and beyond
  • Ways you've contributed to discrimination against others
  • What's made things better, or might have, for you or where you've worked
  • Reflections on what it means for how we work on inclusion

You can reach me:

Whatever you tell me will be confidential unless you say otherwise. I may ask followup questions to understand things in more detail.

With thanks and solidarity,



Thanks, as ever, to Tan Kuan Aw, for ramping-up illustrations of these issues. And to Áine Kelly-Costello for revision and advice on approaching this subject.

Thanks to the many friends and colleagues who have helped me understand the environments we work in, what they're going through and what I've done wrong. And thanks in advance to those who share experiences to throw more light on this subject.

Thanks to supporters that allow us to cover news independently.