In the first of a new series of deep dive conversations, journalist Jim Pollard will be shining the ‘Purple Spotlight’ on an exceptional group of change agents. These disability network leaders, champions and allies bring unique perspectives to the narrative of building personal and business disability confidence from the inside out.
Many students say they hope their gap year will change their lives. For some this may be little more than words but many are genuinely looking for new perspectives and challenges. However, few gap years are as life-changing as Andy Kneen’s.
In Australia in 2001, this recent Business Studies graduate had a road traffic accident in which he lost a leg and the sight in one eye and acquired a facial disfigurement. When, after two years of operations and rehab, he was looking for a job, Andy chose a human resources (HR) role at energy company Shell because of the good recruitment experience. ‘I was using a wheelchair at the time and it didn’t seem to be an issue.’
He’s now been at Shell for 15 years and was one of the founders of the organisation’s enABLE disability network in 2005. ‘We wanted to create a platform where people could come together, a safe haven to talk about challenges and how to overcome them. But it has developed into a lot more than that.’
Shell’s existing employee networks were a particular inspiration. ‘I saw how successful the women’s network was and I thought why can’t we build on that? Shell were talking a lot about diversity and inclusion (D&I) and I wanted to ensure that included disability.’ There are now nine national enABLE networks, covering Europe, Americas and Asia, within Shell with some 2-2,500 members.
‘I see myself as an agent for change and an influencer. My own experience of disability plus the fact I work for HR enables me to put the two together to lobby and influence and to get support and leader commitment. I don’t like these words but I try to be a thought leader in this space: to have ideas and be willing to try things.’
Andy considers the network’s Be Yourself campaign to have been a ‘breakthrough moment’. The campaign consisted of video interviews with 20 Shell employees with different impairments in different parts of the world. ‘The stories focused on the benefits of disclosing and how by being your authentic and true self, life and work becomes easier.’ So far about 30,000 people - a third of Shell’s global workforce - have seen the videos and, Andy stresses, ‘many people have self-disclosed as a result. Storytelling normalises the subject and is an incentive for others to talk’.
Again, a sister network was an inspiration. ‘We got the idea for Be Yourself from the It Gets Better campaign about gay people coming out. I think we can learn a lot from the LGBT community and their sense of pride.’
One of the Be Yourself videos featuring a senior leader was particularly effective. ‘I think good senior sponsors are key to growth,’ says Andy. ‘We try to have two senior sponsors for each network. They can influence their peers and ensure senior support. They can also be great mentors and coaches to, for example, the network steering committee and can ensure that the disability network is part of the D&I agenda and broader business strategy.
‘In the UK, we try to have the country chair as a sponsor and one of the business vice-presidents. If a senior leader has an impairment we will approach them. We’ve had one with dyslexia, another with a hearing impairment. Even if there is nobody with lived experience, there will be leaders who have a connection with disability through their family. If a senior staffer can disclose and demonstrate that they’ve reached a senior level, imagine how much confidence it will give more junior staff.’
Andy highlights lack of role models as one of the barriers that can get in the way of developing a disability network. ‘When there is a lack of role models, disability myths can persist: disabled people cost more, they will take more days off sick, that sort of thing. But often it’s an even simpler thing that holds people back: the fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. It’s important to lose that fear and just get started. Of course, there are many different types of disability and many individual approaches to dealing with it. A lack of standard response can make it more difficult but we need confidence on both sides to start the conversation.’
Andy sees disability confidence from two perspectives. ‘For a disabled person, it is about being confident with who you are and with bringing your true self to work. For the employer, the key word is care, that you’re welcoming to all and sincere in wanting to recruit and retain a diverse workforce. It’s important that employers understand the business case and see the genuine benefits in diversity of thought. I’ve never met a line manager who doesn't want a good problem solver on the team and disabled people with their different perspectives are great problem solvers.’
Of course line mangers may not know they have a great problem solver on their team if disabled people don’t disclose. ‘We need to move away from traditional thinking around disability. I like to talk about the opportunity of adversity. Acquiring a disability is an unplanned event. But it can open doors to a lot of opportunities to do things you otherwise wouldn’t have done.’
A concern for new networks is that they don’t have enough budget to make a difference. Andy says that even in a large, committed organisation like Shell, budget is not everything. ‘Nearly everything we’ve done has been low cost. Lots of things you do with technology cost nothing. The smart phone is a Godsend. You can share simple, rough videos. Websites, story telling, awareness events, mentoring - they cost nothing. And for some events you can get business sponsorship anyway.
‘Think about the skills disabled people have that can help teams. Whenever we put disability articles on the website, we make the story person-based. It’s inspiring for people to read because they are real-life, authentic stories.’
But how can a network help staff with the really practical, everyday stuff around living with an impairment? Andy talks about Shell’s Accessibility Project, another pioneering initiative which he is involved in supporting.
‘Getting an adjustment is complicated. This project will streamline the process so wherever you work in the world for Shell, you go on a website a bit like Amazon, click on what you need and it goes through to one dedicated team. There will be a central budget so you won’t have to approach a line manager to fund your need.’ Andy hopes the one-stop shop will significantly reduce the number of interactions to get an adjustment and incentivise people to seek the workplace accessibility support they require. ‘Shell is a pioneer with this approach. It’s a game changer. We’re rolling it out region by region over the next six months and because procurement is handled on a global basis, our staff will get a similar service everywhere.’
It’s the ability to share this sort of good practice that makes PurpleSpace appealing to Andy. ‘PurpleSpace satisfies my curiosity about what others are doing. It’s a great platform for sharing and I like the idea of combined events too.’
The word passionate is dangerously overused today but listening to Andy talk about enABLE it is, in his case, the right one. What strikes us at PurpleSpace is just how Andy has used his personal experience, his own story, to support and drive cultural change. And how important it is for organisations to find such people.
We hear much about employers needing to be ‘disability confident’ but for that to have integrity and for an employer to be able to satisfy itself that it is authentically influenced by the lived experiences of disabled people, it needs to put its money where its mouth is and invest in purple change agents like Andy. His success in navigating disability following a road traffic accident required the sort of resilience that many will never have needed to find in themselves. When individuals with that experience are part of the decision-making process around disability strategy, we see time and again how good things can happen.
Andy’s gap year was a life-changer: for him and, through his networking, for many more thousands of other disabled people at Shell and beyond.
Andy is a newly appointed PurpleSpace Ambassador.
Shell facts and figures
- Shell is a global group of energy and petrochemical companies. The present company was founded in 1907 but its origins date back to a shop run by Marcus Samuel and his descendants in nineteenth century London. It sold imported goods such as lighting, lubricants and eventually petrol but one of the first products Marcus Samuel imported was, you’ve guessed it, shells.
- Globally Shell now has about 92,000 employees in over 70 countries producing the equivalent of 3.7 million barrels of oil a day.
- Shell’s Enable network began in 2005. It now has about 2,500 members and operates in 9 different countries.