Mike Adams’s organisation Purple, which grew out of the Essex-based user-led disability organisation ecdp, is about bringing disabled people and businesses together.
‘We realised that if we wanted to address the stubborn inequalities around disability then we needed a conversation between both parties,’ says Mike. ‘One that involved both disabled people and organisations across the private, public and voluntary sectors seeing the value of disability and recognising disabled people as both consumers - the purple pound is worth £249 billion - and as a pipeline of talent.’ The organisation launched two years ago at the London stock exchange: ‘a strong signal,’ says Mike ‘that as well as supporting disabled people we were on the side of business’.
For Mike, businesses understanding a group as consumers goes hand in hand with improving their employment. He draws a comparison with young mothers. ‘A few years ago, the business world began looking at young mums as a group to target because it was clear that businesses that were successful here were successful generally. This then impacted on working practices with, for example, compressed hours and flexible working that better enabled young mums to work. The same can happen for disabled people.
’Purple is behind Purple Tuesday, the UK’s accessible shopping day, on Tuesday 13th November. The aim of the day is to make businesses more aware of the challenges disabled consumers face - ‘75% of us have left a shop or website because of poor service or access’ - and also of the opportunity - that £249 billion purple pound.
‘Fewer than 10% of businesses have a strategy for disabled consumers,’ says Mike. ‘We want to inspire them to make changes to improve the disabled customer experience over the long term.’ He expected perhaps 40 or 50 businesses to get involved but, when we spoke, 500-600 was a more realistic figure with over 300 already signed up.
Mike was born with no arms and short legs. The interest from business, the changes they’re making are a far cry from his first graduate interview in 1992. As conversations on disability go, it was pretty short. ’I went in,’ he recalls. ‘There was a panel of six. I just had time to say my name and the chair of the panel said there’s no point carrying on the interview. She said: you know as well as I do that this isn’t possible, you must be used to disappointment.’
It was a pivotal moment for Mike. ‘I had spent five years in education, A levels, degree. I knew I wanted to run a business, to be a manager. I knew my stuff backwards and not to get an opportunity to even make my case as a 21 year-old was demoralising. I licked my wounds and swore to God I was going to do something about it.
‘Disabled people are a valuable asset. In a tight labour market, it’s incumbent on employers to find a pipeline of good people to hire. We say the pool of disabled people is pretty good but you never look at it.’
Mike sees the focus on mental health as a chance to make a wider case. ‘More and more employers are seeing people acquire mental health problems in the course of their work,’ he says. ‘Employers don’t want to lose these people because they already know they’re assets. Talking about this enables us to talk about disabled employees in other impairment groups and the value they can bring.’
Purple offer specific support to both employers and disabled would-be employees. ‘We know that firms are nervous about talking about disability, they don’t want to offend, so we offer training. We support them in achieving levels of the government’s Disability Confident scheme. We have a job board to marry disabled candidates to employers and we have programmes that skill those candidates up to be confident.
‘Of course, confidence also come from seeing peers in good jobs and in the public eye. We hope that our work means younger disabled people will never have the experience I had in 1992. I believe the rolling snowball will just get bigger. Look at Britain’s Got Talent and the diversely disabled acts we’re seeing on there now. In the support they’ve had, you can see that this country wants to be more inclusive. Business is the same. It wants to change but is unsure how to - that’s where we come in.’
The evidence for that desire to change is all around but how’s this for a twist: the company that treated Mike so appallingly in 1992 could be involved in Purple Tuesday.
At PurpleSpace we wonder if as well as the colour of disability confidence, purple should be the colour of irony. But seriously, Mike’s graduate-recruitment story shows the long-term effectiveness of our approach (and Purple’s). Working with business, explaining, leading by the hand if necessary, will generally be better than the blunter tool of the law. That way we are seen for what we are: a unique asset to a firm not a trophy or a ticked box. Practically, it also means that we’re well placed if and when the domestic labour market gets even tighter post-Brexit. Meanwhile, let’s do what we can on social media and elsewhere to ensure that Purple Tuesday gets the level of attention of, say, Black Friday. Come on, purple is the new black.
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