Being a ‘nightmare’ child might be the perfect training for being a dream disability network chair. That is certainly the conclusion you might draw from a conversation with Tulsi Patel, the 25 year old chair of the disability network at the building society Nationwide.
‘I think my parents would say I was a nightmare child,’ says Tulsi, who is a project delivery manager in Nationwide’s transformation division. ‘I was always asking questions, always asking why things were the way they were. It’s important because it helps you understand what’s not right. And change doesn’t happen if everyone stays silent.’
Does that sound like a good quality in a network chair? ‘You need to be a bit of a rebel to be a network chair,’ Tulsi continues. ‘You have to put your head above parapet and speak about the uncomfortable truths that others won’t question or challenge.’
Tulsi, who graduated in Geography from UCL, joined Nationwide three years ago on its graduate scheme. ‘I liked the breadth and flexibility of the graduate scheme as it allowed me to do placements around the organisation. It also allowed me time to engage with the Diversity & Inclusion agenda. I specialised in understanding how people form and embrace different identities as part of my degree.’
She describes her current role as her first ‘adult’ job but she has still found the time and energy to steer a network of about 375 members. Although she had some mental health challenges herself as a student – something she didn’t recognise at the time – her understanding of disability comes as much from living with disabled relatives as a child and asking all those awkward questions.
‘I had anxiety and depression as a student but only realised looking back. The younger generation may be more aware of mental health issues but it’s still something people don’t really talk about. The real numbers of people with mental illnesses are far higher than the statistics tell you. Until we address the stigma, people will find it difficult to ask for help. The pressure of social media to be always available and online creates a ‘can’t relax’ environment. Every part of your life can be scrutinised.
‘My uncle had multiple sclerosis and growing up we cared for him. My dad built our house with wide door frames, a wet room downstairs. I couldn’t understand why all houses weren’t built like that in the first place. It didn’t make sense that it was so difficult.’
She has applied that questioning approach to her network chair role. ‘We’ve had a network for about four years,’ she says, ‘but it was over-reliant on a couple of people. I wanted to make it more established, with the right senior people involved. I wanted to show how the network fits into the wider Diversity & Inclusion strategy.
‘The executive board were very supportive but had been unaware of the blockers we had - particularly that, as volunteers, we struggled for time, support and recognition for the work we do. The conversation has helped them realise that the network has potential to do great things. In last few months I’ve put together the business case and terms of reference for the network.
‘It can be hard to build disability confidence if it’s not clear who is accountable for it. Who is responsible for saying “what we’re doing isn’t OK. It isn’t enough, we need to do better than just the legal minimum”? It’s everyone’s responsibility to call that out. Here at Nationwide, we’ve improved the time to get an adjustment from 20 weeks to four.’
For Tulsi, disability confidence is about the confidence, on both sides, to have the conversation. ‘It’s the confidence to say: “This is my disability. This is what I need.” And it’s the confidence, in a manager or organisation, not to be afraid of saying the wrong thing, to ask individuals what they want and need, and then deal with those adaptations without fear.’
The best way to do this is to start the conversation. ‘Share stories. Make it OK to talk about disability. Bring it to life. Everyone has stories to share, and the more real and open they are, the better. It’s not just for network members or senior people. Everyone can do it.
‘In our risk team we have a high number of people who are excellent at analysing data and on the autistic spectrum. Some, but not all, join our network. We’ve started encouraging them to come forward with their stories with the result that our peer-to-peer support group for autistic employees has been oversubscribed.
‘It’s vital to understand that all disabled people are different. There can be a tendency to say “you’re dyslexic so you need XYZ”. To put people in a box and treat them all the same.’
Being put in a box is something Tulsi knows a bit about. ‘I’m a keen footballer and growing up I came up a lot against “Indian girls don’t play football” and I didn’t understand why. I was as good as, if not better than, the boys I was playing with. So I set up football club at my school and I still play today. I’m keen to help people help themselves.’ (Tulsi still plays football now.)
She identifies ‘the lack of understanding of the breadth of disability – that two people with same impairment can have very different needs’ as a barrier to progress. ‘This exacerbates the fear of saying the wrong thing. Which social media amplifies. People are afraid that one comment could go viral or go up the chain and be taken out of context.’ Like rabbits in headlights they become ‘unable to see past the label and the individual becomes defined by their disability with the focus on the practical aspects – such as extra costs and complex processes – rather than focusing on the benefits of diversity and the skills that individual brings.’
Tulsi says she has learned a lot from the other seven employee networks at Nationwide. ‘The veterans and reservists (V&R) network are obviously different from us but I saw they had very clear objectives around what they did. They also had a clear line between where the Network’s remit stopped and human resources started. I could see from V&R that focusing on small areas you could deliver more change more quickly.
She emphasises too the role a good business champion can play here. ‘A network’s potential is limited if the organisation doesn’t see how it benefits the organisation and fits into the wider strategy. Business champions can do this: championing the cause to their peers and opening doors for the network. It’s important that sponsors are effective sponsors. You don’t want sponsors in name only. You need to tell them what the network needs from them. Our Exec Sponsor and Exec Champions have clear roles and responsibilities, and we understand how to help each other drive the agenda forward.
She talks about the benefits of reciprocal mentoring. ‘People are curious about difference. Pairing up someone senior with someone with an impairment opens senior managers’ eyes. We’re just starting this. A lot of managers have come forward at all levels of the organisation. The plan is for a year long relationship.’
Tulsi’s advice to organisations is ‘don’t make assumptions.
‘Listen to people with disabilities. They are experts in their own disabilities and will tell you what they need, and they’re often things you’ve never thought of. This will make you a better organisation. It’s like having a team of consultants or subject-matter experts in house.’
Bringing this approach to the people she has met through Purple Space has helped her enormously. ‘I’m learning so much about disability,’ she says. ‘I’m not an expert and don’t profess to be. My role in the network is prompting me to think about the way I think, act, speak and treat others. There aren’t many people from minority ethnic backgrounds involved with disability networks. I’m Indian so hope I can add racial diversity to the growth of the disability networks. Stigma around disability is always there but think it can be particularly strong in some black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities. I have plans to work with our BAME network to have joint events and start conversations, especially around mental health.’
Tulsi concludes: ‘PurpleSpace is helping me become a better network leader, learning from those with more experience. As a chair it can be lonely, trying to pull your committee forward and your organisation. PurpleSpace can keep you inspired and motivated. I’ve contact with more mature networks which has helped me to tweak what we do around, for example, setting up a committee, types of events, working with senior stakeholders, challenging your organisation.…’ All sorts of new questions.
There can be an assumption that the less-experienced learn from the more-experienced. And, as she says, Tulsi is doing that. But listening to her it also becomes clear how much the more experienced can learn from those who ask them questions. The learning is not just in the answers to those questions but in the importance of asking questions in the first place. However much you might think you know about something (an organisation, a job, an impairment), asking questions about it is the vital first step towards understanding how it might be changed for the better. Tulsi’s lesson to us all is that asking ‘nightmare’ questions starts conversations, breaks down barriers and opens boxes.
Accommodating people with autism because they’re great at quantitative analysis is to learn that diversity is great for business. But to understand that each person with autism is different with different needs and that only if you ask them what these are can you know, is genuine inclusion. It takes a ‘why?’ child to teach you that lesson.
Purple Spotlight is our new series of deep dive conversations with an exceptional group of disability change agents. These disability network leaders, champions and allies talk to journalist Jim Pollard about their unique contributions and approaches to the narrative of building personal and business disability confidence from the inside out.