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Disability Network

 

It was a classic cold and windy afternoon in Amsterdam. I was sitting in my home office, feeling quite speechless as I recall. I had just gotten off a zoom call with my boss at the time- in the last few minutes of our meeting, he casually dropped in a bombshell of a suggestion - hey why don’t you start a community or group here in office for people to talk about disabilities? You can talk about what you go through…

 

Um, WHAT. All sorts of thoughts raced through my mind.

Is he allowed to say things like that?

just because I have a small physical disability doesn’t mean I need to be the poster girl for it!!

Does he think I can’t do serious work?

He was suggesting to publicly talk about something that I had avoided for 30+ years. I was aghast. Took me a month of contemplation and therapy to come to terms with it; after which, and much to my surprise, I actually did it.

 

What did I do exactly? 

Together with a fellow colleague, I founded the “Disability Network (DN)” at the company I work for. The DN in simple terms- meant to be a forum, community for people who have similar experiences to get together and connect, vent, ideate, be themselves etc.

 

Shortly after my boss’s suggestion, I happened to cross paths with a co-worker who was perhaps the only other person in office besides me to have a visible disability. I tested the idea of building this community with him; we brainstormed, discussed worst-case scenarios, and ultimately went all in. We publicly announced the launch of it in an all-employee meeting (>2k people in attendance), inviting people to join us. 


I distinctly remember finding it bizarre - to be able to talk to someone who truly gets what I’m saying, and not feel like I am the only one on this planet, was actually the main driving factor for me to even entertain the idea of taking such a step.

 

What happened next?

Within 2 weeks of the public announcement and after much anticipation, we had about 20 people voluntarily contact us to find out more about ‘this Network’. We started organising meet-ups in office itself, published newsletters, and hosted events, etc. Our efforts didn’t go unnoticed; we received a reasonable budget from the company to fund for more events. And just like that, we grew bigger and more intentional. Funny how things easily start to fall in place if they are meant to be. 

 

Now let’s get in to the real stuff…

 

What does the Network do?  

The mission and vision of The DN is to ‘create an equitable and inclusive workplace environment’.

Looking past the jargon, it actually means to

(1) educate and spread awareness on disabilities,

(2) create allies,

(3) and create a safe space.

Result of all this is more representation, less judgement.

 

We set up the DN in March 2021 and has now been in existence for 3+ years, and counting. It has close to 500 employees who have signed up to be a member.

 

Who is in the Network?

The DN is open for absolutely all. It has a great mix of employees as Network members:

-       Ones directly impacted by a disability,

-       Caregivers or anyone indirectly impacted,

-       And/or people who are simply looking to learn and show support  

 

The strategy and operations of the Network is managed by a smaller leadership team of 8 people. This team keeps the DN alive over and above their respective ‘day-jobs’ at the company.

 

What are some achievements of the Network?

Besides getting a great group of members, the Network created tangible impact with some specific initiatives:

-       Improved accessibility of our offices with ramps installed, and quiet spaces cordoned off for those who may need it. 

-       Nurtured partnerships with foundations/charities outside of the company, such as with the Special Olympics committee in Berlin.

-       Collaborated to roll-out manager trainings to educate on how to demonstrate empathy and inclusive leadership towards their team.    

 

I often describe the range of disabilities similar to an iceberg:


What one is able to see is just the tip, but there’s a lot more beneath the surface that is unseen and not openly spoken about. And so, making the invisible visible has been a big priority for the DN. It’s come a long way and there’s still so much to get after!

 


And as for me specifically- I’ve learned so much from starting and heading up this Network, my vision now is to expand my efforts beyond 1 company and reach more people with my learnings. A step that I am taking with 9Fables 🙏🏾.

 

For now, hope to have sparked some thought? Lets chat 📲 Would love to hear them!

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May 27
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