A few years ago I was working for a grant funder on the Workplace Equality Fund. It was the first time I really understood that equality is only ever achieved by providing equity first, and true inclusion is only ever achieved by completely rethinking things.

My lightbulb moment in understanding this, was this simple graphic:

                by Kevin Ruelle, of a snowy scene outside a school. A group of school children are waiting to get in and a
                janitor is clearing snow from the steps at the entrance. A child in a wheelchair asks “Could you please shovel
                the ramp?”; the janitor responds “All these other kids are waiting to use the stairs. When I get through
                shovelling them off, then I will clear the ramp for you.”; the child replies “But if you shovel the ramp, we can
                all get in!”

This blew my mind when I first saw it back in 2019 and I suddenly felt a moment of absolute truth. Most disadvantages are caused by the way that society works – be that the world, or our institutes, or our workplaces.

Some workplaces still don’t offer, or even understand, equity. Many other workplaces are still trying to achieve equality by adding equity as an add on, an optional request. This means that people have to ‘other’ themselves to access it.

Looking at the snow graphic we can see that the child has had to ‘other’ themselves. They had to be confident enough to raise their voice to ask the question; and confident enough to speak up again to make the argument; and provide the logic for doing things differently to usual to create change. Imagine if this ‘snow clearing of ramps first’ was standard policy in that school, or town, or district, or county, or country. Suddenly one voice creates a change that makes the world more inclusive for countless people.

The core message here also mirrors the social model of disability “that it is the world which disables people, not their impairments”. Even severe disabilities are not limiting if the person has the right tools in place. Maayan Ziv is the founder and CEO of AccessNow, and advisor to the Government of Canada on disability and inclusion initiatives. Maayan uses a wheelchair and calls it “the most important enabling technology”. A wheelchair is “no different than your Nike shoes that were designed to help you run faster, or the lights you turn on in your house when it’s too dark to see.”

It is also necessary for society to have the right attitude in place about these tools, and to stop ‘othering’ some of them. I loved when I read Maayan say:

Next time you feel sorry for me…straighten your eyeglasses and realise your specs are no different than these wheels.

Maayan Ziv

As I’ve learnt more about service design, I’ve kept coming back to the snowy image and the thought of universal inclusion. Designing for ‘disability first’ often uncovers solutions that help everyone.

It is National Inclusion Week this week. I invite you to start thinking about inclusion in a slightly different way. Stop making people ‘other’ themselves or declare their limitations. Stop creating separate routes to accommodate their needs. Instead, start thinking about what can be redesigned to make the world more inclusive. Look out for those simple redesign opportunities to create access for all. Be an ally in raising your voice about them to make your workplace a more inclusive place.