This week the world celebrated the United Nations International Day for Persons with Disabilities.

So let me ask you a question. What does disabled mean to you?

If you say the word aloud, what comes to your mind? Wheelchairs, white sticks and hearing aids, maybe. Go a little deeper and you might think of less visible disabilities – autism, learning difficulties. I’ve heard disability described as a “long-term impairment that makes it hard to accomplish daily tasks.” If you think about it this way, then conditions as varied as depression, asthma or eating disorders might be described as disabilities.

How many people do you know that might be considered disabled in this sense? My guess is that that number is much greater than you might initially have thought.

I have adapted my own mindset recently due to the conversations I have had and the reports I have been reading.  And to the people I have met. When our first cohort of students with disabilities arrived for their internships at Bedfont, my immediate reaction on meeting our two blind students was: how will the young man without a guide dog negotiate his way between the buildings? My own preconceptions were hung out to dry when he proved within two days that he was just as able to negotiate his way around the building as anyone else!

Words like disability and handicap are generally perceived as negative by association – a reason that I don’t like them much. However, those with a disability who are either working, or looking for work, have proved that they have found a way to enable themselves despite their impairment. They find an alternative way to achieve the same, or vastly similar, outcomes so that they can still be just as productive in the workforce – sometimes even more so. They will approach situations that are affected by their condition from a different angle and think in a different way.

With this in mind, let me ask you another question. If you were hiring for a new position and someone with a visible disability or impairment arrived at the interview, what would your first thoughts be? It would be tempting to wonder – like I did –  if their impairment might make them less productive than the rest of your team, right?

But wouldn’t it be just as likely that the resourceful person in front of you, who had worked their way around a challenge, might be just as proficient as others? And that an injection of  a different approach to problem solving might be just what your team needs?

Disability has the historical association with “not having ability” or “not being able.” A more useful interpretation might be “enablement” and “resourcefulness.” Finding an alternative way to enable. And if the recent Paralympics taught the world anything, surely they taught us that.

Will you think differently?

This week we celebrated the United Nations International Day for Persons with Disabilities.  Why not spend some time today thinking about your own perceptions what disability means? And challenge yourself to change your own mindset?