Moving beyond mere inclusion means everyone belongs on the same page.
By Craig Radford
Picture your last company meeting. Whether it was a small group working on resolving a problem or a collection of the whole company gathering to celebrate a successful year, you probably noticed something immediately: There were all different “kinds” of people present. I put the word “kinds” in scare-quotes because, although most people raised in a Western culture at least pay lip-service to the notion that everyone is the same deep down, every human being has an intrinsic drive to categorize the people around them. Whether driven by culture or instinct, we almost always make surface assumptions about people based on their appearance or what we know about their backgrounds.
Don’t believe me? Then let’s think about the first time you meet someone. On that first meeting, what do you notice first? You likely notice their age and physical appearance. Young, old, attractive, unattractive. These are ways of categorizing people based on the way they look and how that look compares to your understanding of yourself.
Next, no matter how you were raised, you are likely to notice the other person’s race. Since we all learn these categorizations over the course of our lives in a complicated tangle of social, cultural, and media influences that trigger conscious and subconscious prejudice, the race in question is liable to come with a set of expectations on your part. You might not know this person individually just yet, but your observation of their race sets you up to make some (often incorrect) assumptions right out of the gate.
Similar assumptions lead you to categorize the people you meet based on their gender, social class, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, and disability. You personally are likely to value a certain set of categories over others, but what happens in any meeting (or company, city, culture or country) is that those in the majority categories tend to hold positions of power—or at least an enhanced sense of opportunity to hold those positions of power. The majority tends to reside in an inner circle. That inner circle, in turn, tends to think that in order to be more inclusive, they need to find ways to reach out to those whose categories place them outside the group—throw them a lifeline, if you will. As we strive for total equality in the workplace, these are the unfortunate realities we must overcome.
To do so, many corporate cultures pay heed to words like ‘accommodate,’ ‘accessibility,’ and ‘inclusion.’ When reaching out from the majority that holds power, they like to mention efforts to ‘bridge communication’ in a way that ‘connects the two worlds.’ The notion here is that the accepted majority is trying to be inclusive. The rhetoric almost always likens to the act of throwing lifelines to the less advantaged.
This all sounds appropriate until you attempt to view it from the other side. I’m Deaf, which according to some who would marginalize me based on the categories I listed in the paragraphs above, I’m disabled. For most companies, the assumption would be that I need one of those lifelines, so that I might cross over and feel like I’m accepted by the main group.
But think of it this way: Why are they accommodating me? Why do they feel like they need to grant me access to their circle? Why must they make an effort to ‘include’ me in ‘their’ world? When viewed in this light—and make no mistake, most people targeted by these well-intentioned efforts of inclusion do view it in this light—it all sounds rather condescending.
The crux of the issue at hand is that most corporate cultures say the right things about the notion of diversity, but few actually accept the concept that inclusion means something much more than just tossing that lifeline. We need to move beyond mere inclusion and accept that, no matter what categories we fall into, we all belong to one company, one culture, one world. Striving for equality means breaking down these power structures in a way that gives equal footing to anyone, regardless of background.
Given everything I have already written about human nature, this may sound like a fantasy. But tools are emerging to make this one-world concept a reality. For example, let’s reframe the understanding. Let’s say that you and I are going to have a meeting. I communicate via American Sign Language (ASL). If you are not ASL-fluent, then we would hire an interpreter to make our communication possible. In a world where we think about inclusion as a lifeline thrown from the ‘haves’ to the ‘have-nots,’ then the assumption is that the interpreter is for me. But from my perspective, the interpreter is for you. Shouldn’t the interpreter be for us both, though? We should because that’s the truth. Neither of us would be able to communicate with the other if not for the interpreter. Therefore, the interpreter is for both of us.
When I walk into a meeting with an interpreter, I tell the people in the room that the interpreter is not for me; he/she is for all of us. This is not a notion of ‘inclusion,’ it is one that goes well beyond inclusion. It’s a call to develop more appropriate skills to view each other on equal ground. It rejects lifelines in favor of showing people that there are ways to change their own preconceived views and work better with people whose backgrounds or ‘categories’ differ from their own.
ASL customers support tools like Connect Direct represent a technological means to achieve this same end. Connect Direct allows organizations to hire the Deaf and Hard of Hearing who use ASL and expect them to contribute on a level playing field. Organizations that work with Connect Direct understand that there is inherent value in hiring, training and managing talented Deaf professionals to provide customer care services to Deaf consumers. There are many reasons to create this kind of communication channel within your company, such as revenue growth, positive brand perception, loyalty, and retention. However, the larger reason is simply because the company gets it—they understand that embracing and celebrating human diversity is intrinsically valuable.