Three Lessons On Including and Empowering People with Disabilities

Framework curated by Ameera Ladak and Stefan Palios in partnership with MindFrame Connect

Joel Dembe, a Canadian tennis Paralympian, focuses on empowering people with disabilities through mentorship, coaching, and improving accessibility.

As business leaders work to become more inclusive of the one in five Canadians who have a disability in the workforce, Paralympian Joel Dembe believes executives should take inspiration from sports inclusion.

For Dembe personally, sports played three critical roles that helped him build confidence and emotional intelligence:

Sports provided an outlet:
For Dembe, “sport was everything growing up. When I was in hospitals or feeling lonely, I always had this outlet.”

Sports taught him failure and confidence:

Dembe explained that sports taught him about failure and “to fail in front of people” and helped give him the confidence to overcome injuries and defeat opponents.

Sports gave him valuable life skills:

Sports taught him how to move his body, and he tapped into new skills. Dembe learned to interact with people around the world and in the wheelchair community. Sports taught him emotional intelligence and relationship-building skills, which further helped his confidence.

All people, but particularly people with disabilities, need an outlet, a source of confidence, and emotional intelligence. While sports is one path, business leaders can offer these opportunities in their workplaces. Here’s how Dembe describes the lesson transfer.

Lesson 1
Leaders or companies can think of employees as athletes

When discussing his own role as an athlete and coach, as well as what others did for him, Dembe touched on two categories: learning by seeing, and mentorship. Leaders can adapt these categories to help them see their employees as athletes.

Empower learning by seeing
Dembe spoke of his experiences when he was younger, and how “hanging out with older athletes with disabilities meant everything” because he got to see what it was like for adults in wheelchairs. He wasn’t just afraid of being an athlete in a wheelchair but also of what it would be like to be a regular adult in a wheelchair.

Representation matters because it helps ease individual, often unspoken fears, and helps them “learn by seeing.”.

Use mentorship as a catalyst for independence
As a mentor, Dembe focuses on teaching young athletes independence. He teaches them to carry their own bags and do things for themselves instead of relying on their parents. He says these are things a wheelchair user will “need to face when travelling or when [they’re] an older adult.”

Mentors in any capacity should focus on teaching independence to their mentees.

Lesson 2
Tips for mentoring people with disabilities

Whether you have a disability or not, Dembe offered four tips for mentoring people with disabilities to remember.

Empathy comes first:

As with most mentoring relationships, leading with empathy is a great way to empower your mentee.

Encourage, motivate, and challenge:

Dembe explains that challenging young athletes can help them “learn about their bodies and limitations, and hopefully surpass them.”

Don’t treat people with disabilities differently:

Dembe reminds us that we have a tendency to treat people with disabilities differently. He elaborates on the contrary by saying “it doesn’t mean you can’t ask or try to understand the disability.”

Don’t ignore the disability:

Further to his earlier point about asking and understanding, “to ignore their lived experience wouldn’t do that person a service,” Dembe clarifies.

Lesson 3
How companies and tech can benefit from greater accessibility

Companies can increase representation and drive their business

Dembe explained that if one in five Canadians has a disability, it’s likely that your customer base will include people with disabilities. When asked about the representation of people with disabilities in tech, Dembe responded that there is likely a “natural inclination among people with disabilities” towards tech.

Dembe offered five ways companies can approach supporting people with disabilities, and ensure they are represented:

  1. Build a workforce that looks like and represents the people you serve.
  2. Hire people with disabilities.
  3. Invest in accessible technologies, such as closed captioning or screen reading software.
  4. Include people with disabilities in your branding and marketing efforts.
  5. Explore offering programs such as Microsoft’s neurodiversity hiring program.

How to make the tech industry more accessible

“The interesting thing about technology is that tech hasn’t quite caught up to being accessible,” Dembe cautioned. However, he said tech is on the “precipice” of being more accessible.

But to get there, Dembe said we need to think about two specific changes:

Leverage more accessible technology:

“Not everything is closed captioned, or translated and captioned at the same time,” says Dembe. Investing in more accessible technology is an important step in the right direction.

Get accessible tools to build great careers:

It’s not just about people with disabilities getting their foot in the door with landing a job. It’s about using “software and tools to make sure that they can have great careers.”

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