Companies are missing out on a pool of talented individuals. A double amputee and LGBTQ2+ advocate, Spencer West is breaking down the myths surrounding people with disabilities and showcasing the power diversity and inclusion brings in the workplace, including increased talent retention, productivity, innovation, and more.
Spencer’s life has been marked by both obstacles and triumph. After losing both legs from the pelvis down at the age of five and coming out as gay at the age of 21, he entered a world that might have easily defeated him. Instead, he tackled challenge after challenge — and learned to navigate a world set against the queer community and those with disabilities.
Today, as a globally renowned speaker, Spencer challenges individuals and organizations to redefine what’s possible and embrace what Spencer calls “Diversability”. He helps audiences learn how to leverage the talent of diverse communities and shows them the positive impact it will have on their organizations, both internally and externally.
Breaking Down the Myths: The Cost of Accommodation
Like most people in the disabled community, Spencer said, he had trouble finding jobs, first as a teenager and then after he graduated from college. Potential employers, he said, seemed to always see my disability first instead of my skills and qualifications.
Spencer lost his legs due to a genetic disease. Doctors told his family that he would never be a functioning member of society. That didn’t sit well with them. Together, Spencer and his family sought to redefine what’s possible — a journey that has taken Spencer to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro and saw him walk almost 300 kms from Edmonton to Calgary.
Learning how to live with his disability proved to be the easiest challenge Spencer faced. Far more difficult, he said, was to confront others’ assumptions on what he could or couldn’t do. “I had to overcome those,” Spencer said, “not my disability.”
Cost is a big factor, Spencer said. Employers think it will cost too much money to make accommodations, but the benefits far outweigh the costs.
When Spencer got his first real job as a teenager at the Rock Springs Chamber of Commerce, he immediately knew something was different. He finally felt seen for who he was vs. just his disability. In the interview, they asked him how they could accommodate him to make this job work, and Spencer’s response was “a stool” so that he could see over the counter and greet people as they came in.
While Spencer can only speak from his experience and disability, he said that accommodations are often not as expensive or difficult as people assume them to be. In return, he continued, employers have just hired the most loyal employee they could find.
Those with disabilities struggle to get in the door, both societally and physically, Spencer said. Companies who are willing to open those doors for this community will find loyal employees who are willing to stay for the long-term because they found a company that cares.
In addition to loyalty, the disabled community is also highly educated, Spencer said, with 50% of people with disabilities having post-secondary education. This is just 7% below those without disabilities. And they bring this education along with a host of soft skills that nobody but them in their unique situations could bring.
People with disabilities, Spencer said, are incredibly innovative, resilient, and productive people because they have to be — they live in a world that was not created for them. Their innovative capabilities far outperform those without disabilities because innovation is a part of their day-to-day life. As employees, people with disabilities bring that same critical and innovative thinking to their workplaces.
Also, Spencer added, companies who hire people with disabilities have reported that productivity goes up and turnover rates go down. This is likely because hiring people with disabilities shows that an organization is open and willing to give all an opportunity — this makes people feel good internally and externally, Spencer said. People want to support inclusive companies as both employees and consumers.
How to Breakdown Bias and Leverage Diverse Talent in the Workplace
As individuals, we have a lot of work to do, Spencer said. Unfortunately, he continued, we live in a society that accepts barriers because it’s too hard or expensive to change them. Change starts by educating yourself, he said, learning about the barriers different communities face in our society, and by acknowledging how each of us, as individuals, uphold those barriers. Once we’ve engaged in this work, he continued, then we can actually start breaking those barriers down together.
The workplace is the easiest place to start, Spencer said. Bring in trainers and give employees the opportunity to listen and learn from others. This builds empathy, he continued, which is the foundation to building more equitable spaces. Then teams can look internally and determine what gaps exist within the workplace, and how we can fix them.
The pandemic, Spencer added, actually showed us that creative solutions are far more possible and accessible than previously thought. He actually felt more united with people during the pandemic. For the first time, he said, all of us experienced a lack of access to something because of a force none of us had control over. This is what disabled people face every day.
For so long, Spencer continued, people with disabilities requested to work virtually as their accommodation and companies said no because “it wasn’t possible.” Well, the pandemic proved that wrong, Spencer said. Of course, there were challenges, he continued, but we were able to work through them. The pandemic showed us that anything is possible.
Actions that may seem simple to you, Spencer added, can mean the world to others. Right before the pandemic, Spencer and his friends went to a new restaurant on a busy Friday night. They waited for a table to open up and grabbed one as soon as they could. Not long after they sat down, a manager approached their table. They assumed that the table must be reserved and they were about to get kicked out. Instead, the manager apologized. The restaurant’s accessible washroom was out of order. He was so sorry for the inconvenience. He checked with the neighbouring restaurant and their accessible washroom was up and running, and they agreed that Spencer could use it if he needed to.
This was one of the first times, Spencer said, that a person outside of his close community recognized a barrier, acknowledged it, and proactively helped him find a solution.
At the end of the day, Spencer said, everyone just wants an equal chance. The disabled community spends most of their lives fighting for just that — an equal chance. Hear more from Spencer in the video below:
As a globally renowned speaker, Spencer West infuses his talks with humour and humility. His words and actions have encouraged millions to stand up, face challenges, and embrace change, all while instilling hope and empowering leaders to motivate others to create positive change.
Interested in learning more about Spencer and what he can bring to your next event? Email us at [email protected].