July 2, 2013

HumaAs an equalities professional I have always been extremely keen to get people to tick those little monitoring boxes - the ones that ask your ethnic background or gender, for example.

All my professional learning has led me to believe that we need accurate equalities data to ensure we are recruiting diverse staff or to ensure our services and projects are being accessed by diverse groups, otherwise we would need to adapt to make our work fit for purpose. Not only is it our legal obligation to get this right but, to me, it has always made practical sense.

But what happens when you are the one being asked something which (i) you have not come to terms with as part of your identity and/or (ii) the thought of disclosing publically fills you with dread? This was the reality that I found myself in recently.

There is no stigma in disclosing an identity that you feel comfortable with. I am a woman; I am British Indian; so far, so clear. Of course, I may have experienced disadvantage and discrimination, both implicit and explicit; I have probably had to fight harder for my opportunities, have had to be more assertive and more competent to demonstrate my ability. As a woman of colour, I learn every day that there are certain privileges I will not be enjoying.

Stigma is a complex issue

There are some forms of disclosure, however, that takes one by surprise. In this organisation (as in many others) the disclosure rates for disability, sexual orientation and faith remain low. With regards to disability, there is the complex matter of the stigma attached to being disabled and the fear of experiencing discrimination, implicit if not explicit.

There is also that messy thing called life. Statistics indicate that people may not be born with an impairment but are likely to develop one through the course of their lives, this is likely to be the case particularly in the area of mental health. Trauma can often be a catalyst for a period of mental illness, the repercussions of which remain long after the incident.

There are particular associations with mental illness

There are particular associations with mental illness: you feel weak for not being able to cope; you wonder if people will gossip about your illness; you will know there are times when you will not be able to cope and in the midst of all this when does one think about ‘ticking that box’?

With regards to disability more than any other form of identity, disclosure is a journey – deeply personal, complex and, at times, tinged with shame. You feel you have failed in some way at not being able to manage. It was at this crossroads that I found myself at recently. Of course, when one feels shame - and mental illness is shrouded in such a stigma - one seeks to hide the disability, but this perpetuates the feelings of shame and it helps no one. Feelings of shame feed mental illness; indeed it is like adding fuel to the fire.

An open dialogue on this subject is of huge benefit

It is at this juncture that an open dialogue on this subject is of huge benefit. It benefits the individual because it gives them the autonomy and space to disclose what they feel comfortable with and ensure the work environment can be supportive; it begins to provide a safe space for others to speak; it enables managers to support disabled staff; it ensures HR understand the complex needs of disabled staff and ensure appropriate reasonable adjustments can be put in place; it creates a workplace which tackles the stigma of being disabled and allows people to feel comfortable in the entirety of who they are.

For all those reasons and more, there is no shame in coming out.

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