Steven Lacey MMRS, co-chair of MRS Unlimited, reflects on lessons learned from the network’s launch festival.

If you were unfortunate enough to miss the MRS Unlimited festival, the good news is that it’s not too late. The festival, which ran from 11-15 October, and hosted a series of virtual events, is now available for you to view online – and we recommend that you do so. Feedback so far has been excellent, with the events described as informative, interesting and thought-provoking, so check it out here.

The week kicked off on Monday 11 October with a session designed to set the tone for the week’s events. Hosted by Vanella Jackson of Hall and Partners, the session brought together five members of the MRS Unlimited network to talk about their reasons for joining the network; the passion among the group was clear to see.

  • Steve talked about his lived experience as a person within research with a disability with no role models to look up to.
  • Jo explained that she acquired MS and was a part time wheelchair user, but her motivation really stemmed from meeting a blind graduate who was struggling to get into the industry. 
  • Yasmin talked about her voluntary work for the Paralympics in London 2012, and her experience with unseen disabilities among family and friends.
  • Christine discussed how her ‘failure’ as a designer and innovator (because she never used insights around disability to create better design) led her to found a research agency focused on inclusive research.
  • Vanella revealed she had only recently ‘declared’ her own dyslexia, having felt deep shame about it during her school days.

As the conversation progressed, the group discussed the programme for the week and the outcomes they hoped the events would achieve.  The enthusiasm for the agenda was obvious and all agreed it would be a fantastic learning opportunity which covered the most critical topics and which would provide practical advice and clear actions.

Vanella summed it up well when she said, “One thing that we all share in common is a hungry ambition to create real change around disability.  We want to create more opportunities for those with disabilities and make sure they’re included in all work environments.  We’re aspiring to barrier-free inclusion and we’re committed to seeing real change – we’ve come together not just to talk about it, but to manifest it.”

Tuesday’s session was chaired by Christine Hemphill, Managing Director of Open Inclusion, together with Anna Cuinu of NatWest Innovation, Pinar Guvenc of SOUR Studios NYC, Simon Pulman-Jones, Head of UX for the COVID19 Test and Trace App and Paul Campbell of Centaur Robotics and ex Ford Motors Design. This session explored how disability-inclusive insight can enable more innovative and valuable product and service design.

No doubt many of us have heard people say “but isn’t disability a niche market?” or “is this really central to my brand, target market or offering?” This session debunked these myths. The four incredible product and service designers who took part have all used disability-inclusive insights to create significantly more valuable and efficient products for their organisations and customers in banking, health, consumer goods and car design. 

Each has found that by engaging with customers with a variety of lived experiences of disability early in the design process they have been able to design better, and more innovative, mainstream products or services. These solutions work more consistently for a wider customer base and are more efficient to bring to, and position in, the market.

They shared a number of tips, but eight key ones were as follows:

  1. Reach out to experts who are experienced in disability-inclusive research to ensure your research is inclusive, accessible and effective for all participants.
  2. Pay fair compensation for participants and organisations involved.
  3. Quant research should be explicitly inclusive in screener quotas as a standard practice.
  4. Ensure that the approach used for quant or qual research is accessible to everyone you want to engage in the research. The process (digital or in-person) can challenge you and exclude inclusive participation even when the intent is there.
  5. Scope your disability-inclusive research to inform the aesthetic and emotional design elements of your solution, as well as the functional design requirements.   
  6. Build inclusive co-creation into your innovation framework to benefit from the ingenuity of people who often have very different ways of seeing the problem and tackling it. Benefit from this community of more constant, creative problem solvers who have learnt this by necessity, as our environments are often not well designed for more specific needs. 
  7. Benefit from rich qualitative insights through fairly compensated partnership on projects. Build trusted and balanced relationships between people who bring disability expertise and personal experience and those who bring other solution specific expertise and experience.
  8. When co-creating, ensure that your environment is fully accessible (digital, social and physical environments). Ask those you are engaging with and check that it is. 

Wednesday’s session was moderated by diversity champion Asad Dhunna, CEO of The Unmistakables, and focused on communications and advertising. The session featured Steven Lacey from The Outsiders, Mike Alhadeff senior strategist at AMVBBDO and Jon Cohen Author of Asking For Trouble, Qual researcher and Managing Partner of Kindling. 

Some of the elements that were covered in this session were as follows:

  • Although language - whether we use terms such as disabled or person with disabilities is important - there are more important things at stake such as making sure there is better representation of people with disabilities within the communication.
  • That disability is starting to be better represented within the media and in advertising such as Virgin, McCann, Last Leg and Paralympics.
  • That there are multiple stereotypes that need to be broken but the communications industry often tries to represent disabled people as superheroes which is often rejected by the community.
  • That we can learn from Channel 4’s work on the Paralympics and create mischief to make moments in time special and, most importantly, embed diversity within the culture of the organisation.
  • How we need ‘spikiness’ to ruffle some feathers in order to create impact; how we should avoid trying to educate and keep things simple and single-minded.
  • And in order to engage with non-disabled audiences we need to tap into universal values that all audiences understand and connect with e.g. love, sharing and sex.

Thursday’s session focused on inclusive talent. If we are to be a sector that leads on diversity and ensures that research is truly representative, it needs to embrace a wider range of talent. The session brought together those involved in hiring and recruitment with a number of organisations that help companies attract and retain disability talent. 

On the panel we had Giles Quick from Kantar Worldpanel, Claire Timmins from Ipsos MORI, Liz Norman from Elizabeth Norman International, Julia Grant from Leonard Cheshire (a charity that supports companies and organisations to become more inclusive) and Adil Ghani from Ability People, the inclusion consultants, all who have lived experience of disability. They were joined by our very own Jo Kibbey who is part of our Unlimited gang. She has worked in research for over 30 years, and is currently working for DWP.

The session was framed by Liz who said that during 30 years of running her recruitment business, no one had ever asked her to source talent with disabilities. In fact, she could not think of any conversations about disability she had had with any of the organisations she works with. This highlighted that while everyone is talking about increasing diversity, disability remains hidden in the wings, rather than standing in the spotlight alongside other forms of diversity. She also said that she could personally think of very few people within the research business with visible disabilities. Everyone agreed that this shows the industry has a huge challenge and needs to urgently increase its efforts to attract more talented people with disabilities. 

Julia and Adil raised the point that the task is not only about attracting more talent into the sector, but also about creating great environments in order to retain talent. It’s not necessarily that employers do not want to hire from these groups, but that they do not know what adaptions they need to make in order to create a truly inclusive workplace. Giles and Claire talked about a new awareness and desire to create more opportunities for those with disabilities and that this also involved ensuring that businesses develop a strong, more open and supportive culture, as well as addressing any environmental needs. 

The conclusion was that the primary focus for diversity thus far has been gender and race. The panel agreed that the time has come for businesses to focus proactively on disability. True diversity needs to embrace, support and reward everyone, not just those who shout the loudest.

Friday's session featured sector leaders; Jane Frost, CEO of MRS, opened a conversation saying, “ It is amazing how powerful it can be when leading figures open up about their issues and talk frankly about the problems they have overcome". She noted how the session had proved that stepping forward can be empowering and gave her thanks especially to Georgina White “for being so willing to discuss her struggle to be open about her dyslexia. It enabled a really open discussion amongst the panellists, for which I am very grateful.”

This session rounded off a brilliant week of sharing stories, learning from others’ experiences and, for many of us, feeling for the first time that we have a network and support within our sector. The festival has been a great first step for the work that we need to do together and it has left the Unlimited team inspired, motivated and excited for the future.

We have an exciting programme of events being planned for 2022, so if you would like to find out more please join our mailing list here.

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