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Disability Works: The idea behind the pitch

Johny Cassidy

Producer, BBC Business Unit

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Sometimes you identify an important issue at the right time and the story just seems to take off. That’s what happened with Disability Works. I pitched it and it became a special week of coverage across TV, radio and online exploring the experiences of disabled people in the workforce and as consumers. It started really as a way to inform audiences about the impacts business can have on people with disability. There are also a lot of disabled people watching the news who miss out on seeing people like themselves reflected in bulletins, so I was keen to address the stereotype of disabled people that we all too often see in the media. For every one of the superheroes climbing mountains or the wheelchair marathon runners, there are dozens of people quietly getting on with running their own business. I'm hoping that this week will go some way to addressing that.

I became a producer in the BBC Business unit nearly nine years ago. I had lived like a student for a long time. Sharing houses and living in squats. Dropping out of courses and not really caring. It was only when I found out I was going to be a dad that I finally thought about getting a serious job. I’d no idea though what that might be. I had started losing my eyesight in my early teens, and although I had had jobs before, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do the kind of things I’d done in the past. Working in warehouses or pumping petrol just wasn’t going to work. My eyesight wasn’t going to allow it. That’s when I had the lightbulb moment. Maybe I could be a journalist.

My mum had recently died and left me a bit of money. She’d always told stories about me as a young child sitting transfixed by the evening news. I used that bit of money to do a professional qualification in broadcast journalism, and luckily for me, I got the first job at the BBC I applied for.

When I was a young eager journalist I would be asked to fix a guest on the latest Bank of England interest rate decision or hear various business terms bandied about in planning meetings. I had no idea about terms like GDP or inflation I had to find out first what that was. All that meant I was soaking up lots of new information constantly. I think that disabled people have to work twice as hard sometimes to achieve the same outcome as anyone else, which means that planning ahead or devising strategies are a natural skill. I think it’s being able to hone these skills and realise their value that make disabled people great entrepreneurs, which is something I hope the Disability Works week across the BBC will highlight.

Throughout the week, we’ll be talking to men and women who have realised that starting their own business is right for them. The flexibility of being your own boss is an attractive proposition to many. We’ll have examples of people who’ve done that and against the advice perhaps of bank managers or financial advisors, have been able to come off benefits and start contributing to the economy.

I’m also keen to explore the value disabled people can offer business, both as employees and as customers. It’s obvious that the millions of people that live with a disability across the UK and the world can’t all start their own venture, so it’s important for other bosses to understand the value of diversity for their bottom line. Latest figures from the UK Department of Work and Pensions estimate the so called Purple Pound to be worth around £249billion to the treasury. That’s a lot of money, and if big business can get it right, a lot of loyalty.

Disabled employees are also a great tool for enlightened businesses to harness, and unfortunately it still is enlightened employers who are the ones willing to understand the value of a few slight tweaks. Apart from the fact that it’s illegal to discriminate on the grounds of disability, many employers will have concerns about the cost of making buildings accessible or having to pay for access technology. The truth is though that these slight tweaks can open up a whole new area of experience for their workforce. Being able to better reflect the changing face of the population means that business can develop better strategies for getting that fiver out of someone’s back pocket. It’s all about the bottom line and, as someone once said, the economy stupid.

The week is designed to show how everyone wants to be valued in what they do. No one is naive enough to think that this one week of coverage across the BBC will fix the disability employment gap, or that suddenly new disabled entrepreneurs will give the economy a huge injection, but if only one business owner decides to give a disabled person a chance in a job interview, or only one person decides to take that leap and start their own business, then it will all have been worth it. For me that will show the BBC works.

Johny Cassidy is a producer for the BBC Business and Economics Unit.

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