Disability activist Susan Scott-Parker has a well-earned reputation for dealing head-on with whoever needs to confront inequality in the workplace.
Susan Scott-Parker was 15 years old and teaching children to swim for 50 cents an hour when a simple statement propelled her on a lifelong pursuit of equal opportunities for people with disabilities.
“I was teaching a class of kids with disabilities and I was told by the YMCA – which is supposed to be quite an enlightened institution – that it was the first time in the history of the YMCA that they’d allowed disabled children and non-disabled children in the water at the same time,” says Scott-Parker.
“Now, I’d like to point out that I’m not 150 years old – this wasn’t that long ago. And I was in Halifax, Nova Scotia – which isn’t that remote. So that statement struck me as weird. It has never left me. It took me down a particular trail, and here I am today.”
Chain of action
Since then Scott-Parker has moved to the UK; created and led a world-first program for talented people with disabilities; established the UK Employers’ Forum on Disability (now the Business Disability Forum or BDF); forged an alliance between business and the disability movement which led to the introduction of the UK Disability Discrimination Act in 1995 (now the Equality Act); and founded the UK’s Technology Taskforce and the Global Procurement Taskforce.
Right now, she’s the founder and chief executive of Business Disability International.
“The international work came about because so many of our BDF members would say things like, ‘Well, we can’t fix website accessibility because it’s controlled out of New York,’ or ‘Our call centre is in Singapore, so we can’t improve the quality of responses for customers with fluctuating mental capacity,’” she says.
Sometimes the excuses were more confounding. “I once had a banker who said to me, ‘But Susan, we don’t even do women.’”
In 2000, Scott-Parker was also involved in the establishment of the Australian Network on Disability with the now-CEO Suzanne Colbert.
“It’s one of the very best organisations of its type in the world. There aren’t many out there, and the Australian one is really one to be proud of,” she says.
Equality and fairness
There is a saying that “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” Scott-Parker isn’t one to pull punches.
“That’s bull,” she says. “Because the party is usually up a flight of steps.”
“People think that if they treat everyone the same, they’ve got it right. But actually, the essence of discrimination – as experienced by disabled people – is that when you treat them the same as a non-disabled person, they can’t even get into the building.”
As such, much of Scott-Parker’s work with HR professionals is focused on conveying the message that “We need to treat disabled people differently in order to treat them fairly”.
HR driving change
Her second big message is that “legal compliance is your high-risk strategy”.
“Imagine wanting to communicate: ‘We will only treat you properly if we have to.’ That is exactly the message a disability compliance culture sends out every day.”
Treating people with disabilities fairly is not something HR can do alone, she says.
“It’s impossible to achieve best practice just through HR. It’s about influencing property, technology, procurement, new product development, marketing and sales, facilities management, customer service, workplace adjustments.
“So the biggest challenge for HR is the question of how they get that influence across the whole business.”
This is an issue Scott-Parker is particularly keen to explore as a keynote speaker at AHRI’s National Convention and Exhibition in September this year.
“Where and how does HR get the power? It could be as simple as refusing to be the department that automatically – albeit in ill-defined ways – is expected to deal with disability and saying, ‘Since this issue goes across the whole business, it’s actually a chief operating officer (COO) responsibility.’
“And then help your COO put together the inter departmental group of senior players that drive the business improvement that lies at the heart of the best practice.”
Another topic never far from Scott-Parker’s mind is AI-powered recruitment and the potential impact on people with disabilities. She’s very interested in what she calls “e-discrimination” in recruitment.
“The word ‘bias’ is too soft and sweet. I’m talking about addressing unfair treatment and discrimination on a potentially huge scale.”
She points to HireVue’s recent announcement that it had completed 9 million interviews using its AI assessment and video interview software.
“We don’t have any idea how many candidates were discarded because of facial disfigurement, stroke, Botox, visual impairment, or because their voice was too low, because their eye contact wasn’t right because they were looking down for subtitles, or they were a Bangladeshi girl looking down in respect.”
“But to be fair to HireVue, we’ve had some good meetings. They know there are risks here and they’re working with [BDF], IBM and the Australian Network on Disability to determine what needs to be done, and by whom.”
It’s this willingness to dive in and work with those who are part of the problem – business leaders, employers and tech providers – that has made Scott-Parker’s advocacy so effective over the past three decades.
It also makes her uniquely placed to help guide HR professionals who are keen to enable equal opportunities for people living with disabilities.
This article was originally published in HRM magazine’s April 2019 edition.
Susan Scott-Parker will be speaking at this year’s AHRI National Convention and Exhibition in Brisbane (16-19 September). Registration closes today, so make sure you get in now.