When asked to think about diversity, most people tend to think about race and gender. One type of “underrepresented minority” that is often overlooked – in spite of often being as visible as gender or skin color – are the individuals living with genetic, physical, behavioral or intellectual differences.
We spent some time with Xian Horn, founder of Give Beauty Wings and Changeblazer. Born with cerebral palsy, Xian has embraced her physical differences and used them to educate and improve the lives of countless individuals. Through her efforts as a consultant and educator, Xian has shown that even a modest effort and some thoughtfulness does have a significant positive impact on a large segment of our society, and that organizations that educate themselves about disabilities stand to reap huge practical and economic benefits. In fact, after reading this interview, you may come to the conclusion that the term “disability” is misplaced.
Parts of this interview have been edited for clarity.
Paolo Gaudiano and Ellen Hunt: Tell us a bit about yourself. How has Cerebral Palsy shaped your life?
Xian Horn: A couple of years ago, during a conversation someone asked me, “How long have you been disabled?” Something about the way he asked it, made me answer, “Well, I’ve never been disabled.” Nothing in my life has been “disabled” by my disability ever. It has only added to my life.
My parents always told me anything was possible, and in my life I always treated my disability as a practical consideration. When I was applying for college, I never even looked up a disability scholarship. It never occurred to me to think of myself as disabled. I really saw myself a part of the whole world. Most of my friends are without disabilities.
Gaudiano and Hunt: Speaking of interacting with people without disabilities, what is your experience with respect to engaging these people in conversations?
Horn: I’ve had amazing, moments in my life, and it’s aided by the fact that I have these hot pink ski poles. Every day I’m in New York City I get the question, “Going skiing?” or, “What’s happened here?” I’m very used to saying, “I have cerebral palsy and it’s the blessing of my life. Thank you so much for asking.”
I do understand that’s a unique experience. I like to smile at people on the street, that’s how I am. I don’t expect everyone to be that way, but I do think that having some openness when you go into situations can help you have conversations more spontaneously. I also think of it as a wonderful weeding mechanism: I’ve learned that if somebody doesn’t want to talk to me because of my disability, that’s absolutely okay. I saved some time and I don’t mind that.
It’s just a personal choice that I’ve made myself available when I am on the street. I make myself emotionally and physically available to have interactions. If someone has never talked to a person with a disability, that can be a scary experience to just approach somebody, but I think it’s important to make the effort to meet and connect with people that are not like us.
Gaudiano and Hunt: What about engaging in conversations about disability in the workplace?
Horn: A lot of these conversations don’t happen because there is this fear between both sides. How do I talk to somebody with a disability? How do I talk to somebody without a disability? When I did vocational classes for Disability Mentoring Day for the Mayor’s office for People with Disabilities, we addressed “How do I talk about my disability?” I think that we were really able to dispel some of the self-made myths about what that conversation looks like.
In my latest endeavor, my goal is to take away the fear on both sides. From the side of an individual with a disability, I think there’s a fear, “Do I disclose? How do I talk about it?” While, from the other side it’s even a respectful fear, often, of, “I don’t want to offend this person, but I need to know what they need if I’m going to hire them.” I think a lot of times this fear is because employers have not done this before, or job seekers have not done this before. It’s the fear of that first step that often gets in the way.
I really see myself as the middle woman, telling individuals with disabilities “You have something that they need. Simply offer that up and be honest with what reasonable accommodations you might need.” I really believe that those conversations are much more easily had when a person with a disability is able to see that “Yes, I have all these skills and this is just the practical side.”
Then I also like to have conversations with employers, “Here, you need somebody to fill this position and there are these tax incentives now, so everybody wins.” It’s about having that conversation and communicating and being okay with maybe not always saying the right thing, but working through it anyway. We’re not going to know until we try. Have these conversations and be okay with making mistakes so that you can learn how best to engage with everyone. I can’t universally say what’s okay with every person with a disability, but what you can do is ask. You start that conversation and you work through the awkwardness because once you get past that, then you can really connect on what contributions can be made on both sides.
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