Disability special report

In this three-part report, we look at how coaching can be used to support disabled people. Two coaches and their clients – one a deaf UK-based coach and the other a Greece-based coach with no disabilities – share their experiences and reflections. And David Clutterbuck offers guidance on using mentoring with disabled people


Disabled people are just like other people. Why offer them particular support as a group? The short answer is because it could help unearth talents that employers are unaware of, says deaf coach, Jane Cordell

When I started coaching in 2008, it was with disabled future leaders. I knew that each person who came through the door was disabled like me. In fact, it was a prerequisite for the leadership Empowerment courses organised by Royal Association for Disability rights (RADAR) on which i worked. As a coach, however, you may not know if someone has a disability. Disclosure is a personal decision. And in an increasingly hostile economic environment, a disabled employee may avoid disclosure fearing for their job security.

How do you see us?

Disability makes many people feel awkward. Disabled psychotherapist Andri White1 outlines four ways of seeing disability, only one of which – the social model – assumes shared responsibility for any barriers or perceived difficulties preventing the person living life to the full.

Then there’s the very old moral model (the impairment is the disabled person’s fault), the tragedy model (the person is a helpless victim of circumstance who must be rescued) and the medical model (the person is ‘broken’ and should be fixed).

It’s easy for people to slip subconsciously into one of these approaches and, as a coach, allow the model(s) subtly to affect how you coach the person. Equally, it can be difficult for a coach not to start creating a paradigm around visible disability, with inner dialogue such as, ‘I must focus on ignoring her blindness/deafness/wheelchair/assistance dog etc.’ Most coaches will know how well such an approach foregrounds the very thoughts you’re attempting to dispel.

However, why should we even look differently at disability? My answer is that as a group, disabled employees offer skills and talents above and beyond what you could expect, but that to bring them out, those concerned often need the encouragement and confidence-building that coaching can offer.

Same difference

My small-scale reflective research, comparing the 60 per cent of people I coached who had a disability, with the 40 per cent (mainly civil servants) who did not, suggested that this group:

Start out with higher levels of self-awareness (possibly due to others’ responses to their disability and the need to redefine themselves or clarify their identity as a result)

Have the scope to achieve more in a short period of coaching than their able-bodied cohorts.

The Employers’ Forum on Disability estimates there are more than 6.7 million people of working age in the UK who have a disability of some type – about 18 per cent of the working population.

Employment levels in this group are much lower though – about 50 per cent compared with non-disabled (80 per cent).

The proportion of people I coached who had a disability was roughly five times the expected norm, all other things being equal.  What this means is that those who obtain work are often unusually determined, resilient and, in some cases, over-qualified, for the jobs they get. If you expect to encounter difficulties or prejudice when applying for a job, you are likely to keep your expectations ‘realistic’ (often ‘low’). RADAR’s research, Doing Careers Differently, provides ample evidence of this.

The question is, by viewing disabled employees primarily or solely via the physical or human support they may need, are employers missing a trick?

There is much talk at the moment of the importance of people skills and emotional intelligence at work, particularly in the service-oriented UK labour market. If you consider the skills a disabled person might need to even reach the labour market, you end up with an impressive list:

  • problem-solving
  • communication skills
  • self-awareness
  • patience
  • negotiation
  • speedy analysis of risk
  • emotional maturity
  • understanding of others’ perspective
  • sensitivity
  • resilience
  • creativity in developing solutions.

In spades

One challenge as a coach is to enable the person to see they have these skills, to value them and to present them positively to others.

I remember one client presenting her achievement in customer service (98 per cent satisfaction and targets achieved) as if it were nothing. I asked what level her employer required. She said “80 per cent”, then laughed. It was as if she had never heard her own achievements out loud before.

Creativity, the final point in the list, is important too. It is easy to fall into assumptions about how things are done, thereby missing an alternative that might be better.

For example, I coach with a third person in the room – a lipspeaker who makes spoken language accessible to me. The dynamics are different, but a deaf coach cannot screen out information. They must pay attention to every visible syllable, and the way in which it is relayed. As a deaf person I am also highly attuned to body language and its useful non-verbal messages. So you could view deaf coaching as almost a contradiction in terms, or you could see it as a particularly attentive type of coaching.

I was struck by the answer a high-powered colleague in one of the leading management consultancies gave, at the height of the financial crisis, when I asked what her greatest challenge was. She replied, without hesitation, “Finding and retaining the best talent.” If you are an in-house coach, or coach co-ordinator, it would be worth asking the following questions:

  • Do we know which staff are disabled?
  • What provision, if any, are we making to foster the talent this group may hold?
  • How might coaching develop that group’s talent and confidence?
  • How are disabled staff approaching challenges differently and how, as an organisation, could we learn from them?

You could find that you unearth some well-hidden treasure.

1 Therapy Today, June 2011

On the RADAR

John Manning attended the 2010 Leadership Empowerment event organised by RADAR (Royal Association for Disability Rights). This consisted of four monthly events each month in spring 2010. They included inspirational speakers, workshops and a 30-minute coaching session for each participant, plus four telephone coaching follow-up sessions. John, who is in full-time employment, decided to attend the event to develop his personal legacy and clarify his goals to be able to achieve this.

When John started coaching, he explained how the various challenges he was facing made him feel pulled in several directions. There was an issue he needed to handle at work related to his disability, a difficulty with his home which required long-term planning and demands on his private time all vying for the time he needed to achieve his personal dream of starting a non-profit accountancy business to benefit the charities he hoped would be his main clients.

One of the main areas we worked on was prioritising and creating the right type of time and space in which John could work towards his goals. A crucial issue was finding physical space separately from the rest of his busy life in which he could work on developing his private business. Once John had made this a personal priority, he felt he started to progress and found other activities could fit better around this. We also looked at negotiating flexible time with John’s managers. He focused on how to communicate his needs clearly – making it difficult for others to refuse his suggestions.

As a result of his work on the RADAR course, John started his accountancy practice part-time with the support of a group of professionals. He has actively participated in disability networks that will help his business venture on a reciprocal basis, published an article fulfilling his legacy, given presentations in Manchester, Leeds and Blackpool, and was invited to 10 Downing Street in October 2011 as part of a RADAR initiative. He said: “All this has been achieved since the last workshop in May 2010. By October [2010] I was making a profit in my business and further developing my customer base.”

Support needed

Deaf coach Jane Cordell used to be a diplomat with the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Last year she lost her appeal against the FCO for discrimination. The FCO had ruled that the reasonable adjustments required for her to take up the post of deputy head of mission in Kazakhstan were too costly. The Equality and Human Rights Commission slammed this move by the Employment Appeals Tribunal as sending the message “that disabled people should not expect to get to the top of their profession, if they have significant support needs”, calling on the government and employers “to develop new and creative ways of delivering support for disabled people”.


Why should disability be a problem when you coach the ‘whole’ person? Surely it’s just another phase in the continuum of life? CoachBarbara Asimakopoulou and client Katerina Hurd report

Business coaches are ideally placed to be equal partners to disabled people, helping them gain or regain control of their professional lives. The ultimate goal is to help them see their disability as just another phase in the continuum of life. Framing it in this way can assist the disabled to be autonomous agents.

A useful assumption in coaching is that the client is ‘whole’, a resourceful and creative expert in his own life and work. Coaching can help disabled clients redirect their abilities and resources to promote their social welfare, career and education.

The better they see themselves, the more creative they can be and the better their psychological health is likely to be. Coaching can create a new social identity for the disabled, reverse stereotypes, strengthen self-esteem and lower their degree of dependency.

An ideal partner

The coach facilitates and challenges people to solve problems, reach goals, design a plan of action and make decisions.

The coach ‘stays with’ the disabled person to:

  • bring out their new abilities
  • increase self-awareness and self-confidence
  • keep looking ahead and take advantage of opportunities
  • implement a plan of action
  • challenge them to discover and accept professional alternatives.

The fair and open-minded coach accepts their disabled client wholly, listening without judgement. Often, there is no previous history so the coach focuses on the human being behind the disability, not on the pathology that caused the disability, for example.

The coach can be a source of inspirational motivation, working with their disabled client to identify strengths independently of the disability so they can do the best they can with what they have now.

A coach can focus the disabled person on the present when they are being nostalgic for the past, while acknowledging that the past might instil hope to build a future.

The disabled at work

As a coach of disabled people, I wonder whether our society, employers and non-disabled employees are ready to accept the disabled on equal terms. I suspect that despite legal or national regulations, many are not.

Coaching can facilitate synergy between disabled and able-bodied employees in companies seeking productive cohesion in a peaceful working environment.

Disability is contingent on the task facing the person. Coaching can help disabled people find tasks that they can perform from start to finish.

With some, it might be about facilitating a transition to a different phase in the employee’s life that now includes a disability.

In some cases, the coach can act as an advocate on behalf of their disabled client in front of the employer. The coach can remind the employer that disability is just another phase of life – one that many of us face at some point – and help them see disabled people as equals. The coach can act as a messenger, informing HR about prejudice and helping them take advantage of the real capabilities of the disabled person.

However, it is important at all times to offer unconditional support for the disabled employee. All too often, their autonomy has been compromised. Like anyone, disabled people want their employer to treat them with respect, without discrimination, and to grant them equal opportunities.

Dr Katerina Hurd is a medical ethicist. She has a PhD in biomedical sciences from Oakland University, Michigan and a masters in medical physics from University of Surrey, UK

Barbara Asimakopoulou is an HR expert, business coach, motivational trainer and managing partner at Human Resources Expertise, Greece email: ba@hre.gr

Case study: Coaching my friend, Katerina

In the session, we explored what mattered to Katerina: “It is important to have clarity of thinking so I can maintain my autonomy to reason and to make my own decisions, thus, having a sense of responsibility for my life…Knowing that I enjoy reading and writing that facilitate my ability to think…Having a better perception of my self-awareness. In this way I can guard and defend, if I have to, my personal identity, my values and beliefs.”

As part of this self-responsibility, Katerina wanted to inspire and educate others about disability: “I want to find a way to inspire my family, future employers and employees so that my physical disabilities can be compensated for, improvised on with new, creative ways of thinking and acting accordingly…. I want to be able to cry and laugh, to psychologically support my friends, and fight against any prejudice and stereotypes.”

It was important for her to learn to live and work with the unpredictability of her future, but to recognise that the future is unknown anyway. We explored how she could cope with this. Strategies included paying more attention to the present:

“Time for me has multiple and different dimensions. I don’t waste my time, but I pay attention. I assess my strengths in order to maintain a quality of life that I want to live. I must adjust my expectations to my new physical conditions.”

Katerina shared how some people feel intimidated by her and that “dealing with a 42-year-old disabled woman evokes feelings of confusion and pity” in some. “Disability is like pornography: you recognise it when you see it.”

But when I asked her how important it is to her to be acknowledged by her peers, she said: “I don’t want to waste my time and energy to comfort people’s insecurities.”

Katerina studied Bioethics because she didn’t want her physical disability to restrict her from pursuing the life she wanted to live. “Physical disability and disability in general is a phase in the human condition… It does not disable your feelings and association with other human beings.”

We explored how disability changed Katerina. She said: “Disability is not a death sentence. It‘s a challenged approach to living.”

Wrapping up the session, Katerina said: “Imperfect human beings can also do perfect things”, and stressed that “the trust of the client in the coach is essential”.

Coaching Katerina brings many challenges – an important one being that she is a precious friend that I had known a long time before she became disabled. In my coaching role, I try to be professional and listen to her, despite my memories, and not counsel her as I used to, as a friend. I feel overwhelmed sometimes because of my love for her and it can be difficult to see and give her what she needs the most from me. More important for me is the balance and happiness of my friend.

References and further info

The Coach U Personal and Corporate Coach Training handbook, Coach U, Inc, Wiley, 2005

B Asimakopoulou, The Art of Peace in the Working Environment, Kritiki Editions, 2008

Handbook of Disability Studies, Ed. G L Albrecht, K D Seelman and M Bury, Sage, 2001

T Shakespeare, Disability Rights and Wrongs, Routledge, 2006

Quality of Life and Human Difference, Ed. D Wasserman, J Bickenbach and R Wachbroit, Cambridge University Press, 2005


Disability is increasingly important in business diversity. David Clutterbuck reveals the core issues for mentors

One of my most emotive recollections of mentoring is taking part in a Civil Service programme for disabled staff. One of the participants was a Thalidomide victim. Partially sighted, with only rudimentary fingers at the end of stumps of arms, he turned the pages of the workshop manual with his tongue. And he fiercely yearned for promotion, which he achieved at the end of the programme. Disability has been the poor cousin of corporate mentoring, but it is increasingly an essential element in organisations’ diversity portfolios. Part of the problem is that disability has been seen as more difficult to manage than gender or racial diversity. Core issues relating to disability mentoring are:

The wide spectrum of disability

It’s still not clear in many organisations’ policies and approaches, for example, whether obesity is a disability or some kind of morally reprehensible lack of personal discipline. Or when poor eyesight becomes partial sightedness becomes blindness. Many disabilities are invisible.

Reluctance to self-identify

Many people shy away from being labelled as disabled. In a mentoring programme in Canada for female immigrant professionals, for example, a significant sub-group is also HIV positive. It often takes time before they are able to talk about it.

It’s common for people to want to keep private conditions, such as heart disease, which are not visible; and even more so, mental illness, which may carry a social stigma.

How disability is positioned in the relationship and mentoring conversation

In one mentoring relationship, the mentee was in a wheelchair. Yet the mentor was too embarrassed to make any reference to it. Trying to pretend the disability isn’t there – or, just as bad, making it the core of a mentoring discussion – can be very demeaning for the mentee. Learning how to bring disability into the conversation without embarrassment and where it is relevant is one of the most useful lessons for mentors.

Disabled or ‘whole’ mentor?

Having a mentor with a similar disability to yourself can provide a lot of practical and emotional support, but may not give as much access to career opportunities as someone at a senior level, who is not disabled. (Having two or more mentors is one solution.)

Disability versus different ability

Perspectives on what constitutes a disability differ. For example, many people on the autistic spectrum are vocal about the benefits of a mind that works differently from the majority. Mentors and mentoring programmes need to respect and value the mentee’s perspective and sense of identity.

Common themes

In the search for case studies of disability mentoring for a forthcoming book on diversity mentoring, it was gratifying to find so many programmes aimed specifically at disabled people. For example, a programme to help disabled people set up their own businesses; or another to encourage disabled students at school to apply to Oxford; or others to support people with dyslexia.

A common theme was that participants feel disenfranchised, inferior and disengaged from the self-development process or proactive career self-management. One of the greatest gifts of a mentor is acceptance and belief in their potential.

© David Clutterbuck, 2012

Coaching at Work, volume 7, issue 2

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