‘We are not here to be inspiration. Instead [we] invite back those who feel inspired to think about what they’re inspired to do as a consequence.’
From the moment her well-intentioned mother spoke wistfully about the possibility of her getting ‘a little job’ when she was afflicted by chronic rheumatoid arthritis as a teenager, Kate Nash has been challenging the narrative of expectations around disable people in the workplace. She’s the founder of professional development hub Purple Space and the inspiration behind the #purplelightup movement that has turned some of the world’s most iconic landmarks purple in honour of disability rights.
In this powerful conversation she blends the personal and the political to talk about her own experience, the complexity and diversity of disabled people’s lived experience, the commonalities of the barriers they face in the workplace, and what it means to be a good ally for disabled colleagues. She also reveals her approach to writing a book which any writer, disabled or not, can learn a lot from.
Kate’s website: https://www.purplespace.org/
Kate on Twitter: https://twitter.com/KateNashOBE
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge January 2023: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=proposal-challenge-jan-23
WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
Alison Jones: I’m here today with Kate Nash OBE, who is a change leader and a renowned disability campaigner. She’s the founder of PurpleSpace, the world’s only professional development membership hub for disability employee resource groups, and the annual Purple Light Up movement, #purplelightup, marking the UN International Day of Disabled People. Landmarks which have been lit up include the Shard, John F. Kennedy Airport, Niagara Falls and Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Kate’s worked for over 30 years to create long term change for disabled people at work, and her new book is called Positively Purple: Build an inclusive world where people with disabilities flourish.
So first of all, welcome to the show Kate. It’s really, really good to have you here.
Kate Nash: Same, lovely to meet you, Alison, and to be with your audience.
Alison Jones: So we all want to know firstly, about the title Purple, the idea of Purple Space. Tell us what it’s all about.
Kate Nash: Yes, I’d love to. Thank you. So why the colour purple when it comes to the community of people with disabilities? Well, we didn’t invent it. I’d like to think that we did, but no, we didn’t. And I have worked extensively throughout my career in supporting either legislators to improve the legislative or regulatory, a bedrock under which we include people with disabilities as citizens, or the employers community to ensure that they recruit and retain and develop disabled people. And it was actually a few years ago when the then UK Government was choosing to launch what was called a Disability Confident initiative, that they started to talk about the purple pound.
So we’ve all heard about the grey or the silver pound that denotes, supposedly, the power of spend of older people alluding to our grey or silver hair. Equally we’ve heard of the pink pound, which is the ironic use of the word pink to call out the spending power of our LGBTQ+ colleagues and community and citizens.
And so too was, the colour purple was starting to become synonymous with people with disabilities. And when I wrote my first book, self-published book, Secrets and Big News, just a few years before that, we noticed that increasingly purple was being used by people with disabilities as part to denote, you know, our struggle, our joy, our celebration, it was synonymous with disability and through the Purple Light Up and the work that we have done, I like to think that we have made that very famous.
So it’s about spirit, it’s about unity and a bit like the rainbow flag that is used, so powerfully, you know, it’s synonymous now with the gay movement, so too has the colour purple become synonymous with purple talent.
Alison Jones: And that idea about using a colour in that way as a rallying call, as a source of pride, see what I did there? I mean It’s very much pride for the rainbow, but just using it to express something that actually words are less powerful at, are less immediate for, and also, I mean, the LGBTQ+ thing is actually quite a good example because it does get quite clunky, doesn’t it?
You know, what’s the next one you add on there? And disability is the same. And you talk in the book about this actually, I think one of the problems with language is that we are frightened of saying the wrong thing. We are frightened of using the wrong words. Words that we were used to one year are suddenly not appropriate the next year.
And so there’s a complexity around language which you completely bypass when you do something like light up Sydney Harbour Bridge purple.
Kate Nash: Yes, it’s so true, Alison. It’s so true. You know, we know that all people of difference, we have our back stories, we have our challenges, our opportunities and, you know, for people with disabilities, it’s not an aspect necessarily of our humanity, it’s not an aspect of us being human that we always celebrate.
It can be quite a challenge for individuals to make sense of first, their disability or their health condition, and then to navigate often an inhospitable world. And that inhospitability is often about barriers and lack of access, but it equally can be about what I would call other people’s stuff, the soft bigotry of low expectations. So it means that disability, although there’s a definition, there are legal definitions around the world, it’s not a semantic that we run towards. And therefore, as you say, if we can use colour to cut through the fact that some of us will have, for different reasons and at different points in our life, a reticence in identifying with that community because there are aspects that are of struggle, they just makes it easier. And it makes it easier for our allies, you know, our purple allies, you know, enjoy too the celebration that it brings.
Alison Jones: Yes and you are right, there’s a real nuance to, I know, to how disabled people respond even to that word, but also their own experience. Not just, I mean, it’s like anything, isn’t it? You try and paint a group with a single attitude or response or a way of looking at the world, it’s just nonsense because each person is an individual and frankly, each person can view the same situation differently depending on the time of day, you know, so accepting that that complexity is a really important part. And at the same time, accepting that there is a community there for whom you can advocate and with whom you can stand as an ally.
So, yes, it’s a delicate balance, isn’t it, it’s interesting. You said about the back story, and I think it would be really helpful and rich for listeners, if you could just share a little bit of your own story with us.
Kate Nash: Yes, of course. So in terms of where am I now and whence I came, So I’m a woman in my late fifties. I currently live in Mumbles just by the Gower Peninsula, South Wales, although have lived primarily in London, travelled and worked extensively around the world when it comes to advocating for the rights of people with disabilities, improving the quality and the texture of legislation and supporting employers to do differently and better.
But you know, that wonderful expression, the personal is political. It was ever thus, and for me, my backstory, I suppose, starts when I was 15, when I first acquired juvenile chronic arthritis, what was called Stills Disease. It’s a type of rheumatoid arthritis, and I acquired that very dramatically at 15.
It’s actually a disease that you would most normally get very, very young, maybe one or two or three years old. So at 15 I actually got late onset juvenile chronic. And so yes, at a sweep, it was very dramatic. It was over one holiday period, one summer holiday period. And I found myself in a lot of pain. I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t dress myself. I couldn’t cut up food. I couldn’t feed myself, I had to drop out of school, went into long term hospital care and yes, it was a challenge. Now I look back and I spot the depressed teenager. At that time, I was just trying to make sense of something that I prefer not to have had.
And so, yes, you know, we navigate, we learn tricks and flicks in terms of how to build our confidence. I’m hugely grateful to great drug providers, legal drug providers, she said quickly, as well as great surgeons that have retained my mobility. But at that time I was a young, very unhappy, wheelchair using teenager while at hospital and then had to get back into schooling. And I tell often the story, I tell it in the book, I share it often in platforms. The moment I realized that life was going to be very difficult was a particular moment when my dear mum, my caveat, I share this story with her blessing and thankfully at 83 I still have an incredible mum. She’s been the wind beneath my sails and that of my siblings.
But there was a moment at 15, I was at the kitchen table, when she watched me looking at newspapers back in the day when we predicted what job we wanted to have simply by looking at job adverts. She watched me do this and she said, ‘Kate, do you know it would be fantastic if one day you could get a little job,’ and I railed against that word ‘little’.
You know, your listeners will hear it, and I share this story not to belittle the expression that my mum offered, on the contrary, you know, she gave me the stretch target in that sentence too. She put the word ‘job’ in there when many, many others were not. So yes, so that’s my backstory. And it fuelled me, it fuelled me with anger, which is not an altogether brilliant emotion to carry you.
Alison Jones: But it’s catalytic, isn’t it? It often is exactly what you need.
Kate Nash: Yes it is, and it’s common, you know, although I share my experience, disability as we know is a catch all for many, many human experiences. You know, the legal definition, it includes people who have dyslexia or dyspraxia or other forms of neurodiversity, people who are cancer survivors, people who may have MS, people who may have a lower back condition, people with visual impairments, people who are deaf or hard of hearing, people with facial disfigurements, people who may stammer. And although the manifestations of those disabilities, those health conditions, differ for all of us and even those of us who share the same disability, it may be very different.
The reality is the beat of our drum, our backstory is often inelegant systems, inaccessible environments and other people’s stuff. Yes, other people’s natural stuff because none of us, you know, I choose very deliberately to believe in the good of people. We look out and beyond, and we can be challenged daily to accept that humans are innately good beasts but I choose to believe very deliberately that we are, but we’re often discombobulated when faced with disability, either of ourselves or of others. We don’t know what to do. We don’t know what to say. We feel sad, we feel disappointed. We do feel pity. You know, pity’s one of the most corrosive of human emotions.
Anyway, Alison, I talk too much.
Alison Jones: It’s embarrassment often as well, isn’t it? There’s just that sense of I don’t want to say the wrong thing. I don’t want, I have no idea what your abilities and limits are, and I don’t want to embarrass you. And there’s a, if you’re British this is, you know, you almost die with embarrassment and so it’s easier not to speak and not to engage. And that’s the problem, isn’t it?
So tell me more about what that means for people with disabilities at work and I have to say, when you said that, when your mum said that thing about the little job, my heart just, you know, wrenched inside me, I was reading it and I was just thinking on the one hand, I can absolutely see where that was coming from. It’s coming from a place of love and support and possibility. On the other hand, ow.
So what is the landscape? I mean, again, we have to simplify massively because we’d never say anything, but, generally what are the issues that people with disabilities face and what are the kind of, I guess for people who want to be allies, what can we do?
Kate Nash: Yes, I think the kind of the challenges, the barriers, they fall into two camps. On the one hand, there are the policies, the practices, the procedures, the ways in which we can navigate the workplace. And different employers are at different stages of delivering high quality policy when it comes to include people of difference, people with disabilities.
So much of our working life is predicated on the ability or not of an employer to deliver a really easy to use, visible, elegant workplace adjustment process, what’s often called a reasonable adjustment process. And although there are some employers who are really getting it right in this space and putting boots on the ground to ensure that that policy is smart, that it is easy to use, that it’s well known by line managers, that it comes with a service level agreement, so whether you need, I don’t know, I mean, an ergonomic chair or an easy grip pen or a piece of software, that that comes with a service level agreement that no person would have to wait maybe more than 28 days. And in the same way as maybe maternity leave is now just routine, you know, a woman just needs to offer up the fact that she’ll need to take time out, you know, 15 weeks before she takes leave, so too are employers starting to get ahead of the game. Ultimately that’s still the biggest barrier.
The other camp is the more personal stuff, other people’s lack of expectation, stigma, the embarrassment factor. And it’s that often that can have sometimes not just as much as an impact on our life, but sometimes more, because we carry that with us and it can have an insidious impact on how we feel about ourselves and it can have a low grade beat in terms of how valuable we see ourselves at work, our levels of self-worth, our levels of confidence, our level of resilience. Because there are so many, some will choose to use the word micro aggressions that are out there that it starts to suggest that the world, the working world is more inhospitable. So those are the two real barriers.
In terms of what can allies do, I suppose be interested, be engaged, be prepared to lean in, be prepared to learn more. The concept of ally, I think is fantastic. We see a lot within the worlds of our LGBTQ+ colleagues and indeed gender allies, BAME allies. Purple allies now are starting to really lean in, which is wonderful. And there are things that, yes, purple lanyards, like rainbow lanyards, is a signal to the world that you are on a journey of wanting to learn and to make it easier for your disabled colleagues. But I particularly love the very genuine, practical actions that people can do.
And there are a number of things that people can do. One is to make it their business, to learn what the workplace adjustment process is, genuinely make it your business. So next time you have a direct report or a colleague that’s struggling, you know where and how to sign post them. Two would be to tell stories, tell stories about your life, you know, with the permission of others.
Tell stories about colleagues. We all know somebody with a disability, even if we don’t have a direct report or indeed a line manager. There’ll be somebody in our loved circle, with permission and generosity we can share their story, to call out the struggle that we might have, and then routinise it.
Is it the midway review? Is it the annual review that you always say to every colleague, irrespective of how they present, we’re a business that takes our diverse talent really seriously, and is there anything I can do as your online manager to make it easier for you to bring your authentic self to work? You don’t even have to mention disability, but you can bet your bottom dollar that if somebody’s struggling, they’ll really hear that. Or if they’re not struggling, but they come across somebody else who is struggling, they’ll have clocked that they work for an organization. So just some thoughts there of some actions.
Alison Jones: It’s such a simple but powerful question that, isn’t it, because it allows people to surface stuff that may be completely invisible.
Kate Nash: Yes, totally. It’s all about that normalization. It’s just saying this is a very common human experience, so let’s get a wiggle on.
Alison Jones: That should be the post script. Right, now you’ve read the book, get a wiggle on.
Kate Nash: Exactly.
Alison Jones: Why, I mean, the work that you do, campaigning, advocating, where does the book fit into that?
Kate Nash: Oh, that’s a great question, I suppose whoa, where can I go with that? It’s about, I mean Positively Purple is autobiographical in nature. So it is the story of my life and it’s the story of my advocating/campaigning life, but it’s equally the story of Purple Space and Purple Light Up, the movement that I founded somewhat accidentally.
But it’s chock full of lessons learned and practical actions for employers and employees. And I suppose it is one of the stories that I needed to get out into the world. And there isn’t too much practical information that people can try. So although it’s primarily for employers, I’m hopeful that the book and the readers will be the best judge of this.
There’s things there for doctors, for social workers, for Mums and Dads. There’ll be things there for siblings. There’ll be things there for line managers. There’ll be things there for policy makers, et cetera. So, yes, it’s my gift to the world. I hope it’s enjoyed. There’ll be things I expect people will enjoy, but there’ll be equally things that people may rail against.
You know, we are complex beings and we sometimes feel that challenge is created by one central force and I don’t believe that. So I don’t know if that answers your question but yes, that’s my best answer.
Alison Jones: And it’s a great answer and it’s a really interesting demonstration as well of how you can use your lived experience to abstract lessons for other people and do so with the kind of humility to recognize that: this is my lived experience and you know, there are things here that are really valuable for other people, and your experience may be different as well.
I think holding that as you write, which you do beautifully is really important. You sometimes read books where somebody’s lived experience is presented as the way things are, which I don’t think is always terribly helpful.
With the writing itself, how do you find writing? What does it do for you?
Sort of the process of it? And also interesting, you know, because obviously you have rheumatoid arthritis, what are the ways in which you engage with writing? What tools do you use?
Kate Nash: Oh, great questions. I loved the process. I absolutely adored the process and know that I need to write more. It’s through the creation of Positively Purple that I know that my next, I suppose potentially my swan song, is to write more on this area.
In terms of how I suppose I live, I mean it is partly a summation of my lived experience, but it’s also because of my extensive network of people with disabilities around the world. Purple Space is a global network, so I’m equally talking to colleagues in Brazil, in India, in China, in Australia, in the Middle East, et cetera. So it’s the story of our lives as much as it being a story of my life.
In terms of how, yes, you know, my hands are awkwardly shaped and I do experience significant pain. So certainly longhand has never been an option, is not really an option for most people now. But nonetheless, I tend to write when my spirit is highest, which is in the morning. I tend to write for a good chunk of time and not edit at the same time, so just get into flow and not worry about the grammar and the spellings of which there are many.
And I pace myself. I sit with the knowledge that this story has to come out. So even if I can only do it in chunks of time, you know, it will be there when I come back to it. And I suppose like any writer, you have to get into that flow to really feel the emotionality of what you are writing.
And depending on which, you know, whether you’re writing something very practical for employers or you need something meaningful for people with disabilities to lean into, you have to get into a different type of head space. So yes, lots of breaks, it’s being kind to myself, getting in flow and not editing at the same time as writing.
Alison Jones: Yes, very wise. Yes, and I love that thing about almost the trust, you’re saying there, that it will come, it doesn’t have to be done in one session. You just keep chipping away and get the thing done because it matters and it will get done. It’s a lovely mindset I think to approach the enormous job, frankly, of writing a book with.
Kate Nash: Yes, yes.
Alison Jones: Now, I always ask my guests for their one best tip, for somebody who hasn’t yet perhaps written a business book, but is thinking about it or just starting out, from your experience Kate, what would you say?
Kate Nash: I suppose the first would be answer the ‘so what’ question early on. I so enjoyed working with Kogan Page and they’re wonderful individuals and Chris Cudmore and his team are just breathtaking, but answering in a really pithy way the ‘so what’ as early as possible to avoid too much of the rewriting and the redrafting.
So what I mean by that is to really feel what the audience might want to hear, find ways of delivering practical and engaging and head-turning sort of sound bites and ideas about what people can do as a result of listening to your truth. There’s nothing worse than being where your passion is heightened, but there’s actually nothing to do as a consequence.
Classically in our world, we’re often sharing our story to be told that we’re inspired, you know, others are inspired. We jest that we are not here to be inspiration. And instead to invite back those who feel inspired, to invite them to think about what they’re inspired to do as a consequence.
So I think for anyone writing, it’s think about your audience and what they want to take away. So that would be my main piece of advice. Think about your audience.
Alison Jones: And I’m nodding vigorously to the point where I’m actually going to damage my neck because my publishing company is called Practical Inspiration, and it’s exactly that. It’s like, yes, you want to be inspired and what are you going to do about it? And how do you help people take that inspiration and turn it into something that you can actually action tomorrow, today, in their life, in their workplace? Yes, brilliant.
And I always also ask people to recommend a book, and you’re not allowed to recommend Positively Purple, sorry. But is there another book that you would recommend that people listening should read?
Kate Nash: Oh, one of my many, many favorites. My pull out favorite for the moment is The Promises of Giants by John Amaechi.
Alison Jones: John Amaechi yes.
Kate Nash: A dear friend, fellow traveller, in different aspects of human difference but nonetheless, you know, he chooses to use his story as an impetus to drive and support others to think about their leadership capabilities.
So yes, The Promises of Giants is just wonderful. It’s full of leadership lessons. It’s not about positional hierarchy. You know, he notices that each and every one of us as human beings have options and opportunities to exert and to spend our equity as leaders to drive change. And it’s chock full of stories. Beautiful, beautiful stories.
One, he talks about his own mum. I suppose it really chimes with me, people who talk about their parents and their backstory, that he shared story of where his mum asks him to think about whether he would know his soul in the dark, which is just, you’ve got to read it to feel it.
Alison Jones: Beautiful question.
Kate Nash: Yes, do you really understand yourself and are you prepared to invest in your own personal development in order to be the best that you can be in order to support others to think that. So that’s my best favorite for the moment. The Promises of Giants by John Amaechi.
Alison Jones: That’s a great, great recommendation. Yes, and he’s a wonderful guy, yes.
And Kate if people want to find out more about you, more about Purple Space, the work that you do, where should they go?
Kate Nash: To drop into our website, which is www.purplespace.org. There you can hear and see what we do, why we do it, how we do it, and how you might get involved. Particularly Purple Light Up if that movement calls to you. In terms of getting hold of the book through Kogan Page, on lots of other sites, but of course that’s my top favorite for the moment.
And you want to reach me on LinkedIn, I’m there and on Twitter Kate Nash OBE on Twitter or My Purple Space. So yes, come and say hi. Come get involved.
Alison Jones: Loads of options there, wonderful. Thank you. And I’ll put those links up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com along with the transcript of the conversation. So thank you so much for your time today Kate, it’s been absolutely fascinating.
Kate Nash: Pleasure. Thank you Alison, so much.