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. Only 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 being seen as an essential element in organizations’ diversity portfolios. Part of the historical problem has been that disability has been seen – rightly or wrongly — as more difficult to manage than gender or racial diversity.  Some of the 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 – for example, dyslexia or mental illness.
  • 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.  The need to re-qualify in a strange environment is tough enough, but their illness is another major burden and 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 strong social stigma. One of the top TV journalists in the UK concealed for much of her career the fact that she was deaf in one ear. She only revealed it when she was so established in her career that she felt safe in doing so.
  • How disability is positioned within 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 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, who has 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.

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 people with disabilities. 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. One of the common themes throughout these was that participants often feel disenfranchised, inferior and disengaged from either the self-development process, or proactive career self-management. So one of the greatest gifts of a mentor is acceptance and belief in their potential.

©David Clutterbuck 2012

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