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Kate Nash’s Positively Purple Breaks the Silence on Disability and Employment

By Sofia Brizio

As I was getting ready to write this review of Kate Nash’s new book Positively Purple (Kogan Page), I stumbled upon a reel by US disability right’s advocate Whitney Bailey (@wheelchairwhit on Instagram). October is Disability Employment Awareness Month in the US and she remembered how, at her first job interview, she ended up not getting the job, but HR asked her if she could give a motivational speech to the rest of the company, for free. “Can you imagine me sitting in front of the employees, saying my skills weren’t good enough to work there but I could for sure motivate them to do their job!” I too have had my fair share of experiences where I was not hired for a job but still got offered to “collaborate” with the company for free because my experience was valuable, and I was “so inspirational.” This attitude towards disabled people is exactly why we need books like Positively Purple. I was lucky enough to read a proof copy ahead of publication.

Half memoir, half vade mecum for employees and employers alike, Positively Purple shines a bright light on the world of employment when you have a disability. Kate Nash uses her lived experience of disability to highlight the importance of self-advocacy to get the support you need in the workplace. Her personal story doesn’t just remind us of the importance of perseverance, but exposes the pitfalls of a society that is reluctant to accommodate different needs and life experiences. Although the move to remote working as a result of COVID-19 made work more accessible for many disabled people, now that the world is scrambling to “go back to normal,” the drawbacks of the current UK equality legislation are once again evident.

Why is it so difficult to establish what counts as “reasonable adjustments”? Why would a disability inclusion policy be harder to implement than maternity policies? Of course disability is a complex medical and societal phenomenon often linked to disclosure, agency and political factors, but sometimes it feels like hiring a disabled employee is still seen as an act of charity. I had a chance to ask Kate Nash a few questions on the topics she talks about in Positively Purple.

Kate Nash is CEO and Founder of PurpleSpace, the first and only professional development hub for disability network leaders. In 2017, she started the #PurpleLightUp movement to celebrate the economic contribution of the 386 million disabled employees around the world. The movement encourages organisations to light up significant buildings in purple for International Day of People with Disabilities on 3 December and had its largest global and digital footprint in 2021. But Kate’s phenomenal career started long before the rise of social media activism. She worked as a lobbyist with NGOs across the UK and pushed for anti-discrimination legislation for disabled employees. Positively Purple is the culmination of this work, a love letter to storytelling, disabled identities, and never giving up.

Although influenced by the social model of disability, recognising that the barriers disabled people face are societal rather than the result of their impairment, the book positions itself as a practical guide to inclusion in the workplace: “The social model of disability, while often our North Star in framing what disability is as a political experience, offers little on how to navigate the soft bigotry of low expectations at a day-to-day practical level, and especially at work. I wanted to summarise some life lessons born from direct lived experience as well as having worked with hundreds of thousands of employees with disabilities in a way that employers can hear. And more importantly, to act,” Kate told me.

Positively Purple encourages a collaborative approach to achieving inclusion which involves an honest dialogue with stakeholders. Sometimes, however, it’s difficult not to get discouraged when the people in power seem not to care: “Mostly, I do this by making the conscious choice to persist and not ‘hand power’ to others. When others choose to act in ways that are distasteful, illegal, rude, crushing, offensive, I simply press onwards with plan A. It doesn’t mean I do not feel the effects, but I choose to channel the anger in other ways. I made the decision long ago I was not on the planet to train non-disabled people to behave better around me, but to press on with my career and life which is too valuable to allow others to treat with disrespect. It takes daily effort – and as I say at the end [of the book], I was born with an abundance of obstinacy!”

In the age of social media activism, effort also means switching off from negative storylines to preserve our mental health: “Too many people post about the inadequacy, deficits and unfairness of our lives. I do not deny it exists, but I preserve my emotional health by choosing to focus on the things we can do to make a practical difference to ourselves and others.”

When asked about whether it’s harder to stand out as an activist online rather than in person, Kate said: “For me, it’s about purpose. What is the purpose of wanting to be a ‘stand-out activist’ and how does one’s message align with that purpose? I see a lot of ‘old messages’ – they didn’t work the first time around, so there is no reason to suggest they will again (i.e. the ‘deficit shouting’ posts that I speak about in the book). If you start with the question ‘what do I want people to think, feel and do as a result of this post?’ then chances are you avoid posts that just offer indignation about the things that happen in our lives. That doesn’t motivate others. It wasn’t so much the fact that digital activism didn’t exist that made my in-person work more necessary – it’s that I was working to purpose (i.e. to secure legislation, collecting stories about our lives to field as evidence to legislators). Now that purpose has shifted to ensure millions of people with disability at work can build their confidence and thrive – and to help those that come behind us.”

Positively Purple: Build an inclusive world where people with disabilities can flourish by Kate Nash is published by Kogan Page and available to buy on their website.



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