First Hand — Sulaiman Khan on amplifying the voices of disabled talent in advertising
Finding your way in the industry can already be a pretty confusing affair, but, as Sulaiman Khan tells us, there are often additional barriers to entry for disabled creatives. After writing a blog post in 2015 about disability and the media, Sulaiman founded ThisAbility, a consulting agency dedicated to empowering one of the world’s most consistently marginalised communities. As well as being chief purpose officer with ThisAbility, Sulaiman is an independent consultant, and regularly contributes articles to publications such as Campaign, The Guardian and The Times. He speaks to us here about the struggles he faced and how he came to found his company and help others in similar positions.
After graduating, it took me three years to get my first job. And that wasn’t through lack of trying; I literally couldn’t get my foot in the door. Many agencies – especially the ones in a trendy attic or a basement – are not very accessible, both physically and in terms of attitudes. If access isn’t considered with different abilities in mind, I end up having to enter through the back door, or through a kitchen. I have many funny stories about all the weird entrances I’ve made into buildings. But in 2019 you don’t expect this kind of detail to segregate people. It shouldn’t still be happening today.
When I was at uni, studying advertising and brand communication at University for the Creative Arts, I didn’t really know what I was going to do next. I think this is mostly down to the fact that I didn’t get any support from the university. The only thing my careers advisor offered help with was creating a CV.
One of the challenges was that it was difficult to be at university and do an internship on the side. Often the agencies I was applying for would want a whole essay, or a video submission, but physically it was challenging to do that by myself. We even had a dedicated semester to do a one-month placement. I wrote to so many agencies, but only one, McGarryBowen (part of Dentsu Aegis), replied and offered me a two-day placement.
“As a disabled person, you have all these barriers to entry, on top of trying to figure out how to even get into the industry.”
While I was happy and grateful for that experience, I felt like no one warned me about the struggles of finding, or even being able to access, work or internships as a disabled person. Although there is a government scheme to help you land work and stay in the job, there’s little consideration for work experience roles. When you’re starting out in advertising, it’s quite common to do a month in one place, a week in another, before you get your first job. For me, as a disabled person, this just wasn’t possible because I couldn’t get the support I needed – whether that was financial or logistical. And, after a while, I stopped applying to those roles.
After those first three years, when I did eventually land a job [as a researcher at a communications agency], I decided to leave after eight months. The reason being that I wanted to do things that were a lot more meaningful, less stressful and on my own terms, so I decided to open up my own business and challenge myself further.
Sulaiman on a panel for International Women's Day
I founded ThisAbility in 2016 to to amplify the voices of disabled creatives, help businesses be more inclusive and to advise on hiring disabled talent. I call it a disability-led equity consultancy because disabled people are at the heart of everything we do, and rather than focusing on equality, saying everything is the same, we focus on things being fair. This takes into consideration that not everyone starts from the same place, whether you’re a disabled person or a minority.
Part of the challenge is that disability itself is also broad. Disabled people encompass a huge array of different backgrounds, and disability can cover everything from physical or learning disability to mental-health conditions or neurodiverse conditions, such as dyslexia. It’s a massive chunk of people, and unfortunately, we still have a long way to go – especially when you consider that around one in two non-disabled people in the UK haven’t even said hello to a disabled person, and around 76% have never invited a disabled person to a social occasion.
It’s essential that we gain a more significant presence in the workplace. Otherwise, there will be people making decisions about us, but without us, and part of that starts with the hiring process. I heard of one legal firm who contacts the candidate before the interview so that they can answer any questions [about visiting the building]. This could be as simple as explaining the best way to enter the building. An interview is stressful enough without having to worry about a concrete step.
“It’s essential that we gain a more significant presence in the workplace. Otherwise, there will be people making decisions about us, but without us.”
On the whole, disabled workers aren’t as visible as they should be, but there are a few agencies in London doing better work in regard to accessibility and approach to hiring. Abbi Brown, an account manager at AMV BBDO [who has osteogenesis imperfecta], is an excellent example of someone who is supported by her organisation and doing incredibly well. Also, Microsoft is really pushing to hire people with autism because they see the value in their ability to analyse and share their experiences. And while other companies are doing exciting things, I think organisations now need to put their money where their mouths are and engage with people working in this sector for the right reasons.
For anyone starting out in a similar position, my advice would be: Don’t lose hope. Hope was the thing that kept me going. You just have to be very proactive, have a sense of humour and laugh about things. It’s challenging, but it’s a fantastic industry – you get to come up with ideas and engage with brilliant people. The next thing is to find something that you’re really passionate about, then keep going, regardless of what people say.
As disabled people, we’re always required to be creative and innovative in our everyday lives, and every organisation – whether they know it or not – needs creative people, and we have the skills to deliver that. It’s about pushing forward positively, building a vast support network, cutting out the negativity and going after what you want.