You founded an exceptional consultancy called ThisAbility in London in 2016. Could you describe how that emerged, what's happening currently, and where you look forward to going with it in the future?
I studied Advertising and Brand Communication, and I graduated in 2012. I have a physical disability called muscular dystrophy, which is a progressive muscle wasting condition. I use a power wheelchair, and I’m quite severely disabled.
After I graduated, it took three years to get my first job – though not for lack of trying. In London, nothing is easily accessible. Physical access to buildings is often impossible. Even worse, many agencies don't really engage in hiring disabled talent, which is quite frustrating. After eight months, that first job broke down. I wanted to take ownership of my work and do things that were more meaningful. By October 2016 I was feeling frustrated and isolated; I started to ask if advertising was right for me. Instead of waiting another three years to find another job, I decided to open my own business called ThisAbility.
In February of this year, I decided to make it into a limited company (for-profit company here in the UK) because I didn't want to be a charity or a recruiter. Instead, ThisAbility is an equity consultancy. Rather than equality, which starts with the idea that everything is the same (but none of us start from the same place), I believe in equity that says our priority is about fairness and looking at the rights of all people. So, the guiding idea for my business is for creative disabled talent to change the culture and make equity the default.
How do you position ThisAbility in broader conversations and activities about diversity? I ask that because I was so struck when I first met and heard you at the RARE London workshop in April, by your sensitivity to more extensive about diversity in creative businesses.
When it comes to diversity, I'm trying to open up the conversation to and about the community of disabled people who were never engaged before. Particularly when it comes to the creative industries, there's a lot of talk about gender, race, and ageism. Disability is a topic that's almost never included.
As far as I'm aware, no one is focusing on creativity and disability in the way that I do at ThisAbility. While there may be arts and other organizations, for example, no one is trying to encompass disability and creativity in for-profit businesses. Remember according to the UN that disabled people are the world's largest minority, and as the “Return on Disability” report says we’re a growing market the size of China with a current global disposable income (when you include our friends and family who act on an emotional connection to us) of $8 trillion. So I regularly tell agencies and organizations that if they don't want the $8 trillion, I'll have it all for myself.
Practically, I offer clients (brands, agencies, businesses, professionals) a fuller and more authentic understanding of how to engage with disabled audiences or markets as well as engage with disabled talent. In particular, I want to emphasize how disabled people have to be creative and innovative from a very young age to “hack” our way around the barriers of society. Liz Jackson calls us “the original life hackers” because we hack life. So when advertising agencies say they want innovation and creativity and problem solvers, I respond that disabled people are a whole, massive market and talent pool out there. Therefore, it makes no sense that nobody in the creative industries is actively engaging us to support their businesses.
Stella Young has talked about ‘inspiration porn’. In your many interactions with the industry, how are you able to move people, or help people to get beyond their often temporary and superficial attention and responses to (or, worse, manipulations of) disability and disabled people to more meaningful rebellion and change?
For me it starts with having conversations. In the UK, 43% of people don't know a disabled person personally. One in two people in the UK has never even started a conversation with a disabled person. 76% of people in the UK have never invited a disabled person to a social event. If you're not even saying hello to a disabled person or engaging with us, that’s a business and broader social issue in itself.
Think about the Channel 4 adverts for the Paralympics in 2012 and 2016, “Meet the Superhumans” and “We're The Superhumans” respectively. The original one from 2012, was fantastic: eye-opening and saying clearly that disability is a positive thing. The ones they did four years later in 2016 were, frankly (and personally), completely horrid. They make disabled people something other than “human” again. Another label has now been thrust upon us that of “superhuman”, dehumanizing us rather than treating us as people just like you, which reinforces the ableist narrative and actions by the media and society faced daily by disabled people. Labels are for products, not people.
When it comes to diversity, I aim to ensure that everybody is part of the conversation. That’s why (through my business) I’m working tirelessly to destabilize the accepted narrative of creativity and disability. And that's why I believe in equity and intersectionality. Equity forces us to examine our humanity to the core and seek fairness for everyone, everywhere. Intersectionality talks about how we're connected in different ways and through different parts of our life that make us a whole human. As a disabled, I'm connected. As a Southeast Asian, I'm connected. My being disabled or connected independently in all these different parts of my life makes me the person that I am.
I’m curious about your title, which, besides being the founder, is the Chief Purpose Officer, of ThisAbility. As occurs with ‘inspiration’, there's arguably some superficial ‘purpose porn’ that’s exploited in business and social discussions today. Could you say more about what purpose means to you?
For me, “purpose” is more than the buzzword creatives tend to throw around nowadays. It’s part of my daily core value for what I’m aiming to do with ThisAbility. For me, “purpose” is about doing something greater than myself and building a legacy that outlives me to make the world a better place for everyone. Creativity should be exercised for good and to ensure that we're all feeling included and supported. For me, that “purpose” is focusing on creative disabled talent.
On my website, there's a significant section called the “Golden Spiral”. In his book, Start With Why, Simon Sinek talks about you should always start with why you do something – and only after then what you do and how you do it. Yet more recently I’ve been reading and thinking about how you should start with people, with who.
That means instead of Sinek’s golden circle, you have the golden spiral. You look at who should be the people at the core of what you do, and then turn to the why, and then the how, and then the what. That ties together even more tightly what my purpose is and why I'm doing it for the world.
What recommendations would you share with leaders of creative businesses?
Among many possibilities, let me share three. First, creative leaders have to have a sense of humor. Often you can get too bogged down in the day-to-day and forget that, when it comes to creativity, nobody's going to die if you get something wrong. So, I think you just have to step back and celebrate yourself with a sense of humor to say, "Hey, we're doing great work, and if we screw up, then tomorrow is another day," and just laugh about it.
Second, I would mention self-care. I believe in saying yes to everything, but I also recognize you have to focus on yourself and look after yourself. As I said, I have a condition called muscular dystrophy, which is a progressive muscle wasting condition. So, taking one day at a time can sometimes be exceptionally challenging. Even breathing is very tiring at times. I think it’s essential to take a single breath at a time and really focus on self-care and mindfulness. Although, I’m not perfect myself; this is something I’m still learning and trying to work on in my own life.
And third, saying by example, I believe in growth through discomfort by continually pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. The way I look at life is that if you're always feeling safe, happy and comfortable, then you’re not living to your fullest potential and experiencing life in full color. You're not learning. You're not growing. You're just not being as good a person as you can be. It's about continually engaging with people, conversation, events, and places that allow you to truly challenge yourself. Always.
Is there anything you would like to add?
More and more, I find that I'm growing into myself by actively learning and growing. When I was a youngster, there wasn’t a disabled creative entrepreneur. I didn’t have a role model. In fact, the doctors told me that I would be dead by five. I'm 33 now.
I’ve just kept challenging myself.
I've decided to be who I needed when I was younger. I've decided to write my own narrative on my own terms.
My big hope is that all of us forget about what anybody else says and we keep pushing forward to just do whatever we want to change the world for the better. Maya Angelou best said: “If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.”
Watch this space.
Who is Sulaiman?
The igniter of hearts creatively, a creative collaborator and adventurer, the award-winning Sulaiman is the Founder and Chief Purpose Officer of ThisAbility, which is an equity consultancy. Sulaiman is relentlessly and unapologetically determined to be the best, active intersectional feminist possible. He works tirelessly to destabilize the accepted narratives of creativity and disability too, for creative disabled talent to change the culture to make equity the default. He is also an independent consultant, speaker, and writer on Divergent Leadership, Creativity, and Equitability (characterized by equity or fairness; just and right; fair; reasonable: equitable treatment of all citizens).
You can follow Sulaiman here and find out more about ThisAbility here.