Disability Smart Awards 2021: host Samantha Renke on the importance of celebrating steps to inclusion

Today (2 December) the Disability Smart Awards from Business Disability Forum will celebrate businesses helping to transform the lives of disabled people in the workplace. Ahead of the ceremony actress, presenter and now co-host of the awards, Samantha Renke, spoke exclusively to Enable.

From global leaders and diversity and inclusion practitioners, innovative campaigners and change-making influencers to great customer service providers, the Disability Smart Awards showcase the organisations taking the steps to create an accessible and inclusive culture.

This year, Samantha Renke will co-host the awards with Diane Lightfoot, chief executive at Business Disability Forum. Starting her career as a teacher, Samantha has gone on to be an actress and presenter, as well as becoming self-employed, providing diversity and inclusion training for businesses.

In an exclusive interview with Enable, Samantha discusses how her work has changed during the pandemic, helping to recognise positive change at the awards, and how she would like to see workplace culture develop in the future.

How has your work changed and adapted throughout the pandemic?

I really saw the pandemic as an opportunity to grow my brand, Samantha Renke Ltd. I think it has shown that reasonable adjustments are able to work: not having to commute; not having to worry about how accessible services like public transport are or getting into a black taxi; not being able to get to my destination because the roads were blocked off. For me it was quite liberating and it just shows that you can be your best self when you work together recognise different needs.

When did you first become involved with the Disability Smart Awards?

I was previously invited to be on a panel discussion and now it’s a real honour to be back, especially at this time of year as it’s already an absolute hub of disability awareness. We have Disability History Month and International Day of People with Disabilities happening at the moment too.

The awards offer a really positive approach in highlighting good examples and celebrating people that are dedicated to learning.

People want to be told that they are doing well: I think we live in a culture where negativity gets a lot of attention, especially on social media, so it’s really great to be part of the awards that celebrate positive action.

Although, that is not to disregard the fact that we still have a long way to go. These awards are really about giving examples of how businesses have become better allies and advocates for disabled people. It means businesses can actually look at the nominees and take away from that, look at the positive change they’re created and use that as a blueprint.

Why do you feel it’s important for the awards to take place at this time of year?

I know a lot of people think we should be creating awareness every day, not just on a particular landmark date, and that is completely correct, but I think the annual events taking place are a really positive way to push back and engage with people. We really do need to align with people and have them advocate with us.

For me personally, when Disability History Month comes around every year I actually sit back and do my own research. You don’t have to be non-disabled to really celebrate these events and learn from them: I’m learning so much about my own history.

I know disability identity is so subjective. I feel like a proud disabled woman but I know that for many other people that’s not their journey, so it’s nice to have these celebrated moments. We live in such a busy environment where there’s so much going on, that if you don’t say ok, today what are your plans for Disability History Month. I think this is a great way to introduce a lot of disability issues.

How would you like to see workplace culture change in the future?

No other person has to go to work and disclose personal information, you don’t have to disclose your sexual orientation or your religious beliefs, your political beliefs, so why do disabled people have to do this constantly?

I think it’s about getting organisations and senior leadership figures to recognise the needs of disabled people, but you’re only going to be able to do that if you engage with disabled people and if you recognise that disability has many different guises: disability doesn’t always look like me.

I think clear understanding of the law around disability support is the first thing because there’s so much help out there for businesses. We also need a culture shift in the way we talk about disability.

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