“I want change” – Dr Shani Dhanda

Disability advocate, entrepreneur, TV personality and the UK’s most influential disabled person Dr Shani Dhanda chats exclusively with Enable magazine

© Sebastian Boettcher

“I want to help the world. I want change,” demands Dr Shani Dhanda. “I want to help society and to become a role model.” Shani, who you may recognise from appearances on Loose Women and This Morning, is talking to Enable not long after she was named the Most Influential Disabled Person in the UK in Shaw Trust’s Disability Power 100 list. That title is no small feat for a woman who was expected to achieve very little in her life. However, she’s shared speaking stages with Hilary Clinton and Michelle Obama, spoken at the UN, and set up several incredible enterprises all aimed at supporting disabled people. 

“I’m advocating for the entire disability community,” explains Shani. “I’m chuffed with the recognition, especially as the first non-white person to be in the number one spot,” she says of topping the Disability Power list. “That means a lot more to me because there are more barriers. It’s harder to get that recognition.” 

ANOTHER WAY 

After Shani’s diagnosis of osteogenesis imperfecta – also known as brittle bone disease – at the age of three her mum never let her feel sorry for herself. “Mum would say: ‘You’re different; the world isn’t designed for you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find another way to do things,” recalls Shani. 

Shani has spent her life ‘finding another way’ and using her experiences to help others. She founded the Asian Woman Festival to empower South Asian women and underrepresented genders through culture, art and conversation. She set up the Asian Disability Network, supporting Asian disabled people to navigate their disability alongside their ethnic and cultural identity. And she’s developed Diversability, a discount platform for people living with conditions or impairments, because – as research and lived experience show – life costs a lot more when you have a disability. 

© Courtesy

CREATING COMMUNITY 

Shani wants to forge the community she never had growing up – to create safe spaces for disabled people to ask questions, share knowledge and combat discrimination. 

Becoming a disability advocate was never part of Shani’s life plan: “I went through SEN schooling – no one there talked to me about going to uni,” she says. “People had low expectations of me, so I didn’t think I could do anything.” 

Her first step towards independence was applying for part-time jobs. “16 was a pivotal age. Until then, I’d never thought about what my adult life would look like,” explains Shani. “Suddenly I did, and it was my first taste of freedom where my body was cooperating with me and I now had the time to find a job.” 

SMASHING BARRIERS 

But Shani had no idea about the obstacles she would face in the workforce. Writing her CV, she added a line explaining that she had brittle bone disease, noting that it wouldn’t impact her ability to do a job. “I thought I’d be helping my potential employer,” reveals Shani, unaware how much stigma existed around disabled people in work. “I had no idea it would go against me,” she admits. “I didn’t know that people saw us as less productive or unreliable.” 

It was a hard lesson to learn and, after countless knockbacks, Shani took action. “I was rejected from over 100 applications until I removed any mention of my disability,” she explains. “I thought, what can I do to take control of the situation and create opportunities for myself?” And it worked – after this, Shani was offered an interview and a job. 

Shani spent ten years working in events management, and now has many strings to her bow. She works in the corporate sector, advising brands like ITV, the BFI and Virgin Media on disability rights and race equality; she’s been ambassador for several charities; and her drive to promote intersectionality and inclusion has seen her receive an Honorary Doctorate of Social Sciences. “I never dreamt I’d be speaking on some of the world’s biggest stages,” admits Shani. 

© Andy Fallon

REPRESENT 

As a regular face on TV, Shani says: “I never saw disabled people in the media. And when I did, I only ever saw white disabled people. I want to make sure that, when we do have disability representation, it’s diverse and authentically represents the whole community.”

She also wants to see disabled freelancers being paid fairly for their time. “If disabled people don’t know their worth or how to assert themselves, then people will take advantage,” highlights Shani. To combat this, she’s launched Fair Dues, a collaborative resource where disabled media freelancers can anonymously share pay rates to combat the many unpaid work requests they receive. 

“Everything I’m working on is something I wish existed for me,” adds Shani. “I know it would’ve reduced the loneliness I felt.” Given Shani’s relentless drive, what keeps her going? “My years of work improving diversity and representation in disability spaces, making our world more accessible and less ableist, have been mainly out of survival,” she explains.

And with Shani’s activism, it’s time to thrive, not just survive. 

To learn more about Shani and her work, head to www.shanidhanda.com.

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