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We’re not allowed to discriminate… but we do

Last week Forster had a session on becoming a dementia friends. For those not familiar with the scheme this is an hour’s interactive briefing run by Alzheimer’s Society, designed to make people more aware of what it is like to have dementia and the problems those with the disease encounter on a daily basis.

As someone who has had two grandparents with dementia I have to admit I was a little sceptical about how useful the session would be. But I was wrong; I genuinely learnt a thing or two, which got me thinking about all the daily assumptions and stereotypes we hold in our heads. Not just about conditions like dementia but also about gender, age and disability. They are such pervasive parts of culture and society that they almost blend into the background completely unnoticed.

At this week’s Demos20 event on the ageing population, the panel were unanimous that ageism exists across society from government and healthcare to business and the media. Polly Toynbee also recently wrote about the gender bias older women face “Since 2010 there has been a 30% increase in unemployment among women in their 50s, compared to a general increase of 5%”. An ageist culture can have a wide range of affects from being unable to get a job, to access to education and health, and even your sense of self-worth as all the images of old people predictably show frailty, vulnerability and struggle.

On paper everyone knows we’re not allowed to discriminate – we have laws that stop that. Employers should be taking a neutral view on their choice of appointment or promotion based on who is best for the job. In fact a recent science experiment by Michael Norton showed some people are so keen to show they do not look at race, that they over compensate. In this case adults consistently avoided asking about race in a game of ‘Guess Who’ which put them at a disadvantage compared to less inhibited children. But even with examples like this, do minority groups really face an equal and fair judgement when it comes to work interviews?

The TUC has written about the concerns it has about people with disabilities accessing employment. Whilst progress has been made, disabled people of working age are still 25% less likely to be employed.  But even within this figure there is huge variation with lower employment of people who have severe mental health conditions or learning difficulties.       

From our work here at Forster I know that change is often slow. But we shouldn’t despair – one step in positive attitude change today, can gradually accumulate into a wider cultural shift. So I was pleased to see the Work Club taking on an inspiring initiative from Australian agency Droga5 about employing people with learning disabilities. Even work that involves perhaps a few hours a day can have a huge impact on both the individual with the learning disability and their employer.

Communication agencies’ job is to understand and talk to a wide range of different audiences. If everyone that works in the sector fits into the same narrow demographic of white, middle class and young we approach the job with a limited view point.

With society increasingly campaigning against people relying on the state for pension and benefits, we need to leave enough room to build an alternative picture of the role these people can play. This means allowing a full spectrum of people to be included in the workforce. This starts with everyone becoming aware of their deep-rooted biases, so that we can discuss them openly and challenge individual and cultural assumptions.