Now here’s an interesting fact - 83% of working age people acquire a disability as opposed to being born with a disability.
When people with a disability are seen as ‘them’ in relation to us, that figure challenges the world view of disability as abnormal. In other words, it could happen to you or me.
So, picture this: you’re a successful career woman; an out-going, health conscious 29 year old, who attends the gym frequently; you’ve never smoked and drink very little. You go to bed one night and awake, legs paralyzed. You return to work 18 months later in a wheel chair. You’ll never walk again.
A nightmare - right? For my Page 1 Woman™, this was a reality that catapulted her onto a journey of identity change. Faced with the gargantuan task of accepting the woman she had become, she had to rebuild her confidence whilst battling enormous fears.
She had to navigate the personal and structural barriers she faced as a wheel chair user, and deal with issues of body-image and self-esteem, because for women with a disability these are huge shame triggers. So she was bothered by questions such as, ‘I don’t fit the standard notion of beauty, so where do I fit in? Am I still feminine? How do I get to feel attractive?’ And, on top of that, she had to learn to handle the prejudices, the low expectations and intrusive questions from strangers trying to be helpful.
Meet Yasmin Sheikh, charismatic, courageous and confident leader of disability equality. Once a lawyer, she’s now a disability consultant on a mission to normalise disability.
She could have crumbled under the weight of this debilitating experience. She chose instead to connect with and learn from people like herself and transformed her ‘nightmare’ into her passion. ‘I see this as a blessing, because now I know why I get up in the morning, and what I want to achieve.’
Read on and learn how Yasmin found purpose through her disability.
Describe your work.
Yasmin: I’m a disability consultant, coach, trainer and public speaker. I help organisations with staff retention and productivity and with developing their confidence around disability issues. And I help individuals with a disability (visible and non-visible) or a newly acquired injury, to build their confidence to return to work, or get promotion or become visible.
My interest in disability within organisations grew when I returned to work in a wheelchair after 18 months dealing with my injury. My firm asked what could help the organisation and suggested I sit on their diversity board. It became my passion. It led to me leaving in 2015 to set up my business, ‘Diverse Matters’. My purpose is to mainstream disability, so that we're not ‘the disabled’, after all people who have cancer, for example, are classed as disabled under law. We are an ageing population and having to work for longer, which means that our senses and bodies will change over time. So doesn’t that mean that disability touches all of our lives?
I want to help organisations, and people with all sorts of disabilities to realise that being different can be a huge strength. I want to speak on big stages and inspire people with a disability or challenge in life into doing something when they feel scared and into developing their story and writing the ending, like I have.
Despite coming from a family that’s politically and socially aware, I didn’t understand the bias and discrimination around disability until I became a wheelchair user. Although that world has always run parallel to my ‘normal’ world, I was the first disabled person I'd ever met.
What essential steps have you taken to get to where you are?
Yasmin: One essential step is networking. ‘Stand on the shoulders of giant’, I say. ‘Find those role models’. So I found other successful disability consultants. I thought, "I’d love to do that." So, I shadowed people, got involved in their events and picked their brains.
Then I found Andy Harrington - a great public speaker who reignites passion within. His message is use your talents, skills, and experiences alongside your pain to help others. Seeing pain as a change agent that can smash through barriers was enlightening.
Then there was my firm’s diversity board, which wasn’t very diverse. I ticked many boxes -mix race woman, wheelchair user. They put me in charge of coaching and I started the disability network. Suddenly I saw the value I could bring to organisations.
The next stage was becoming vice chair of the Law Society’s Lawyers with Disabilities Division. And I expanded my network and found new opportunities.
Another essential step was putting myself in challenging, risky situations because I get bored when everything becomes predictable and secure. It makes me push myself harder, learn, grow and feel a sense of achievement.
Whilst in rehab, I learned how to live using a wheelchair. Every two weeks I’d set SMART goals to achieve in two weeks. Take going to the cinema. When you’re in a wheelchair you must think about getting there, whether it’s accessible and has a toilet - things I would take for granted.
After leaving hospital my mom suggested continuing the two weekly goal planning. So, it would be, ‘Let’s aim to get on a train. How will you get there? What will you do?’ And I've done this in everything - career, personal growth, relationships and with my husband. If I didn’t stretch myself in this way I wouldn’t be where I am now.
What most significant thing got you to your current position?
Yasmin: Leaving my job as a lawyer - a huge decision. I didn't want to be middle-aged and in a comfortable job, although I’d have money, security, and prestige.
I became like someone who retires and loses their identity. I felt because of the wheelchair that people wouldn't think I had a job, let alone being a lawyer. But now, I know I give value to organisations, and individuals, and my life makes sense.
What was the greatest challenge on your journey?
Yasmin: First, ensuring a regular income. Now, I'm fortunate to have big organisations hiring me and referring me to other big organisations.
Second, was learning to enjoy my own company whilst working from home - huge for me. I come from a family of talkers. If we're reading something we have to share it. Being unable to do that was hard, but I'm getting used to it as I’ve increased my network.
What was your greatest light bulb moment?
Whilst going up a hill recently for exercise, 6 people asked “Do you need help?" This guy got out of his car and said, "I saw you on the hill. I had to stop to say how amazing." I've had this daily for 8 years and it’s tiring. I do things like going up a hill to keep fit and people might think, "Is this woman in a wheelchair crazy?"
Then all his stuff came out and we had a powerful conversation. He said, "I needed to talk and I felt I could talk to you.” I was advising him about his 14 year old daughter when I don't have children. We understood each other’s worlds and connected. And I recognised that I can use my disability for good. It’s very disarming using a wheelchair. People feel they can open up. I’ve had similar experiences elsewhere and I'm capturing them in blogs.
What resource has been crucial to your success?
Yasmin: Associating with more successful people. For example, members of Andy Harrington’s Professional Speaker’s Academy are authors and run workshops. I think, "Why not me?" Such people pull you up. Sometimes people you know don't want you to succeed and drag you down. When you move with the right people, they inspire you, increase your ambitions and support you.
Through being on the diversity board, doors have opened. For example I now co-chair the inter-law disability forum. Connecting with people who share my passion and interests challenges me and makes me think, “I can do that." Then the impostor syndrome kicks in with, "Why do I think I can do that?" So, I have these internal conversations, ‘Would I have thought I could leave my job as a lawyer? No. Would I have thought I could start a successful business? So why can’t I run workshops and speak in front of bigger audiences?’
What’s your understanding of leadership?
Yasmin: Leadership is having a clear vision, inspiring others, being flexible, and listening and learning from other people; always improving, adapting and being resilient. When things go wrong, a leader reflects, takes control, informs and directs people. Before my injury I never saw myself as a leader. I’ve faced a huge challenge and come through leading. And I'm now seen as a leader.
After grieving for the loss of my old life, I found confidence and re-wrote the narrative about an empowered person, not a poor disabled person. In the media, you’re either a super Paralympian, or a benefit scrounger. Little is said about ordinary people with a disability just living life. And often there’s an over-compensation and low expectations towards those with disabilities. So when I’m going up a hill – something mundane- people think I deserve a medal.
I guess I've become a self-leader because I’ve had to. I don't want to be a victim of unconscious bias and prejudices, and people pushing me in my wheel chair when I don't need pushing. I want to be in control of my body, life, decisions, and career and contribute like everyone else.
I guess that trying to mainstream disability is leadership. I've a vision of culture change but it’s slow because disability prejudice is deeply ingrained. Brene Brown, an American researcher said, "The biggest myth is that vulnerability is a weakness. It’s a strength, because it means risking something, and showing your authentic self…..” My vulnerability has given me strength as a leader. I want it to be a source of strength, to inspire people to want more. And as a self-leader I’ll show the way.
What difference has it made being a woman leader?
Yasmin: Much of what women experience through socialisation causes a lack of confidence. It’s similar to the experience of the disabled community. So, being a woman with a disability gives me those two perspectives. When reading ‘Girl Up’ by Laura Bates, I could replace woman sometimes with disability, and she mentions that other groups share these issues too. So, as a woman, I guess it just adds to my strength as someone with a disability who's leading.
What are your top three tips for women who want to be leaders in their field?
Yasmin: First, network. Find your role models and ask "How did you do it?" Why reinvent the wheel? Most people are generous and want to help because they were in your shoes once.
Second, quit your comfort zone, take risks, get uncomfortable or you’ll never move forward. Say, "Yes” despite feeling you haven't got all the answers. You don’t have to be perfect. You'll learn. The best learning is messing up sometimes.
Third, be visible. Get out there. Take your mobile and make a video. Upload it on YouTube. Write articles or blogs; do vlogs and put them on social media. You’ll get a following.
Women don’t shout about their achievements much. But being visible is not about arrogance. It’s about running a business and selling my brand. No one but me will shout about those achievements. When you're at a networking event, and people ask you what you do, say, “I do this great workshop." Practice your elevator pitch, and leave a bit of intrigue so people say, "Tell me more."
If you'd like to make contact with Yasmin, you can reach her on Twitter @DiverseMatters and on Facebook here.
Did you enjoy reading Yasmin's journey? Leave a comment and let me know what you received from it. I always love to hear from you.
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