Shani Dhanda is a 3’10 world-renowned disability specialist, diagnosed with osteogenesis imperfecta. She is listed as one of the UK’s most influential disabled people. As a practitioner and keynote speaker for inclusion across business, government, non-profit and broader society, Dhanda helps organisations break barriers and integrate inclusion into their business frameworks.
Dhanda was born to Indian origin parents in the central city of Birmingham in England. When she was born, her parents knew something was wrong with their baby girl. However, her mother found a way of cradling her so she wouldn’t cry, but the baby would scream in pain when others held her. “No one knew what my condition was,” said Dhanda. Finally, when she was two years old, she was diagnosed with osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease. Individuals diagnosed with this rare genetic disorder have fragile bones and have the possibility to develop breathing problems.
Due to her condition, Dhanda frequently suffered injuries with no external triggers. She had broken her bones six times by the age of fourteen. However, her mother always supported her in her journey and never treated her differently from her other siblings.
She said, “I remember being at home, and my leg would be in plaster, but she would give me a pile of laundry to fold because why should I get away with not having to do the chores? I’m really glad that she instilled that value in me from a really young age, because otherwise I would have grown up and expected everyone to treat me differently.” Her mother’s values of independence shaped the foundation upon which Dhanda built her life.
However, due to her medical condition, she was treated differently by society growing up. Dhanda recalled, “As a teenager, people (at the temple) would ask my mom how I was when I was standing right next to her. And I’d (say), ‘I’m here, you can ask me.'” These instances made Dhanda develop mental resilience at a very young age.
At 15, she applied for about 100 job offers in her local area but unfortunately did not receive a single reply. After the incident, some people in her Indian community advised her to stay home and claim benefits, but Dhanda persevered.
Dhanda recollected the unfortunate incident, “I soon realised that this is because I declared my disability on my covering letters. So I decided to remove any information about my disability from the covering letter and was then invited for an interview in which I was successful in getting my first job in telesales. I didn’t want to be seen as just a person with a disability. I wanted to be treated as an individual with ambition and skill.”
While studying for her degree in Events Management, she simultaneously worked for three years, which she says was one of her most significant achievements in life. She continued, “Ironically, I was one of the first people in my class that graduated and got a job.”
After her graduation, Dhanda had a full-time job for six years until she asked for flexible working hours. She recalled, “My request was declined. I didn’t need to be in an office every day, I’m 3’10 and use a wheelchair some of the time. I didn’t want to feel undervalued, so I decided to leave. Only one person in HR contacted me asking me to stay, but it was too late.”
This incident sparked a flame in Dhanda, and she began her journey as an Inclusion Rights Advocate. Inspired by her father’s zeal to fight for human rights and the Sikh principle of Seva, that is, ‘selfless service,’ Dhanda started advocating for inclusivity rights for differently-abled individuals, who account for about 15 per cent of its overall population.
She used her Event Management degree to fundraise and developed a support platform called the Asian Disability Network and organised the first-ever Asian Woman Festival. The event is an annual celebration of her multicultural cohorts through programming, content, merchandise, and contact directory. “Until I created the festival, I didn’t feel like there was a place for me to go and take my whole identity with me,” Dhanda explained. “I would always have to dissect myself into either being a woman, Asian, or disabled.”
To add to her victories, in 2020, Dhanda launched the Diversability Card, an initiative that provides differently-abled consumers with exclusive discounts across popular services, brands, entertainment providers and travel. Disabled people incur unavoidable extra costs of up to £583 per month for things such as higher energy bills, expensive equipment, and the card offers a way of alleviating some of that financial burden. The concept acts as a two-edged sword, functioning as a market research tool for companies that have traditionally overlooked this type of consumer and helps to gauge the demand for their products better to suit a broader customer base.
“I think digital inclusion can be the gateway to people accessing things that they can’t in a physical way, but there are so many barriers that exist,” says Dhanda. “When you do design for the needs and preferences of disabled people, you will meet the needs and preferences of a large majority of people.”
While such initiatives effectively promote awareness and empower those they serve, this cause has to be taken ahead by leaders, CEOs, and activists to ensure that ethnic minorities are heard, seen, and valued.
The Disability Charity Scope states that almost two-thirds of Britains admit that they have actively avoided a conversation with a disabled person, primarily out of fear of offending them. “Just imagine if one of those people is a line manager and all of a sudden they have to manage a disabled person. They’re just not going to have the confidence to talk openly and honestly and say, ‘How can I support you?'”
This support in the workplace is critical for favourable outcomes for members of the disabled community, especially since only 53 per cent of that community is employed.
Dhanda was named one of the BBC 100 Women List and made the top 10 of The Shaw Trust Power 100 List of the UK’s most influential disabled people. She was also featured in LinkedIn’s most extensive UK advertising campaign; her first television advert gained her the title of LinkedIn Changemaker. Her inspiring views have also earned her appearance on shows including BBC Two – Nadiya’s Time to Eat, BBC One – The Truth About Looking Good and Channel 4’s Divided Britain: The Lockdown Debate.
In conclusion, she says, “The way in which I view disability is that my condition doesn’t disable me, I’m only disabled when I experience barriers or bias,” Dhanda explained. “I don’t think everything will suddenly change overnight to be built at my height — we need to keep perspective here. But what I do expect is universal design in everything. That is reasonable to ask, and demand.”