Isaac Harvey on disability: we need to bring more talent to the table (and he spills the beans on that Diary of a CEO ‘craziness’!)

Isaac Harvey MBE

The word ‘inspirational’ gets bandied around liberally when it comes to movitational speakers but it definitely applies to disability campaigner Isaac Harvey, who is speaking at the Watercooler Event this April.

He was born with a disability called limb pelvic hypoplasia and scoliosis, which means he has no arms and has short legs, so uses a wheelchair. Yet, despite these obvious physical challenges, he is President of an outdoor activity club called Wheels and Wheelchairs. As well as talking about the physical challenges, he also often talks about his mental health journey, which he shares about openly as a social media content creator.

We caught up with him ahead of his appearance at the Watercooler…

Is there anything that you feel particularly strongly about regarding workplace wellbeing and disability?

Yes, accessibility. 

Employers should be open to learning and understanding those with disabilities within a workplace.

Starting from the recruitment process – is there an opportunity for someone to have the questions beforehand so that they are better prepared to answer at their best? Can people send in videos instead of having to do a face to face interview?

There are so many avenues to improve accessibility allowing people to at least get their foot in the door before barriers are put up.

What’s been your experience of getting into workplaces and accessibility?

It’s a mixed bag. From visiting workplaces where accessibility is at the forefront of what they do, to the complete opposite.

Going to a space where the company is starting its journey of learning, or has no clue about accessibility, then it can become quite challenging.

Do you think the move to hybrid is good for disabled workers?

The hybrid way of working has made it more of a level playing field. It’s allowed those with disabilities to have more of a chance to get work and allow them to showcase their skills. 

Barriers and challenges like travel and, potentially, lack of support in the office can become non-existent with a flexible way of working.

How do you weigh up the challenge to get into the workplace, in terms of accessibility, against the benefit of that social interaction?

Ultimately this boils down to having a choice.

On one hand, most individuals need some sort of interaction with others, which may only include a couple of hours, having some sort of social interaction. The pandemic showed the impact of how not being able to have proper social interaction negatively impacted some people.

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But then, on the other hand, some people can work more effectively in their own space and do not need to be around people. Which is why it’s important to implement tools as Zoom or Teams where social interaction can still be done without the barrier of a space being accessible.

It’s so important giving people a choice and seeing what works on a case by case basis.

You’ve talked openly about your mental health journey. Can you tell me about that?

During my mental health journey, I felt the societal pressure that to be happy in life, I had to be in a relationship, and have a successful career where I was getting into the spotlight and people were seeing me as a motivational figure. But I didn’t feel comfortable in sharing how I was actually feeling.

I found myself comparing myself to others online, feeling like I wasn’t as successful as they were. Wanting to be a content creator, I was getting nowhere close to the views and engagements that they were getting. I let that get to me as every single day it made me feel pretty bad within myself.

It got to a breaking point where I just had to take a step back. And that’s when I really started finding my voice, focusing on enjoying the process. I stopped the comparison and that helped my mental health. Everything started to shift and success was more noticeable. I really have to be thankful from the daily empowerment that I get from others who have really helped shape my journey into what it is today.

I got to this point of understanding in my life is when I realised my disability has not been my major barrier – it’s been my biggest strength. My disability has allowed me to do extraordinary things like skydiving, sailing and skiing, to participating in London Fashion Week, holding the Olympic torch and so much more.

Coming to the realisation that I was putting the barriers up myself and then breaking them down was truly an enlightening moment.

What helped change your mindset?

When I got to the breaking point the first thing which came to mind was a film called Lucy. In a nutshell, the protagonist uses her brain power to create a different reality, based on the idea that we only use 10% of our brain capacity usually. I remember thinking to myself, is that real or is it fantasy?

So, I searched it on YouTube and found a man called Bob Proctor [help author and lecturer] speaking about the law of attraction. It changed my whole perspective.

How we think, feel and speak is the reality that we create. It was honestly in that moment where I kind of started to understand life.

One video led to another and I became fixated on wanting to learn more. I learned about self-awareness, and that life is about having a realistic mindset rather than just a positive one and taking more time for myself.

So you changed your mindset off your own back, without the help of a therapist or getting counselling, or anything like that?

No, I did it on my own.

Looking back, I was offered counselling at school but I didn’t really understand what it was back then. I thought ‘why would I tell this random stranger my feelings?’. It didn’t make sense to me then, but with this journey and much reflection, I’m sure those sessions would have helped me a lot. It would have been very helpful if I’d understood what was going on and why.

What else, in terms of your wellbeing, have you found has helped you? 

I try to do guided meditation and breathing, to take that step back. There’s a lot that goes on in my life and it can be quite overwhelming at times. But the reality is I can only do one thing at time and taking that time for myself, can really help me focus.

It doesn’t help that I am a workaholic. But being mindful of it is a huge step forward and knowing when it gets too much is a skill that I’m happy I have learned over time.

You recently went viral on LinkedIn because of Diary of CEO podcaster and entrepreneur Steven Bartlett. Can you tell me about that?

Honestly, it’s still surreal that it happened. He did a post on LinkedIn about wanting to hire people by getting them to write their own job descriptions.  I was only made aware of this post because my friend, Zubee, had commented on one of my posts telling me about it. She then wondered if he had thought about disabled applicants.

This sparked an idea. I ended up writing a public open letter to him, where I was discussing different ways of recruiting talent and the obstacles that can be faced for some individuals. I had no intention or expectation of getting to speak to Steven as my sole purpose was to start a very important conversation, which it did.

But it got so crazy that Steven himself ended up responding to it, thinking about his recruitment process and how his businesses can become more inclusive.

What do you hear most from the disabled community about the workplace?

The biggest topic of discussion is the lack of reasonable adjustments that are put in place through employers. They are quick to say no, rather than actually finding different ways of making it work.

As mentioned earlier, I had scratched the surface on different ways that workplaces can be more inclusive. Most can be such simple adjustments that can make a huge difference to an individual. For example, being able to answer and take emails whenever is convenient during a day. This could be because of someone having chronic fatigue or pain, where it can come at any given time. It could help them send emails in the evening compared to during the day, and would still allow them to be productive and get the work done.

Of course, businesses need to make money and do need people to do the work. But, in this day, and age there are so many different alternatives that go beyond the traditional, it’s time to get with the times and see how more people can bring their talents to the table.

Come and listen to Isaac speak at The Watercooler Event. He will be talking about “Disability and Wellbeing in the Workplace; what inclusive employers need to know”.

Come and listen to Isaac speak at The Watercooler Event

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