Disability Awareness: Chris Whitaker reflects on inclusion in education and the workplace

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Photo of Chris Whitaker EMBA 2023 student
Chris Whitaker, EMBA 2023 student

I always think of Disability History Month as bringing a mix of challenges and opportunities.  It is an opportunity, as it is one of the occasions where the issues faced by disabled people can come into focus, when that can otherwise be lacking. 

The challenges faced by disabled people are also acute, especially following the coronavirus pandemic where such issues have been exacerbated. 

Experience of disablement amongst children and young people is the theme of this years disability history month, with a focus on the past and present, as well as looking ahead towards what is needed in the future.  I will use this blog post to reflect on my own experiences.

As a disabled young person, you need to grow up very quickly indeed. 

As someone with Cerebral Palsy which is an impairment that impacts my mobility, fine motor, and processing skills, my route through childhood was an interesting one.

Born six weeks premature after a challenging birth, I literally very nearly didn’t make it and I think that has had a profound impact on the way I have approached life ever since. 

Every day is there to be made the most of.  Every challenge (and there are many) is there to be overcome. 

Every day is there to be made the most of.  Every challenge (and there are many) is there to be overcome. There just needs to be a way to be found.  To show that, despite the limitations and differences you are all too aware of, you are capable.

“What’s wrong with you?!”

“Nothing, I was born like it.  I walk a bit differently, but otherwise, I’m just like you”

You grow up quickly as a disabled person. Quickly learning to answer questions not asked of others, the ability to read a room, and quite literally think on your feet.

You challenge preconceived ideas. I was the first person to go from a special school to a mainstream school. I was the first disabled person I know to go to university, to go to Cambridge. 

It is hard to convey the range of skills you need to be able to adapt to the world and get on.  The world can be an inaccessible place. Still, we live in a world where the focus all too often is on the disabled person to adjust.

My experiences of the EMBA at Cambridge Judge Business School are already proving to be transformative in nature. 

The technical and soft skills I have learned alongside working have made a tangible difference to the way I think and the contribution I can make in the workplace.

There have been plenty of problems to be solved too – but by the commitment, care and dedication of so many of the staff at the business school, literally nothing is impossible.  Ella Heslop, our super conscientious Senior Programme Co-Ordinator has been particularly brilliant in ensuring I have a fully inclusive experience, which has been noted and greatly appreciated.  To feel like you ‘belong’ in a place like Cambridge is priceless.

Applying to the EMBA was a bit of a daunting process.  I felt that, even though I already had a Cambridge degree, this programme wasn’t for someone ‘like me’.

Thankfully though I quickly felt that wasn’t the case.  I navigated an intense orientation week with a variety of creative strategies including power naps and frequent ingestion of tea!  I think one of the moments I really felt I could be myself was when I came into a lecture post power nap without shoes, nobody minded, and our lecturer helped me put them back on afterwards.

One of the biggest messages I’d give to anyone thinking of applying is that its more attainable than you think at first. 

What started out for me as a very outside prospect has now become a reality.  Once I’d understood that what at first seemed improbable could, in fact, be something possible, that’s what really made the difference for me.

It is a hard programme, but one that is really rewarding and offers some key tools to make a change in the world.  That, for me, is what I wanted from the programme, the ability to make a difference more often, and I’m getting that through my EMBA journey.

There is though, much more to be done. 

As I sit in my classes, I am acutely aware just how many disabled people are not in the room. I’m working with the Business School to change that in several ways.  This includes undertaking research to explore how to work with the disability talent that I know is out there.  Exploring what I am coining ‘The Purple Edge’ will, I hope, be a gamechanger.

As societal inequalities have increased, I worry about the next generation of disabled people. Ways to meaningfully make the world a more inclusive place continue to be needed at pace and scale, as well as being delivered with conviction.  Such measures require implementation with not to disabled people as the voices of people with lived experience should not only be heard but acted upon.

I close with a question: What can we all do to help them grow up in a world where they can be included more often?

Chris is the Head of Disability at Sport England

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