Lisa Cox is an author, presenter, consultant and advocate. She had an extensive career in corporate advertising before acquiring multiple disabilities and had to restart her career from scratch. In this interview, Lisa shares her experiences with re-joining the workforce with disabilities, how business leaders can overcome their misconceptions of accessible work environments to create inclusive workplaces, and how she has used her deep skillset in communications to become a high-impact disability advocate.
- How have your personal experiences impacted the way you advocate for disability inclusion and rights today?
My academic experience and professional background are a big part of my advocacy work. Prior to my disabilities, I’d studied two bachelor degrees in business communications and media, plus I was working full-time in advertising agencies with national and international brands. After acquiring multiple disabilities, I realised that I could fuse my media background and experiences with disability together.
There was a clear gap in the disability advocacy space which I knew I had the ability to fill.
I’d spent so many years making my clients, their products and messages visible that I knew I had the experience to apply similar skills to my advocacy work, That’s when #visibilityfordisability was born.
Words are important but I strongly believe that actions speak louder than words so I don’t partake in the bitter cesspool that is Twitter activism.
Instead, I now work with fantastic organisations like Media Diversity Australia plus other businesses or individuals (and a few fashion brands) who, like me, want to change the way disability is represented in mainstream media and other popular culture.
- What differences have you personally experienced when applying for roles before and after you acquired disabilities?
I’ve previously written about this and noted that when meeting someone for the first time (without disabilities), a standard question would be, “where do you work?” However, after acquiring my disabilities and meeting a stranger for the first time, the question became, “do you work?”
I also found that I had to try much harder to ‘prove myself’. Before my disabilities, I would show my resume (with academic credentials, awards and considerable experience) plus examples of my work. This frequently resulted in a job offer and professional commendations about my work history.
Yet when I presented the same resume along with examples of my work from a wheelchair, there were far fewer (if any) job offers. The comments that followed were also condescending and patronising. “Oh good for you,” some would say while looking down at me with pity or sympathy.
Others were clearly surprised that someone with visible disabilities had such an extensive history and was seeking work in the media/advertising industry.
All of these examples highlight the generally lower expectations that are placed on people with disabilities in a working environment. Stereotypes and assumptions are rife and often perpetuated by a very limited public perception of what life with a disability can be like. This is something I’m working hard to change.
- How have your experiences as a candidate impacted how you train and coach business leaders on inclusion?
I share a lot of my own stories and experiences because that genuine lived-experience is far more powerful for audiences.
There have been occasions where I’m speaking on a panel alongside a number of highly skilled and credentialed professionals. However, I’m the only one with lived-experience – That’s why one of my presentations is called ‘Context Beyond Textbooks’. It’s important to get that holistic view of a situation.
When I consult, I also have the ‘advantage’ of being able to see the situation from both sides. I spent the first 24 years of my life without a disability so I can understand and pre-empt some of the questions or concerns that may arise.
- What is the most common challenge you see business leaders struggle with when it comes to diversity and inclusion?
I’ll answer this in two parts. The first problem is structural or environmental whereby the ability to do one’s work is hindered by their physical setup. This could include things like accessing transport to the office, ascending stairs at the office or reading the text on the computer screen (if the employee has low vision).
The second problem I see is all about attitude. You can have the most physically accessible office in the world but that means nothing if the business has a discriminatory culture. Or if the business (consciously or subconsciously) sees employees with a disability as ‘less capable’ than those without one.
Let the quality of work be gauge of a good employee – not whether or not they have a disability.
- What’s your advice to business leaders currently experiencing these challenges?
Don’t be afraid to have the conversation and ask the individual rather than assuming what a person with disabilities needs – We are all VERY different.
For example, I was grateful to a former advertising agency employer for taking the time to sit down with me and find out what I personally needed as an employee with disabilities.
In their minds, I think they had conjured up images of having to do expensive remodelling around the office, or of me requiring $50K worth of assistive technology for my desk.
None of that happened and all I needed was to leave work 30 minutes early every Wednesday for a medical appointment and an extra lock on the bathroom door which they bought for about $5 at Bunnings. They wouldn’t have known that if they hadn’t asked.
Note [from Lisa Cox]: The next employee with disabilities will have a very different set of needs but you only know by asking.
About the expert
Lisa Cox is a multi-awarded writer, presenter and consultant. She is a proud disabled woman and active leader in the disability advocacy space, fusing her professional background in media, advertising and communications with her lived experience of multiple visible and invisible disabilities.
As a Disability Affairs Officer at Media Diversity Australia, Lisa is passionate about using her professional and personal experiences to change the way disability is represented in mainstream media and other popular culture. The fashion industry has been a particular area of focus for Lisa and she has been a model for various brands and at a number of events, including the most recent Mercedes-Benz Fashion Festival.
Lisa is bridging the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ (disabled and non-disabled people) to counteract stereotypes perpetuated by the media. She has been writing for a number of national and international publications including, Harper’s Bazaar, Huffington Post and Sydney Morning Herald. You can meet the woman behind the words on Instagram – @lisacox.co – where she writes for a disabled and non-disabled audience.
Image description: Lisa is a 40 year-old woman sitting in a wheelchair. She has long blonde, wavy hair and wears black pants with a dark aqua top made from silk with no sleeves. Lisa’s expression is happy but also stern to reflect many of the serious issues she advocates for.