Nothing about us without us: how to champion disability in social investment

How can we bring about meaningful change for better disability inclusion in the social investment sector? Salma Perveen from the Diversity Forum has asked experts with lived experience to set out some guiding first steps.

In our work at the Diversity Forum, we have become acutely aware that disability is often poorly understood or poorly represented when discussing equity, diversity and inclusion across the social investment sector. So we asked our esteemed diversity champion Kush Kanodia for support in gathering individuals with lived experience and/or who had significantly contributed to discourse around disability in the sector for a conversation to explore what we should be prioritising in our approach to disability inclusion.

Below we have summarised the key areas discussed in this conversation (which took place in the form of an online call) in three areas of focus: perception, dialogue and action. We hope this will offer guidance towards first steps for meaningful change for better disability inclusion in the social investment sector.


Perception: ‘Nothing about us without us’, intersectionality and understanding the social model of disability

A significant factor for change is a shift required in the perception of disability. This can be summarised in the simple mantra, ‘Nothing about us, without us’. This is an essential part of the Disabled People’s Manifesto. As the topic of disability can sometimes feel complex, individuals and organisations are advised to use this as a simple rule to follow.

Those in the call shared that in their experience, work with disabled people is often seen as ‘charitable’. This minimises the strength required for disabled individuals to overcome accessibility barriers and enter conversations. Misconceptions are usually due to limited knowledge and empathy due to a lack of exposure to disabled individuals. Disabled people make up 24% of the UK population, yet are poorly represented in the sector and according to research by Access2Funding, they make up only 0.1% of the voice of all founders.

How we define disability is important; several so-called ‘models’ of disability, including the ‘medical model’ and the ‘social model’ were mentioned in the call and it is important to recognise the variety of uses and applications of these models in various contexts. For instance, in the definition of the social model of disability, people are born with impairments but it is the barriers constructed by society that are disabling. Therefore, resilience amongst disabled people can be seen as an effect of dealing with a society that disables them. With this in mind, those with the power to do so are accountable for improving access with disabled people for equity in social investment.

It is also important to note the intersectional diversity of people with disabilities, with a third of disabled people facing poverty compared to 20% for non-disabled people. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s 2023 report, ‘Approximately 3.8 million people experienced destitution in 2022 including around one million children. Almost two-thirds (62%) of destitute survey respondents reported having a chronic health problem or disability’. The effects of poverty reach further when you include those affected by disability as 29% of informal carers and 21% of formal carers also face poverty in the UK. Amongst disabled people and carers, there are then further intersectional considerations across specific racial and ethnic groups as well as age, some of which have been specifically highlighted in findings post-COVID.

Despite being one of the largest groups, disabled people are the most discriminated against, lack proportional representation and often disabilities are unseen which makes it harder to create funding programmes

The potential for positive social impact, then, if social investors were to engage with disability in an equitable way is significant. Currently, despite being one of the largest groups, disabled people are the most discriminated against, lack proportional representation and often disabilities are unseen which makes it harder to create funding programmes specifically designed or tailored for disabled entrepreneurs and organisations.

The perception of this in the sector leads to the questions being posed towards disabled individuals being ‘How can we help you?’ as if these barriers are weaknesses, rather than ‘How can we work together to do better?’ in acknowledgement of the strength of disabled folk and the accountability of the sector to do better with equity for inclusion.


Dialogue – being solution focussed and taking disability seriously

One of the ways in which this perspective can and should shift is through meaningful dialogue about disability inclusion. The group shared that there is plenty of information and resources for disability inclusion in existence but people do not look for it or understand why it is important. For instance, the Purple Pound [9] refers to the spending power of disabled households and quantifies this as ‘£274 billion – The spending power of disabled people and their household continues to increase and is currently (2020) estimated to be worth £274 billion per year to UK business’.  This indicates the financial losses by businesses by ignoring the needs of disabled people. For further clarification, according to the Return on Disability group, ‘With an estimated population of 1.85 billion, people with disabilities are an emerging market larger than China and control over $13 trillion in annual disposable income’. Despite this compelling business case for disability inclusion, there remains a fear of speaking about disability and those who start discussions often say they do not know where to start. With support, however, there can be significant change.

The advice from those in the group is to shift from a reactive to a proactive attitude around disability to actively seek projects that are impactful rather than expecting individuals to come to them when they need support. Another suggestion was to start with opportunities and discuss risks and barriers throughout a project with a problem-solving attitude, similar to how organisations approach other investments. For instance, using the Access to Work scheme to support the onboarding of more disabled employees or sharing information about the scheme with disabled founders looking for investment. By flipping the narrative in this way, discussions do not start with the negativity of what is or cannot be done, but instead what could make a difference and where disabled organisations and people can be invested in.

By flipping the narrative... discussions do not start with the negativity of what cannot be done, but instead what could make a difference

Having constructive conversations in multiple varied spaces is important too. For instance, ensuring disability is given fair representation and time relative to other characteristics in equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and is also discussed in an intersectional way. It is ‘not a 5 minute wonder’ and needs to be integral to EDI work. Also, in terms of defining disability, it is imperative to recognise the diversity amongst disabled people, particularly where there is no one (or just one person) with lived experience of disability in a team. For example, by reviewing multiple case studies of disabled entrepreneurs navigating the social investment space, you can raise awareness of the diversity of barriers faced and use the examples to ideate solutions for improved accessibility.

Collaborating with bespoke grassroots disability networks that have already collected case studies and created resources was strongly encouraged to recognise their expertise through experience and promote their work. Lastly, it is important to situate the impact of investment and entrepreneurialism within the wider context of disability discourse in the UK. For instance, as well as considering multiple levels for improvements to disability inclusion in the sector – from employees to founders – also consider the impact on individuals’ quality of life including the intersection with the Cost of Living crisis or other protected characteristics. Additionally, the importance of disability inclusion in social investment should be contextualised within the aforementioned effects on the economy and gross domestic product (GDP) for disabled folk more generally in society.


Action – an opportunity to review systems with an equity lens

Of course, all of this conversation is ultimately unhelpful without being followed by practical action. Crucial to this is the recognition of the importance of equity for disabled folk, as highlighted in law through the provision of ‘Reasonable Adjustments’ in addition to the Equality Act 2010. The first step to this is to recognise accessibility is a right and not a privilege. Accessibility is also non-linear and often not ‘one size fits all’. Rather than being minimal or broad in a disability approach by just adding alternative text to a website or adding a ramp to a building, it is important to consider disability access on a systems level. When looking at models around employment and education, for instance, we must recognise that these are inherently inaccessible and entrenched with ableist views, so the need to adapt to remove assumptions and think more creatively and openly is crucial to disability inclusion.

In applying this to investment specifically, standard applications for collecting information to assess merit should be critiqued as typical methods such as forms, interviews and types of language used for questions and expected in responses may present barriers to disabled people and those with cognitive differences. Inaccessible formats make it challenging to communicate one’s case effectively, thus putting people at a disadvantage. Going back to perspective, however, this should be approached as an opportunity to achieve a greater impact rather than being seen as an additional effort. Entrepreneurialism is an opportunity for positive social impact for disabled people for their individual quality of life and, considering their size of the population, for the global economy.

In investment, standard applications for collecting information to assess merit should be critiqued as typical methods such as forms, interviews and types of language used may present barriers to disabled people

Again, this requires a shift in thinking throughout the entirety of the investment process. Due to the competitive aspect of funding when supporting those with accessibility needs, there is a false perception that this is an ’additional’ support, when it is not. Looking at disability through the social model, those who are disabled, are disabled by society and so these requirements are to equivocate the process and make it fair. By reviewing our language around disability, dialogue can be used to shift power through policy and political terminology, for example, in charters and through All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG) such as the APPG for Entrepreneurship, the APPG for Inclusive Entrepreneurship and the Charter for Inclusive Entrepreneurship. There is also a need to raise this conversation across industries, for instance in collaboration with organisations such as Tech For Disability who advocate within the wider technology sector.

Equally, the sector should acknowledge that those who currently make it through the investment process prove their resilience as it is a prerequisite given both daily requirements of society and the current inaccessibility of funding available. There is a London-centric aspect to disability funding, making it difficult for those living rurally and a need for investment to be proportional to impact. For example, 60% of Covid-19 deaths were disabled people, so the group argued that representation should not be capped at 20% to represent their proportionality of the population. Funding for pre-investment support is not accessible or readily available and for disabled folk, this is essential to make a business successful as their needs often exceed just the financial income of a grant.

Funds and support programmes that are intended to be ‘inclusive’ or ‘diversity-led’ often miss disabled people both in representation and in target audience. The steps to develop the resources before getting to funding are crucial as they present significant barriers to entry. For example, making interviews more accessible will have no impact if unable to complete an application for recruitment or investment. Furthermore, other elements of the process need to be explained, such as financial forecasting through inclusive guides and jargon-busters to translate financial language.


Huge opportunity

Poor access to economic empowerment leads to poor outcomes across the rest of life (also known as Schrodinger's wellbeing). Often disabled people are ‘warehoused’ as traditional models of education and employment are constructed with an ableist lens. These systems need reframing and adapting with an equity lens for disabled people to have routes to preserve autonomy such as self-education and independent working. In this way, by changing the ‘defaults’ everyone is expected to attain, we can improve inclusivity and access to economic empowerment. We can identify these ‘faults’ with disabled people and work together to find solutions on a systems level.

Ultimately, the lack of access and a proactive, thoughtful approach to disability inclusion in any sector contributes to existing societal challenges for disabled folk. Disability inclusion in social investment is a huge opportunity to make a significant impact for all disabled people. It requires accountability, investment in equity and improved accessibility to achieve this. The creativity required for this to be done properly has the potential to not just benefit disabled people in the sector but intersectionally, to provide more equitable, fair and inclusive funding and application processes for all. By committing to a shift in perception, meaningful dialogue and equitable action on disability inclusion, social investors can achieve a greater social impact for all.


Next steps

In terms of next steps at the Diversity Forum, we will be sharing our plans to integrate disability inclusion more thoughtfully in our work with full transparency to try and encourage others to do the same. If you are not yet a Manifesto signatory, we’d encourage you to sign and prioritise disability inclusion as part of your EDI work. For those who are signatories and keen to talk about this more and with their peers too, please get in touch and we can discuss how best to do this so we can improve together as a sector. To sign our Manifesto or contact us, please see our website.

Lastly, we wanted to say a huge thank you to all those who participated in this conversation and encourage you to read more about their amazing work in the sector. We are incredibly grateful to the following: Celia Aris, co-founding director, Access to Funding CIC; Chloe Schendel-Wilson, co-founder, Disability Policy Centre; Jacqueline Winstanley, CEO, Universal Inclusion; James Lee, head of Bridge Programme and Total Asset, City Bridge Trust; Marc Goblot, chair, Greater London Regional Stakeholder Network (GLRSN), founder, Tech For Disability and Digital Diversity Living Lab; Kush Kanodia, social entrepreneur and disability rights champion, Disability Rights UK Ambassador, trustee and director at AbilityNet, Centre for Access to Football in Europe and Inclusion London.


Further reading

Lilac Review - independent review, published in February 2024, aiming to tackle inequality faced by disabled-led businesses

Innovate UK report – Accessible and inclusive transport

Access to funding report

Digital diversity living lab

Inclusion London

Disability unit

Living standards for working-age people with disabilities

Economic costs of exclusion

Disability Equality Index


Main photo: Kush Kanodia, social entrepreneur and disability rights champion – and a torch bearer at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.