Something big is happening, and it’s drawing much needed attention to the cause of disability visibility, inclusion, and accessibility. Worldwide, there are 1.2 billion people living with disabilities, and a wide-reaching campaign known as WeThe15 is working to change attitudes and create more opportunities for these individuals who make up 15% of the world’s population.
It’s being called the largest human rights movement ever, and it has huge implications for the events industry. For Keely Cat-Wells, its core message is nothing new. She’s lived it — through her own experiences as a person with a disability navigating the entertainment business, and more recently through her work helping others do the same.
In light of the revamped conversation around disability, Wells was kind enough to share some insight and advice for how event professionals can build a more inclusive industry by hiring speakers and talent with disabilities.
Meet Keely Cat-Wells
Six months into her college experience, Wells began having excruciating stomach pains. After various misdiagnoses and worsening symptoms, one doctor who was willing to listen discovered that the problem was in her intestines. After complications with surgery, Wells’ entire colon had to be removed, and she would need to wear an ileostomy bag for the rest of her life.
“The more I learned, the angrier I got, not just because of my own personal experience but for the experiences of others.“
Working in the entertainment industry at the time, Wells had a life-changing epiphany after being turned down for a role that would have involved wearing a bikini over her ileostomy bag.
“I took some time to think and to really try to understand. The more I learned, the angrier I got, not just because of my own personal experience but for the experiences of others,” she said. “When I dove into research and read other people’s stories and listened to what they deal with because of societal barriers and misconstrued perceptions, a fire lit inside of me. I knew that this was the path for me.”
Today, Wells’ company, C Talent, represents deaf and disabled artists, athletes, and influencers, including countless high profile clients. Her company also educates event industry professionals on how to create more inclusive spaces along the way. Recently, Wells was named to Forbes 30 Under 30, an extraordinary honor that speaks to the level of impact she’s made just a few years into her career.
In short, she’s possibly the most well-equipped individual to give event professionals a clear picture of the disability inclusion movement and share how our industry can support it.
Common misconceptions about people with disability
For event professionals looking to lean into the movement for a more inclusive industry, there are a few myths to dispel right off the bat. One of the most notorious, Wells points out, is that somehow stamina is synonymous with talent.
“Disability is often viewed as an unending burden, and disabled people are often viewed as tragic figures whom society should pity.“
“Just because someone cannot work the same hours as someone else does not indicate their level of talent, and the two should not be confused,” she said. “Disability is often viewed as an unending burden, and disabled people are often viewed as tragic figures whom society should pity.”
Another misconception is that persons with disabilities automatically have a poor quality of life. Wells points out that the attitudes held by others and the lack of accessibility within the community often create the real challenges. This is why, she says, seeking out ways to remove barriers is so important.
“If we all start to embrace disability, we will not only make a more equitable world for a huge part of the population but will also spark innovation,” Wells said. “It is often forgotten that SMS texting was created by and for deaf people to communicate, but when SMS offered an incredible new method for saving telecom bandwidth, the world of communications changed.”
How to make your events more inclusive
Being an events professional as both a speaker and CEO of a talent agency, Wells is keenly aware of what the industry needs to know to support persons with disabilities. It starts with the practical stuff — making it easier for everyone to access what they need to do their work.
“When you are booking any speaker, disabled or not, remember to always hire a sign language interpreter, use closed captions, and consider all other potential access needs,” she said. “Before the event, send out an Access Requirement Form, and honour requests.”
This one’s a little less intuitive, but just as important to consider. If you’re booking a person with disability for a motivational or inspirational event, you should ask yourself what it is they’ve done that you see as motivational or inspirational. The fact that they’ve lived a life where they interact with the world differently than others shouldn’t always be considered this massive, impressive feat, she said.
“Normalizing disabled people being experts in subjects beyond disability is a way to both normalize the disabled experience and break down barriers in the employment process.“
“If you are genuinely inspired by them — for instance if they have broken a world record, won a gold medal, or made millions of dollars — then it is safe to say they are inspiring,” Wells said. “The portrayal of disabled people as inspirational solely or in part on the basis of their disability is inspiration porn. There are a lot of inspiring disabled people out there but make sure you’re inspired by them because they have genuinely done something awesome.”
Finally, the suggestion Wells is most adamant about comes from personal experience representing speakers with disabilities. She has found that when her clients are invited to speak at events totally unrelated to disability, they are still being asked to speak about the disabled experience or consult on accessibility.
“This creates a limited mindset around what disabled people can do, and it is also exhausting for disabled people to constantly be educating others on their lived experience or access requirements,” Wells said. “Normalizing disabled people being experts in subjects beyond disability is a way to both normalize the disabled experience and break down barriers in the employment process.”
“We have to reframe the diversity, equity, and inclusion conversation to include accessibility. Without that we cannot have the conversation.“
The disability inclusion movement should matter to us all
Building a more inclusive events industry should be a universal goal. Even if disabled persons didn’t make up 15% of the world’s population — if they numbered in the single digits — the work Wells has devoted her career to would be just as important. Every speaker with a message to share deserves an equal shot to make their dreams come true.
“We often talk about diversity being a voice at the table, but what if we don’t have access to the door to get to the table?” Wells asked. “We have to reframe the diversity, equity, and inclusion conversation to include accessibility. Without that we cannot have the conversation.”
If you’d like to learn more about Keely Cat-Wells or book her for a speaking engagement, click here. We’ve also put together this list of some of the top speakers with disabilities, who speak on a wide range of topics — including veterans, athletes, CEOs, chefs, entertainers, and many others.