There Must Be a Willingness To Change— an Interview with Salamatu Kamara about Disability Inequality in the Workplace

Salamatu Kamara, television personality, social justice activist, and all-round firebrand, will be taking the stage at SHE 2023 this April, to offer her valuable insights into the processes behind realistically achieving equity and equality in society today.  

But, as April is still some months away, we thought we would benefit from hearing some of what Salamatu has to say now, specifically on the topic of disability and inequality, based on her own research, personal experience, and advocacy regarding the topic.

Even within the conversation about lack of representation, disability discrimination does not get the attention that it requires, leaving disabled people out of the decision-making processes that directly impact their lives. 

A Constant Advocate

Salamatu is passionate about her advocacy for the rights of the disabled, having access to the platform that she does: a recognised face on the kids’ news show (NRK Supernytt), an author, model and public speaker.

For her, helping others through the doors that were opened for her is non-negotiable, and so as she found herself gaining ground on her own media career, she continued to advocate for similar opportunities made available readily and often, for others.

Still in her mid-twenties, her career is an impressive one, and her ambitions appear limitless when she shares her work experience and career goals at Sentralen Café on an icy January morning. 

A little history about Salamatu’s life and subsequent activism will help understand how she comes to be as empathetic, critical and optimistic about her disability activism.

Salamatu moved to Norway as a toddler after a near-fatal wounding by gunfire during Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war, a wound that resulted in her requiring the use of a wheelchair for mobility.

Her uncle, based in Norway at the time, launched a successful media campaign to bring her to the country, and from childhood she has been championing the rights of those living with disabilities. This included an awareness programme for youth which she started at just thirteen years old. 

Lack of Accessibility

Her career, however, has not been without its obstacles. Despite being unrelentingly upbeat in conversation, Salamatu describes how, after sending out hundreds of job applications as she first entered the job market, she received no response, and was unable to land the most entry-level positions that many of her peers were able to secure.

Retail roles, for example, were in abundance, and needed little to no prior experience, but she found that she simply was not an attractive candidate.

She points out that the argument that clothing items are placed too high up for her to reach and help customers is an unreasonable one: many of the racks are out of reach of most retail staff, and simple solutions can be used to overcome this. But, Salamatu says, there just is no will to implement these solutions.

And so, she, and other people with disabilities, are left out of many places of work, blocked by arguments that the workplaces are simply not designed to accommodate their needs.  

Unconscious Bias

If you have seen the ease with which Salamatu navigates the world with her wheelchair in spaces which allow for it, you would instantly reject this argument, because it is clear that, with a few simple considerations – the same types of considerations we put into the conveniences (as well as necessities) of able-bodied people – we could create working, living and socialising spaces accessible to all.

We could welcome people with disabilities into working industries previously considered “not suited” for their abilities, and consequently also increase the visibility and inclusion of disabled people, reducing stigma and misunderstanding as well.

These changes can be simple, but are often not considered because either no disabled people or organisations were consulted, or, as some may point out: there simply is no willingness to make changes.  

We Need Change at Policy Level 

When asked what obstacles she thinks prevent employers from making workspaces more accessible to the disabled, Salamatu is clear: legislation.

She has spoken out, including with government representatives, about the need to include disabled persons in anti-discrimination legislation. While Norway has taken positive steps toward protections against discrimination against disabled people in the workplace, the law does not comprehensively shield the group against hate crimes.

She also highlights the need for inclusion beyond the workplace: the majority of Norwegian schools are wholly inaccessible to children with disabilities, meaning that Norwegian youth rarely interact with disabled peers.

How is a campaign to minimise stigma and celebrate difference supposed to succeed when it is blocked at such early stages of social development?  

Salamatu delivers this dismaying information with her characteristic positivity, which makes the pill a little easier to swallow, but does not detract from how severe the problem is. Big changes need to be made, and people need to start working together to make them. 

Do the Work! 

Salamatu has one strong piece of advice to give those who want to benefit from the shaping of a more diverse, and therefore stronger and more capable workforce: put in the work!

She encourages leaders and those in charge of hiring to reach out to organisations such as Norges Handikapforbund to access the many resources they have on offer, such as information and training, as well as recommendations for how to seek out excellent candidates living with disabilities that might be interested in the roles you offer.

It was through such action by the person in charge of hiring for her role that she had the opportunity to apply.

To add to this, she says that it is also important that employers state in their job advertisements that the position on offer is especially welcome to those with disabilities – unambiguously stated – in order to attract people.

There Must Be a Willingness to Change

Many disabled people have experiences much like Salamatu’s early days of job-seeking: rejection after rejection.

Inviting disabled people clearly and enthusiastically to apply for the role will encourage more people to apply, which can only be a benefit to the company!

And finally, Salamatu offers this reminder about what doing the work involves:

Do not rely on the few disabled people you might know or work with to take on the responsibilities of creating the change that is needed.

The path forward

As mentioned, there are many robust resources such as Norges Handikapforbund available to give you the assistance you need to do the work. Certainly one should listen to the voices of the disabled persons in your organisation, but placing the burden of responsibility upon them for creating the environment that is meant to be welcoming and as convenient for them as it is for the able-bodied, is unfair and demotivating. 

Salamatu’s childhood career dream was to become a movie director, and while it remains one of her goals, all of the career successes she has had so far are leading her to her one vision: to do philanthropic work. In her words, “When I die, I want to die a philanthropist”, and with the speed at which she has achieved her current successes, she will certainly have great impact.  

Read more about the speakers at this years conference on our website.

Read Astrid Rønning Skaugseth’s article about the importance of recognising the depth of you talent pool and listening to the voices of those most affected by accessibility issues here.

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