What is the worst thing that anyone can say to you? It is a simple question, yet one that lies at the heart of breaking through your comfort zone. And it is a mantra that underlines Sulaiman Khan’s creative outlook: "The worst thing that anyone can say to you is to tell you to fuck off. People are so afraid to say the wrong things that they don’t say anything at all, particularly when it comes to disability."
This fear lies at the heart of the industry’s diversity problem, but Khan is not afraid of calling it out: "As disabled people, we have to be creative and innovative from a young age to adapt to society’s barriers and just go for it. A lot of people don’t have the same confidence or opportunity, but it is important to be heard."
It is this desire to be heard that has led Khan to launch ThisAbility, a network designed to support the best creative disabled talent via events, meet-ups, mentoring and consulting. The aim is to open the eyes of leaders in the creative industries to see the talent of people with disabilities. "If you don’t have disabled people doing the work, and if they can’t access internships and training, then change can’t happen," Khan explains.
The working practices of adland have often proved untenable for Khan, whose muscular dystrophy means he cannot sit in an office for 12 hours a day. So he is focusing on changing not just the creative output of adland but also its working foundations. "Advertising is a business that still requires people to be in the office all hours of the day and night, five days a week. It is not healthy for anyone: parents, families or people who need flexible work," he says.
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In 2012, Khan graduated with a degree in advertising and brand communications from the University for the Creative Arts. After three years, he landed a job as a researcher at a communications agency but was made redundant after eight months. He is yet to secure his dream role in a creative department.
However, rather than giving up, he wants to redefine the industry to make it inclusive by design. Despite the high-profile drive to tackle its diversity problem, the industry has a long way to go, especially when it comes to disability. "I think the Maltesers ads are a fantastic step in the right direction but, despite the whole diversity debate in the industry that is making its mark this year, no-one has mentioned disability. I will change this," Khan explains.
In the face of many barriers (both visible and invisible), finding new ways to adapt and be resourceful at work is vital to the future of creativity. "As long as the work gets done, it doesn’t matter how or where you do it. The idea that you need to sit at a desk for 12 hours a day is a very 1920s way of thinking," Khan says.
Agile thinking has been at the top of the creative agenda for the past decade, but the fact remains that the creative industries are still an impenetrable space for all too many. With ThisAbility, Khan is focusing on being the change he wants to see.
Khan’s manifesto for building an inclusive culture
"Be willing to have difficult conversations."
Look at other ways of working
"The nine to five is outdated."
Disrupt your behaviour
"Get out of your comfort zone."
Build new role models
"We need to see ourselves in business."
"Get the basics right. Creating genuinely inclusive spaces is vital."