Q&A: Mike Adams OBE, CEO Purple

27 October 2022

Who is Purple?

Purple is an organisation that is changing the disability conversation. How I explain it, is traditionally disability has been seen as an issue of charity, about vulnerable people, about welfare and the responsibility of government. What we’re doing is shifting this dial and saying, disability is about value. It is about contribution. Whether that’s as a disabled customer or as an employee, it is about community and quite frankly it is about opportunity. We always talk about the £274 billion Purple Pound that consumers are spending. But only 10% of businesses have a targeted strategy to access the disabled market. For the businesses that do, it unlocks a new market for them and in turn it drives quality experiences for disabled people. So, it’s a win win.

We see disability as both a huge commercial opportunity, and an increasingly significant social impact issue as well.

What is Purple Tuesday?

Purple Tuesday is about supporting organisations to improve their disabled customer experience. But clearly, by improving the customer experience you will also improve the employee experience as well. How I describe it, is Purple Tuesday helps organisations have a better relationship with their existing customers and their potential disabled customers and their families, by supporting them to put in place accessibility changes. Whether it’s in the built environment, the online environment or to support the staff that work in that organisation. Purple Tuesday is about what organisations do 365 days a year, it is a 365 day a year initiative. We have a yearly celebration, which brings all this together, which is on 1st November this year. It’s about sharing and aggregating all these thousands of bits of practises and information for organisations committed to disability inclusion.

Canary Wharf Group have joined Purple Tuesday this year, what does that mean to you?

Well for me, as we move disability from what has historically been seen as a social issue, to both a commercial and social issue, what better symbol can it be? As a statement of intent and for everything that Canary Wharf Group stands for in terms of commercial and social issues, it’s a huge symbolic statement that has been made.

The commitment is fantastic because you’re taking these issues really seriously and that goes on behind the scenes day in and day out with your Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (ED&I) networks. That’s the nuts and bolts of what you do and why you’re doing it to improve the experience and we can shine a light on that. You’re even lighting up One Canada Square in purple which will be absolutely fantastic and I’m looking forward to my purple cocktail on Tuesday!

Mike Adams OBE, CEO Purple

Mike Adams OBE, CEO Purple

What other initiatives have been planned for Purple Tuesday 2022?

There’s a lot, on Tuesday morning in the UK we will light up Piccadilly lights, this really kicks off the day and in social media terms, gets us trending. Last year we got to number 2 on social media and had 19 million impressions, this year we are obviously trying to get to number 1, so no pressure! On Tuesday evening we’ll be at Canary Wharf, lighting up the skyline.

We will be seeing an organised procession through the streets of Malaysia with everyone wearing purple and we’ll light up some buildings in Malaysia and Singapore. We’re also lighting up a monument in Karachi, Pakistan which is particularly important given the recent catastrophic flooding in Pakistan and the issue of disabled people. We’ll be lighting up Dubai and announcing the actions that we agreed at a round table event last month, which will be brilliant. In the US, the state of Minnesota is embracing Purple Tuesday which is fantastic. There’s a series of events across Minnesota, including at Prince’s home in Minneapolis. We’ve got permission to not only to go into Prince’s house, but into Prince’s recording studio with a deaf school choir who will be doing a videoed rendition in American Sign Language of Purple Rain.

So yes, we’re going global and making a statement of intent around why this is a commercial as well as social impact issue and raising awareness of Purple Tuesday. We want people to understand what we’re doing and to get people and organisations engaged from across the globe for this year and for the following years.

It feels to me a little bit like New Year’s Eve, with synchronised purple pyrotechnics going off across the world.

Tell me more about the concept of the Purple Pound

When we talk about disability, organisations immediately think of the wheelchair symbol as the international sign for disability and this is about lifts and ramps. Whereas actually, of the 14.6 million disabled people in the UK (22% of the population), only 8% of this population are wheelchair users. The big issue I talk about is mental health which has increased exponentially since lockdown and Covid-19. We’ve also got much more awareness of neurodiversity, including autism and Asperger’s, long term health conditions, dyslexia, learning disabilities and even cancer. For people who have cancer, or who are fully recovered from cancer, they still have rights under existing disability legislation. So, when you look at it in that way, you realise the group of people we’re talking about is much broader than initially thought.

83% of disabled people acquire their disability in a lifetime. 80% of disabled people have hidden impairments, so they may come to Canary Wharf, and you wouldn’t necessarily know they had a disability. We need to get our head’s around reorientating our thinking about the group of people we’re talking about. By not having good accessibility, it’s not just the disabled person that won’t come, but their entire family, so you see how it becomes such a large number. There is a commercial and social imperative to do something, the global Purple Pound has risen to $13 trillion, it just shows you what an enormous opportunity there is for people who get it right and the answer is why wouldn’t you want to get it right?

Websites become the gateway to an organisation, whether you’re purchasing products and services or looking up what services are provided for disabled people. The website needs to be accessible and include information such as where the accessible toilets and car parking are. We know if you can’t access the website to get that information, then you’re unlikely to visit that place because it’s symbolic of what they stand for.

Increasingly, websites like to navigate you with colours, but think about the 3 million people who are colour blind in the UK alone. It’s fine to have colours but have the words next to them to help navigation. People with mental health, particularly young people leave sites if they’re too cluttered and have flashing images for example. So, declutter the web page and that supports people with mental health. Increasingly, lots of websites capitalise the first line of the first sentence, but if you’re blind and have a screen reader it will read out each letter individually. For many blind people, by the time they’ve worked out what your website says, they’re off. By making a simple change of removing capitalisation, which could be rectified in 2 minutes, you’re suddenly welcoming blind people and removing a barrier that doesn’t need to exist.

On Purple Tuesday we’re going to release some research we’ve done with disabled people about what attracts them to brands and how to access the disability market. Evidence shows that once you have a disabled person as a customer, they, as a group have the biggest loyalty to their brands. So, once you know what your disabled customers want, you can deliver that, and they will stay with you much longer than the average kind of customer. And by the way, that bar is pretty low in delivering a quality experience to disabled customers, so there’s a serious message that sits beneath that. The research will also include a practical solutions message that I think will be useful to businesses and the kind of ‘wow’ moments that will engage people to listen. That is the plan.

What does success look like for you with the Purple movement?

At one level I want to be able to inundate you with numbers that are impressive, particularly around social media, because we need to define the ways in which to engage people and for them to ask the questions for which we’ve got the answers. So, a starting point is having a well-known global movement and I want that to be a success.

We have 26 sector partners with us this year, it was ten last year. These are organisations that are representing different sectors; they’re not saying they’re perfect, but saying we have a commitment alongside our sector to go on that journey. Whether it’s retail, insurance, tourism, financial etc., so that’s also a barometer of success. We’re exhibiting in five countries this year, we want to be in 10 countries next year, we want this to be global.

But, fundamentally, for me, success will be disabled people looking at websites, going into shopping centres, going to restaurants, and routinely having a great experience. So, the aggregated solutions of all these organisations, committing to doing something for the other 364 days, is what will for me, be the barometer of whether we’ve been successful or not.

Do you offer training or support to companies looking to become disability inclusive businesses?

Yes, we do. I try not to make it a sales pitch, but you tell people to do something, and they respond by saying, we’re committed to doing something, but how should we do it?

There are three things; how do we make our built environment more accessible; how do we make our online digital technology more accessible and how do we engage our staff and bring them on this journey? We’ve got different packages that organisations can encapsulate, so hopefully, year on year we build their confidence and ability to make more commitments to disabled customers. We take these organisations on this journey, and it focuses around these three things, the built environment, the online environment, and their people.

From experience I know that the use of terminology and the correct language around disability and accessibility can be a blocker, what is your advice?

The straightforward answer is for 99% of people it is about the context in which you ask the question. There is terminology in 2022 that is not right, such as handicapped, but that is the same for gender and race as well. I always say to people it is about common sense, it is about the way in which you say it, for 99% of people, as long as you’re saying it in the right context, they’re happy. What I say around etiquette and terminology is don’t let it become the barrier to you engaging, don’t worry that you’re inadvertently going to offend someone by saying or doing the wrong thing because this is where Purple Tuesday started.

I went Christmas shopping 5-6 years ago with my partner and we went into 27 shops. In 23 of them, the frontline staff only spoke to my nondisabled partner, or swerved us all together. We realised it wasn’t around discrimination, it was the fear of saying or doing the wrong thing that made them swerve the conversation. Of course, the more you get ignored in the shop, the less likely you are to spend your pounds. The most important thing is to say something and use the right context, if you do that, then the language and etiquette things really fall away.

Interestingly, last week I had a call with America, so I was talking about people with disabilities. I then had a call with Dubai, and we were talking about people of determination because that’s the language they use. In Pakistan, it’s people with disabilities and in the UK it’s disabled people. But generally, for organisations it is simply about context.

How can businesses get involved going forward?

When we ask disabled people about that, their answer is do something. Just do something. You’ve got to start somewhere and organisations are probably doing more than they think they’re doing. If you take Canary Wharf Group for example, they’re doing an amazing array of activities around equality, diversity and inclusion and Purple Tuesday creates this umbrella in which to bring all that together, celebrate it and say right, what next? I think it’s about being hungry to do more for your customers because commercially it’s the right thing to do and socially it’s the right thing to do. Your staff will now expect it; I really think, post lockdown, particularly around mental health, staff expect their organisations to look after them and their wellbeing. Customers are increasingly demanding of their brands and the basics around receiving a quality experience and if you don’t do that, they’ll go somewhere else.

Investors, in terms of ESG (environmental, social and governance), diversity and social impact are expecting it to be real and tangible rather than a tick box exercise. I think it’s much easier to do than people think, language and etiquette is a good example of that. Some of the commitments that people are making have really taken off this year and every organisation must make a commitment. The one that’s really taking off is called the six second rule, which applies to when you’re talking to someone on the neurodiverse spectrum, for example someone with autism or Asperger’s, or they could have a stammer. You ask your question and then count to six in your head, to enable the person to process the question and then give you an enriched answer. Normally, people don’t like silence and they wait a second before jumping in and answering for them and 99 times out of 100 they get it wrong. People have found it’s had a really profound difference on their conversations with their relatives, their family and their customers who are on that spectrum and that cost nothing but makes a huge difference.

Also have a look at your website and think, have we got a site map for example. I always say to organisations, get your staff to go onto your organisation’s website and unplug their mouse and see just how far they can navigate without a mouse; that will give you a barometer about how accessible you are. Then there’s training and awareness training for hidden disabilities, there’s the sunflower lanyard for hidden disabilities that a lot of organisations are adopting. Lots of frontline staff organisations have got their staff to learn hello and goodbye in British Sign Language for example, again, that makes a huge difference. So, there’s a lot that people can do absolutely free, and we say to organisations, see this as an investment, not a cost. You can work with Purple or other companies to put in place overtime, the changes that will make a real difference.

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