By Emma Palmer, chief executive of Eastlight Community Homes

When we at Eastlight Community Homes set about having open and honest discussions about diversity, we didn’t expect conversations around disabilities to reveal that we were sometimes unintentionally discriminating against our disabled residents and colleagues.

Eastlight formed on 1 June 2020, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. From the outset, we wanted to be a trailblazing housing association for our communities in the East of England – and for the UK housing sector.

With virtual conversations everywhere in full swing, we wanted to begin having the challenging online discussions that needed to take place for us to become the diverse and inclusive organisation we envisioned.

Monthly sessions for staff members focussed on the nine strands of diversity: age, disability, gender reassignment, sex, marriage and civil partnerships, pregnancy and maternity, religion or belief, race and disability.

However, at HQN’s ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Network Annual Conference’, I’ll be focussing on what we learned about what it’s like to work for Eastlight – or to live in an Eastlight home – with a disability, in the hope that others can learn from our experiences and join the campaign we are running in partnership with national disability organisation Purple.

Purple’s chief executive, Mike Adams, joined the conversation about diversity as an invited guest, and he provided an external perspective and shared his own stories about accessing suitable housing as a person with disabilities.

During the session, it became clear that we were discriminating against people with disabilities without realising. No doubt other housing associations are falling down in the similar ways, and this is why decided to get together with Purple to help housing providers to view their services through a new lens, and to commit to making improvements for the benefit of disabled customers and team members.

We’ve seen for ourselves how, once colleagues begin talking about disability, they begin identifying opportunities for improvements.

For example, the conversations we were having led to Michelle Baker, an Eastlight resident and chair of Eastlight’s Customer Influence Committee, telling us how, when she moved into her home there were no fences around it. Her house is surrounded by open fields, and because we expect for residents who live next to open countryside to want to do so without any obstacles, we don’t put them up.

However, Michelle has a son who is blind, so she needs there to be a fence to keep him safe. In retrospect, this seems obvious – but it took several visits from our surveyors for them to grasp why a fence was needed.

The experiences shared by Michelle and others made us realise that serving disabled residents is about so much more than fitting ramps and rails. We needed to work harder, viewing our services in a slightly different way.

Having these discussions from the outset meant we were able to revise our plans for the Eastlight website, doing more to ensure it was designed and developed to be accessible to all.

We also changed our plans for our newly refurbished offices, which we were busy preparing for colleagues’ return post-pandemic.

The space was being redesigned for hotdesking and collaboration, and we originally wanted to install standard computer screen sizes on all hot desks, but our conversations around diversity made us realise that this would not be best for all team members – particularly those with hidden disabilities we might not be aware of.

Indeed, we’re hoping that, by starting conversations around neurodiversity, more team members will feel comfortable sharing sensitive information about their learning disabilities, as we’re certain these are currently underreported.

We’re trying to build a culture where people feel comfortable talking about the challenges they face, so we can create a better working environment for all team members.

Through our partnership with Purple, we want to kick-start the sector-wide discussion that will lead to UK housing addressing the inequalities that we now know exist between disabled and non-disabled people.

Others, like ourselves, will be unaware of the barriers team members and residents are facing until they begin talking about them – and I’m looking forward to starting the ball rolling at HQN’s event on 9 September.