Through the company’s online training courses MD of Ability Focus Stephen Kelly, is increasing the awareness of diversity and inclusion through offering disability awareness programs to public and private sectors. Now being fully remote, with clients such a government minster taking the training, the company is on a mission to address bias and create greater awareness of Ireland’s most diverse group in the Irish workplace.
- To someone who may not be aware of Ability Focus. What services does your company provide?
At Ability Focus we provide disability awareness training to organisations in the public and private sectors. We also deliver disability awareness training to members of the public through our Monthly Training Programmes. Since March 2020 we have been doing this through live online training. We hope to be back on site eventually, but probably not for a while yet!
We also advise and support organisations on best practice disability inclusion with a very strong focus on provision of reasonable accommodations for employees and service users with disabilities. This really is an area which is increasing in importance in Irish workplaces, so we work with employers to ensure a fully inclusive workplace for everyone.
- What makes your company unique, as opposed to other organisations that provide disability awareness training?
We had already begun moving to remote learning just as the pandemic hit Irish shores in early 2020, so I think we were really well set up when everyone was suddenly tasked with working from home. We’ve spent the last sixteen months delivering live training remotely and it really has become our core service offering. I’m a passionate advocate of live training, and really believe the best way for people to learn is through an interactive instructor led training programme.
As far as I am aware we are also the only organisation in Ireland who deliver a Live Online Disability Awareness Training Programme which has been externally reviewed and endorsed by the IITD (Irish Institute of Training & Development). Our programme is also the only one in Ireland which is CPD Certified and accredited.
It was really important for us to form a comprehensive and contemporary disability awareness training programme which was both externally endorsed and accredited. Third party review and validation of our programmes really has set our service apart from many others.
- What’s your background? Why did you decide to launch the company?
Well, I’m a Kerryman most importantly! Secondary to that, I have a degree in Law & Economics, a postgraduate degree in Law, and a postgraduate diploma in Public Relations. I have qualifications in Disability Awareness and I’m a qualified trainer.
My work experience began in Legal Recruitment as far back as 2004 before switching careers to work with EmployAbility Service in 2008. I worked in the Kerry office for a number of years before moving to the Dublin North Office where I worked both as Employment Facilitator and Company Coordinator. I then left EmployAbility Service to join the Regional Management Team for North Leinster Citizens Information Service before setting up Ability Focus in 2019.
The reason I set up Ability Focus was to address the widespread lack of knowledge in Ireland around disability, to challenge preconceived opinions and bring greater levels of awareness to Irish workplaces. And I felt the best way to do this was primarily through a contemporary approach to disability awareness training while also focusing on Reasonable Accommodation supports.
- Why did you decide to create the company as a for profit company, as opposed to a not-for-profit company?
There always seems to be an expectation on organisations involved in the disability sector to be a charity, a social enterprise or not for profit. Why? I genuinely believe that if we are to move disability away from always being viewed through a particular lens, then more businesses in this area should be set up which are for profit making enterprises.
As long as there is an expectation that all disability centric organisations should be a charity or a non-profit, then we will always be playing catch up with full inclusion in business. Disability will always be ‘othered’.
Charities and social enterprises do invaluable work when it comes to disability inclusion in Ireland. Without the great work done by so many charities and social enterprises disability supports would be hugely lacking in so many areas. But private organisations can equally bring positive change to disability inclusion in Irish workplaces.
- In your view, what must happen to the workplace for greater disability awareness?
Disability awareness training! I really believe it is the first and the most important step in the inclusion of people with disabilities in Irish workplaces. If people are not aware of the diversity within disability, the talents and the abilities, then blinkered views will continue to act as barriers to both employment and social inclusion of Ireland’s most diverse group.
- What marketing have you done since launching? What have you found most useful?
We haven’t really done too much to be honest! I have found word of mouth to be the best marketing tool. If people are happy with a disability awareness training programme they will recommend to a colleague, or a friend in another business. We don’t have too much of a social media presence, this was a conscious decision as it takes up quite a lot of time to update multiple accounts etc.
- What have been some of your favourite moments since founding the company?
I love the interaction during our Live Online Disability Awareness Training Programmes! No two groups are the same and it’s always great when we have group discussions during training and people are completely open and honest. I really enjoy doing the Q&A’s and the interactive tasks, they can be quite funny at times!
Also, delivering training to the Minister of State for Disabilities, Anne Rabbitte last November was a particular honour. She was so open, honest and interested and made a slightly daunted facilitator feel a lot more relaxed through her engaging attitude.
But most of all its the emails from people who have completed training, letting me know that their views of disability have completely changed. That means a lot and I’m really proud to do my bit to help create a positive awareness towards disability in workplaces.
- How has the pandemic impacted Ability Focus? What have been some of the positives of the changes you have had to make?
I used to deliver training to groups of people in a physical workplace setting. Since March 2020 the largest group I have stood in front of is my wife and two children! So, there’s an obvious lack of human interaction, but the remote training has been very positive for Ability Focus, so I won’t complain.
I really enjoy live online training and it will be a major part of our service offering going forward. There are so many benefits to it that I can’t see it being shelved once we head cautiously towards ‘normality’. Organisations can save money on per person cost, mileage, room rental, overnight accommodation (in some cases), take less time away from the desk…the list of benefits goes on…
I think Live Online Disability Awareness Training will be our core service offering for quite some time yet.
- Where do you see the company in the next 5-10 years?
Honestly, I’m not sure. It’s hard to assess anything during a pandemic so I’m cautious in my predictions. I love this job, and we have been quite busy in 2021 so hopefully Ability Focus will still be operating in five years’ time, delivering training and creating positive awareness of disability in Irish workplaces.
- Are there any other companies or people in the Diversity and Inclusion space in Ireland that you are big fans of?
I think Caroline Casey is amazing. Boundless energy, incredible charm and a drive to generate inclusion for disability on a global scale the likes of which I don’t think anyone has ever seen before. Her organisation, The Valuable 500, is doing amazing work for disability inclusion at a corporate level.
I also think The Open Doors Initiative is a fantastic organisation. They really do huge amounts of good work with marginalised groups and are very forward thinking in how they approach inclusion. I’m really looking forward to getting started on their mentoring programme in July!
Their disability specific initiative – Employers for Change is a great resource and is such a hugely needed resource in Ireland. It is run by Christabelle Feeney who is really driving the programme forward and creating great awareness of disability for organisations in the public and private sector.