RJ Mitte and I have a few things in common, but I think he’d say we’re both genetically blessed. While I’m certainly not bold enough to compare looks with someone who has modelled for Vivienne Westwood, like many otherwise ordinary people, we both fit into groups characterised by our diversity. The most obvious one is like RJ, I haven’t seen many episodes of Breaking Bad, the drama series he’s best known for as an actor.
When RJ Mitte shared his experience of Overcoming Adversity for the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas in Melbourne late last year, he credited living with cerebral palsy as a catalyst for his successful career. Speaking confidently about yourself in front of an unknown audience, unscripted, for close to an hour is an achievement for anyone. For someone with mobility and language difficulties, it’s a major accomplishment.
Growing up, RJ had to learn to walk, endure years of physiotherapy, deal with bullying and discrimination, and fight to live independently. He channeled the energy required to do the things most of us take for granted, to do more. While a successful acting career is a pipe dream for many able bodied people, being pigeonholed amongst a minority group of disabled actors only made him more determined. RJ says, “A disability is knowledge and power. It’s an opportunity to see things through a different light.”
Now a powerful voice for equality and diversity in the workplace and broader community, RJ seeks to empower others through his involvement as a union advocate for actors with disabilities in Hollywood and as a celebrity ambassador for United Cerebral Palsy. RJ is also is passionate about raising awareness about bullying and victimisation in schools, a subject close to heart. “You never get out of high school,” he says, “people are always trying to push you in another direction.”
Locally it’s encouraging to see high profile organisations showing leadership on diversity and inclusion. Speaking at a CEO breakfast on marriage equality last year, QANTAS CEO Alan Joyce summed up The Spirit of Australia: “We see ourselves as representing the Australian community. We have over 250 different nationalities working for us, 50 languages spoken. We’ve got a huge, diverse workplace of 28,000 people and we have a huge gay community in our workforce. We want all of our people who come to work every day to feel equal, to feel like they can contribute equally in the organisation and in the country.”
In an article by Human Capital, MI5 head Andrew Parker recently agreed: “Diversity is vital… not just because it’s right that we represent the communities we serve, but because we rely on the skills of the most talented people whoever they are, and wherever they may be.” In the 2015 Australian Workplace Equality Index (AWEI), published by Pride in Diversity, sponsor Goldman Sachs states: “Our greatest asset is what makes us different.” For those of us involved in making hiring decisions that will affect future wins for our businesses or recruiting for others, it should be a core value to strive for.
If you’re wondering what you can do to make your workplace a better place, here are 5 tips based on RJ Mitte’s talk that you can apply within a professional context.
- Language matters – think about the words you use to describe people, especially those that you may perceive as different, and consider how you would like to be referred to by others
- Listen to and share the experiences of others – sharing stories with colleagues, rather talking about them, helps break down communication barriers
- Promote networking opportunities that support diversity – RJ laments few disabled actors have the opportunity to play disabled characters, but workplaces (particularly large organisations) have scope to support employee diversity though professional networks
- People from diverse groups make up a significant part of the workforce – We did a team building exercise on diversity in our office and there wasn’t one person who didn’t identify with at least one diversity demographic
- Challenge your perception – Instead of approaching diversity as something other, take the initiative to get involved and be inclusive by showing leadership