Interview by Indi Davies

Sulaiman R. Khan on how a troubled start in industry led to working in Disability justice

Graduating with a degree in advertising and brand communication in 2012, Sulaiman R. Khan experienced barrier after barrier as a Disabled creative. After a difficult three years applying for jobs, he eventually landed a role he came to resent and quit only a few months later due to toxicity and inaccessibility. But this is where the story finds its silver lining: In 2016, Sulaiman founded his company ThisAbility, and began to dedicate his time and talents to empowering, uplifting and raising awareness for the global Disabled community. Today, ThisAbility helps organisations engage with Disabled consumers – a market worth an estimated $8 trillion. Alongside this, Sulaiman works on his co-founded platform Cripjoy and earlier this year he launched DRIIF, a grant scheme that rewards Disabled creatives with finances towards their radical, imaginative ideas and projects. Here, he tells us about the life experiences and motivations that led to his current path.

Sulaiman

Sulaiman R. Khan


Job Title

Founder and Chief Purpose Officer, ThisAbility (2016–present)

Based

London

Selected Clients

D&AD, Brand By Me, Born Equal Consults

Place of Study

BA in Advertising and Brand communication, UCA Farnham (2009–2012)

Website

thisability.co

Social Media

Twitter
Instagram
LinkedIn

This article is part of a partnership to highlight Sulaiman’s Disability Radical Imagination Impact Fund, open to applicants until December 3rd, 2021.

What I do

How would you describe what you do and the work of ThisAbility?
I’m the founder and chief purpose officer of ThisAbility. ThisAbility helps socially conscious organisations focused on sustainability, technology, or design to diversify revenues by engaging the estimated $8 trillion Disabled market; daringly integrating Disability for business growth. Because of our innate sense of solidarity and desire for justice, we work tirelessly to ignite, invest in, and amplify Disabled creativity across the world for a just tomorrow for Disabled people.

We do this through consulting, public speaking and various other ways that help organisations understand the importance of anti-ableism, Disability justice, accessibility and engaging with Disability.

I started ThisAbility five years ago and it was founded on the belief that Disabled people are the most creative people in the world: We have infinite imagination within limitations. I think everything we do is so radical, world-building, interdependent, creative and joyful – we naturally create transformative systems and structures, so it’s about helping others understand that power.

“ThisAbility was founded on the belief that Disabled people are the most creative people in the world: We have infinite imagination as a result of our limitations.”

Could you also tell us about the DRIIF initiative and how it came about?
The whole idea was created in ten days back in July. The mission was to highlight the raw imagination of Disabled creatives, to amplify them and say, “Keep up the great work.” I wanted to give back to my Disabled global family. To me that’s critical, because as Disabled people will know, we work in interdependence – nothing is done in isolation. And I always aim to raise while I rise – raising the Disabled community whilst my business rises.

For me, DRIIF is really about understanding what that means, and living up to it. The grant is one way I can support and invest in the Disabled community.

Can you give us some examples of favourite projects you’ve worked on?
One of them would be my work with a company called Brand By Me – a brand strategy company – on a project for the Wellcome Trust, to help them create inclusive comms that are antiracist and anti-ableist. It’s so wonderful to start to see change in such a large organisation.

Doing work with D&AD has been great too, getting to hang out with the team and do some speaking work with them (for example speaking at their inaugural festival in 2016) – apart from nearly falling off the stage, which was pretty funny! I also really enjoyed doing some judging for the Getty Images awards a couple years back, and met some amazing people.

What kinds of tools do you use most for your work?
I use a lot of different programs, including Miro, Canva to design, Adobe Illustrator, and I make a lot of presentations in Keynote. I’m also often writing a lot!

If you could sum up your job in an image, meme, emoji or gif, what would it be and why?
This [below] highlights how I often feel, and in my mind really spells out ableism.

People often don’t recognise Disability, and are so afraid to even say the word. Instead they say ‘differently abled’ or ‘special needs’, but I think: just say ‘Disabled’! Society has turned it into such a negative word. That’s why, on my email signature, I include my Disabled pronouns as well as gender pronouns, to say: I’m a wholeheartedly Disabled, South Asian man and that’s okay. Disabled people are all on different journeys with our Disabled identities and that’s also fine. I’m trying to deconstruct ableism and fight for Disability justice [see a great definition of Disability justice here].

You also don’t have to be Disabled to experience ableism. Whether it’s ways of working, being able to get into an office or not feeling well, you can come up against ableism. People know what sexism and racism are for example, but a lot less people know and understand ableism, and if they do, it’s from a patriarchal, non-intersectional lens.

“You don’t have to be Disabled to experience ableism. Whether it’s ways of working, being able to get into an office or not feeling well, you can come up against ableism.”

It’s important to recognise the richness and the diversity of the Disabled community, as the world’s largest minority – a market the size of China. Also, it’s estimated that 80% of Disability is acquired in someone’s lifetime, so statistically you’re very likely to become Disabled in your lifetime. When we account for getting older, this often is another way we become Disabled but often not considered.

In the Disabled community there can be a weird hierarchy that plays into ableism; at the top you have the wheelchair users, then blind and deaf people, to people with learning disabilities all the way at the bottom. I mention it because in society there’s often a narrative about ‘overcoming’ Disability to succeed, but I feel like it’s a huge part of my life – it does define me, but it’s not all that I am and it doesn’t confine me. I’m so damn tired of making myself and my Disability palatable. I’m just showing up as I am (even for this interview, with a ventilator lying horizontally), this is how I exist in the world and that’s okay.

I feel like it’s critical for me, with the capacity I have, to raise awareness, push the boundaries of what the world thinks Disability is and should be – and amplify other Disabled voices and creatives, Disabled indigenous people, Disabled people of colour, Disabled Black people.

The ThisAbility website

How I got here

What’s your creative journey been like so far?
When I graduated in 2012 with a degree in advertising and brand communication, I tried for three years to land a job. When I finally got one, it wasn’t very good and I had to leave after eight months. It was at a communications agency where they did everything except communicate – it was toxic. I found the ad industry to breed environments that are unsupportive, inaccessible and non-diverse.When I left that job in 2016 I said I wouldn’t wait another three years to get a job I hated, so I set up ThisAbility.

The start of my journey was both devastating and delightful. I was constantly dealing with inaccessibility and ableism, being told I was ‘inspirational’ while navigating systems that are not designed for me. What was delightful was starting to create and see impact in creative environments and spaces, connecting with other Disabled people, and then seeing how far I’d actually come. The adventure has been up and down but I like challenges.

“[At] the start of my adventure I was constantly dealing with inaccessibility and ableism, being told I was ‘inspirational’ while navigating systems that are not designed for me.”

A still from Sulaiman’s TedX talk

What would you say your biggest challenge has been along the way?
Dealing with ableism and internalising it, in a world that really doesn’t want Disabled people to survive let alone thrive. Still to this day, it’s the biggest challenge I face. I have bad days like everyone, but I feel like I’m designed to do so much more - there’s so much I want to do, collaborate on and share with the world.

It’s not easy being a Disabled person and a person of colour, but what really helped me is having the wisdom and richness of my Disabled global family.

What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
I want to highlight something Cindy Gallop always says to me: Ask for the biggest amount you can say out loud without laughing. That’s been key to increasing my fees and demanding more for myself and my organisation. Often in the past, I’ve done work and people have expected me to do it for free, but that can be devastating: How do they expect me to survive?

In the UK, on average, Disabled people have to pay £583 extra per month, just for being Disabled. So it’s just not fair if we don’t get paid what we deserve for our wisdom, knowledge and lived experience. People that tell you you’re so inspirational but don’t want to pay for your time can go away. It doesn’t work like that.

The complexities that Disabled people deal with are another reason why organisations and clients should be consulting, hiring and paying way more Disabled people. For example, the ways of working that have been normalised through the pandemic – from online communication to remote creative collaboration – were things Disabled people have been doing for a long time. Our creativity, innovation, imagination, skills, ways of organising and living with interdependence are all things organisations claim they want, but I feel like little is being done to engage with Disabled people – particularly in the creative industries.

“Organisations claim they want [our creativity and innovation], but I feel like little is being done to engage with Disabled people – particularly in the creative industries.”

Do you have thoughts on how we can make the creative sector and industry more accessible for Disabled people?
I would pitch this question to all creative companies:

What are you doing to create a more radical, holistic, sustainable, regenerative, decolonised, post-capitalist, anti-ableist, anti racist, accessible approach to creativity and workplace conversations and solutions, that include Disabled people, especially Disabled Black, indigenous, and people of colour? And when I say indigenous, I don’t mean the definition that white supremacy adopts for its propaganda and what we sometimes see as violent and hateful action.

Sulaiman’s co-founded platform, Cripjoy

My advice

What’s the best creative and career-related advice you’ve received?
The biggest thing I’ve learnt is to embrace Crip Time. I’ve learnt that it’s okay to go at my own pace, to exist as I am. I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself rather than find my joy.

What advice would you give someone looking to work in a similar way?
Existing as a Disabled creative can be quite isolating. I was absolutely devastated to the core when I couldn’t get a job in the advertising industry; I felt like my life was over, nobody loved me and I really felt I internalised ableism. But I started to realise the power, richness and radicalism of interdependence. Working in harmony with other Disabled people profoundly helped me.

“It’s okay to not work towards the hustle culture... Take it slow, work for people that are good for your soul and don’t be afraid to speak your mind.”

So I’d say connect with other Disabled people, find your own joy and take your time. It’s okay just to breathe, sit with yourself and not work towards the hustle culture of long workdays and weeks. Take it slow, work for people that are good for your soul and don’t be afraid to speak your mind. I wish I’d learnt that sooner!

Lastly, we should all be working towards creating communities where we can exist in interdependence. This quote from Adrienne Maree Brown summarises what I’m trying to say more eloquently: “Liberated relationships are one of the ways we actually create abundant justice, the understanding that there is enough attention, care, resource, and connection for all of us to access belonging, to be in our dignity, and to be safe in community.”

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This article is part of a partnership to highlight Sulaiman’s Disability Radical Imagination Impact Fund, open to applicants until December 3rd, 2021.

Mention Sulaiman R. Khan
Interview by Indi Davies