Deza Nguembock: “The first thing we have to say to each other is that when we talk about disability, we are talking about the human.”
The issue of disability in the world of work remains marginal, despite the introduction of a minimum quota of 6% of disabled employees in a company. But according to Deza Nugembock, founder of the E&H LAB agency and herself a disabled worker, this is still largely insufficient because it would not be taken in the right direction, especially on the issue of integration into the company, of career development. Nevertheless, efforts are being made towards a more inclusive corporate strategy, and Deza Nguembock is observing this through partnerships developed with several companies in recent years. Interview.
Feat-Y: When did you found E&H LAB and for what purpose?
Deza Nguembock: I founded E&H LAB in 2011. My agency’s mission from the outset has been to change perceptions about difference. When I talk about difference, I start from the principle that humanity is made up of differences and that these constitute the richness of our societies. The difference that can be immediately obvious is the colour. But, it can also be the handicap for those with visible disabilities. I started by dealing with disability at E&H LAB to enable the company to evolve on this subject and to make differences a subject of rapprochement because behind the differences, there are human beings. And the sum of these differences, of this diversity creates the wealth that is essential to the survival of our humanity.
Feat-Y: Before you founded E&H LAB, what were your previous experiences and how did they relate to the issue of disability?
D.N.: When I finished my studies, I started looking for work and spontaneously put the mention of disabled worker on my CV. And for several months, nothing happened. And the day I decided to remove that disabled worker mention, my phone didn’t stop ringing. For me, it is the awareness that disability is a problem in society! Fortunately, or unfortunately, I went to a marketing agency that had recruited me on a fixed-term contract. The issue of disability was raised during this job interview. The person who recruited me had a very open mind on these issues. She’d had the same academic background as me. She didn’t graduate like me. And she said, “I don’t understand why they wouldn’t take you.” She gave me the chance to start my first job as a recent graduate. Everything went well. So much so that the director, with whom I was working, offered me a permanent contract. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you want to look at it, it couldn’t be done. But I saw this discrimination as an opportunity because if it hadn’t happened, I would probably still be working for another company. I might not have had the audacity to go and develop things that are much bigger, more important for society. So this permanent position did not take place, because the day I was supposed to start, I received a phone call telling me that there was a mistake, that this position should never have been offered to me. It was my first experience in the working world in France. And the outcome of this experience disgusted me with the job search. I became aware of the cynicism in this society. So I started doing things for myself. First of all, I created an artistic association, where I developed quite a few projects. And one thing led to another, people who came to my events were interested in what I was doing, then very surprised that it was a disabled person who was able to do what I was doing. Then, a company came looking for me in 2008 to recruit me. Usually it’s the candidates who go to the companies, and there, it’s the company that came to me. Again, the issue of disability has been put on the table. I asked them why they wanted to recruit me. At the time, the law on employment quotas for disabled persons had been passed. I asked them, eye to eye, “Do you want to make quotas? They said no, that it was because of my talents that they could see in the projects I was working on. I’ve been with the company for three and a half years. And it turns out that I found limits to my fulfilment in this company; I realised that the integration of qualified disabled workers deserved to be rethought and supported. Considering my ambitions in relation to my skills, I had the feeling that the glass ceiling was not far away. And even though I was employed in an assimilated executive position on a permanent contract in one of the most important communication groups in France, I decided to break this contract and leave to fly on my own wings. That’s what led me to start my own agency. About ten days after I broke my contract, my company E&H LAB was founded.
Feat-Y: Do you think there has been a better consideration of disability in the world of work in recent years?
D.N.: I think it’s biased. I do not think that we are taking things the right way, that we are not taking things in the right direction, that we are not taking things the way they should be taken. So much so that, in my opinion, things are not evolving properly. I’ll be a little more specific. Just because we talk a lot more about disability does not mean that we are making any real progress. Yes, the subject of disability has become a trend, it is talked about on almost every stage, all companies are invited and encouraged to take action on disability. So some companies are moving. But what many do is meaningless! I’m weighing my words when I say it. But be careful, not all companies are in the same boat. Some of them are good students and act effectively and sustainably to achieve their inclusion policy. However, in most companies, the actions implemented are not the subject of any strategy or action plan, except for one-off actions with no impact. The issue of disability is still a very taboo subject, poorly managed because it is poorly understood and poorly supported. Recruiting a disabled person is not enough and unfortunately many companies limit themselves to their “quota of disabled employees”. First, I would like to remind the House that the law talks about a minimum of 6%, but that does not mean that we should stay at 6%. The recruitment process begins well upstream; there may be a need to match the positions to be filled with the different types of disability; this work leads to thinking about the types of accommodation needed. Once a disabled employee has been recruited, there is a need to support his or her effective integration and several tools exist for this purpose; his or her job retention and career development will be just as important as his or her recruitment. Alas, this question of career planning for the disabled, in my view, is hardly ever addressed by 80% or even 90% of companies. My view is therefore that there is still a lot of concrete work to be done. There is a lot of communication around disability, and very few concrete actions that can make a lasting difference to the employability of people with disabilities. We have to fight hard prejudices. When people with disabilities are hired, they may not be in a disabled situation at their workstation. As an example, personally, I have a physical disability. If I am in a professional situation, sitting in front of my workstation, I would say I have no disability. The handicap will be in relation to my mobility, but in relation to my work. We need to understand these mechanisms in order to understand how to support the work of these people.
Feat-Y: Beyond the issue of disability, is Corporate Social Responsibility more respected by companies?
D.N : To avoid generalizing, I wouldn’t put all companies in the same basket. A real answer, on the other hand, would require real studies in order to be able to say precisely how such companies comply with the framework imposed on them or the one they have defined themselves. I don’t want to take shortcuts and make a boating response because each company sets its own course and today with the PACTE law and its raison d’être, it will be easier to monitor the commitments made and posted by companies and to see the impact of their results if they perform well. Today, by looking at annual reports, CSR reports, customer feedback, we can indeed get an idea of which companies’ actions are in line with their raison d’être; but, we can also see that others are just surfing on a trend with actions that are not part of a strategic plan. For me, the question of impact is absolutely central because companies must ask themselves what impact they are making on society, on this or that aspect that they have chosen to address in their CSR strategy?
Feat-Y: Have you developed partnerships with companies or administrations for access to work for people with disabilities, with your agency, in recent years?
D.N: Inclusive society is about more than just access to work for people with disabilities. The E&H LAB agency approaches the issue of employability of people with disabilities in a systemic way, i.e. far upstream and ahead of recruitment, from the city to the companies. Before access to employment, there is the person in his social environment with various subjects including his development, his acceptance by himself and by others. This social inclusion aspect is dealt with in the general interest branch of E&H LAB through its daring citizen campaigns aimed at changing perceptions of disability. And it is precisely in this type of project that E&H LAB develops partnerships to enable the implementation and promotion of its campaigns, which are aimed at the general public and deployed in public places worldwide. These citizen campaigns are designed to facilitate social inclusion and empower people with disabilities. Some of our partners provide financial support, others operational support, and all contribute to our ideal of a more just and equitable society. Downstream of the recruitment of a disabled employee, there is a whole process of support to raise awareness among the work group, adapt the position if necessary, avoid professional disintegration, allow job retention and career development. This corporate component is not intended to be a partnership in the primary sense of the term. But at E&H LAB, we see companies as partners with whom we work hand in hand over time to support each other. We therefore intervene on the specific requests of our customers and by relying on our consulting, communication or events poles.
Downstream of the recruitment of a disabled employee, there is a whole process of support to raise awareness among the work group, adapt the position if necessary, avoid professional disintegration, allow job retention and career development. This corporate component is not intended to create partnerships in the primary sense of the term. But at E&H LAB, we consider as partners companies with which we work hand in hand and over time to support each other. We therefore work on the specific requests of our clients and by relying on our consulting, communication or events departments.
Feat-Y: Could the Coronavirus crisis be an opportunity for companies to be more inclusive? If so, under what conditions, in your opinion?
D.N.: The first thing we have to say to ourselves is that when we talk about disability, we are talking about the human being. What we do for a person with a disability is necessarily beneficial for society as a whole. Next, every crisis should be seen as a windfall. The Coronavirus crisis precisely is a real opportunity beyond even the question of inclusion. It was an opportunity for society as a whole to take a real step back for several months to look at itself in the mirror, the mirror of society, and to make decisions, perhaps, for the next world as some like to call the post-covid world19. And I would say that this is an opportunity for all companies that have the will to take real, effective and lasting action on inclusion. For this, a small dose of boldness is necessary as well as an open-mindedness and win-win collaborations. I don’t see how we can do otherwise. I invite companies to ask themselves the right questions to avoid falling back into the same trap or wasting resources without taking into account the impact they generate or not. They should think about objectives, strategy, action plan, medium or long term, and stop doing one-off things to do, without a footprint. Better to do nothing than to do nothing. Today’s world, as I like to call it, will not be fooled.
With the coronavirus, everyone has seen fear grow exponentially. But you should stop being afraid. It is the fear that often stunts people and locks them into a way of doing things that is outdated. We have to try to get out of her comfort zone. The Coronavirus showed people that what they had gained could be wiped out in record time and could disappear overnight. If we’re gone tomorrow, what will we have done to make a mark for this inclusive society? It’s important to ask the questions. And that’s what should drive our actions.
Feat-Y: If you were a movie, which one would it be?
D.N.: That’s a nice question. Lots of movies in my head, Thepurple Color, Philadelphia, Joker… And if I have to be honest, not long ago I watched Michelle Obama’s documentaryBecoming. Ithink I’d just stop on that documentary if I had to choose just one film. He speaks to me deep down inside. It motivates me these days, especially in the context of this racial crisis whose protests are being heard around the world. Society has its eyes on you and no matter where you are and what you do, you must set an example, be dignified and humble. When I draw the parallel with Michelle Obama, what she had to go through when she came to the White House with her husband and her little family in a society that was hostile to blacks. I draw a small parallel with the situation of disability, of inclusion in the society in which we live. It’s not easy. But you have to be patient, persevering and have a very clear vision that allows you to hold on.
Feat-Y: If you were a song, what would you be?
D.N.: It’s very complicated! There’s a lot of songs I love. When I sleep, sometimes I hum in my head, in my sleep. When I wake up, I have tunes that go by and it’s not the same thing every day. I must say I listen to a lot of jazz, gospel music too. I sing a lot. Depending on the energy I have, I have something different. Today, it can be “Armstrong, I’m not black, I’m white…“, or Ella Fitzgerald “dancing cheek to cheek”or Mélody Gardot “I need a man who has no baggage to claim…” but also Cameroonian songs, because I come from Cameroon. This morning, I didn’t do my morning routine of waking up singing. If I close my eyes, I can take a breath and say, “What are you doing the rest of your life?”. That could be it, for example. These songs that accompany me allow me to direct my immediate action. This is the song that defines me today. Doesn’t mean tomorrow or tonight will be the same. I listen to a lot of women’s standards too. Women are in the resistance, of all times, in fact. If we look at the history of women in our societies, there are many women in the resistance, in the construction of society. Women drive innovation. When I talk about women in Africa, I think of Miriam Makeba, our “Mama Afrika” with “Soweto blues” or “Malcolm X”; and many other standards during the apartheid era, she stood up for equality and social justice. It is the song of resistance, but also of love for life, respect for life. In the end, everything is connected.
Feat-Y: If you were a historical figure, who would it be? Why?
D.N. : There are two things that come to mind and I would have a hard time choosing. I’m thinking resistance, but by male characters. I think of Shaka Zulu for his warrior side, resistant and fine strategist. On the other hand, I would have liked to get inside his head sometimes to understand what was going on there at certain times because he was terrorizing people. And when he was killing, he didn’t go in with his dead hands. But, I guess we can all fall over and go crazy in the face of an abusive and hostile system, and here I’m making a nod to Arthur in Joker. And I do believe that Shaka had gone mad and his character fascinates me. And the2ndcharacter leads me to the United States with Kunta Kinté who, despite all that he has suffered, has insisted on keeping a link with his origins, Africa, kamby bolongo, the river. He did everything to remember that name, as well as his own name Kunta Kinte, even if his executioners did everything to cut the umbilical cord and wash his memory of all traces that could have kept the flame of the man he was. Despite all this suffering, He persevered in the resistance. I can’t make a choice between the two, but if I really had to make a choice, it would be Kunta Kinte.
Feat-Y: If you were a colour, which one would it be?
D.N.: Everything is difficult for me. I don’t know how to have a very strong opinion because I’m a pretty fluid person, even though I’m pretty loyal in some things, in my commitment. The colours bring me back to the life energy. When I say that, a lot of them come into my line of sight. Because they have different energies. But I also want to say that all these energies are important. We can’t just focus on one energy. We’re going to have warmth, we’re going to have something warm, but sometimes it’s important to have something cold too. When I say cold, I see blue, I see black. When I say hot, I see yellow, golden yellow, red, which also symbolizes passion. And passion is something important to drain all the energy, all the action that one must carry out in life. If there is not the passion to drive this action, it will not take place or have an impact. I’m always concerned about the impact. Here I am dressed in a red dress but I have a yellow scarf next to me. Right now, I’m very charged with strong energy, dynamic energy. But there are times when I’m in a pretty calm energy state. And now I’m going more towards blue. After that, the colour par excellence is black! Black is the universal color. If I had to make a choice, it would be more black. On the other hand, I am not in favour of leaving only one colour because I want, once again, to fluctuate in my energies. Black is a very spiritual thing for me. It’s the universal. That’s the one thing we don’t question. It is the relationship with this supernatural force, this supreme force, the relationship with the ancestors. There was a poem in Africa, when I was a child, which said: “I thank my God for making me black, for making me the sum of all the colours”. But we must also let the other colours, which are essential to our lives, express themselves. This brings us back to diversity, to the principle of this diverse expression of everything.
Feat-Y: If you were an animal, which one would it be?
D.N. : I think there are still some things I would take from such and such an animal. Maybe the lion. A feline, anyway. From him, I would take the audacity, the poise, the elegance. But also the aggressive side. Because in life, you have to have these two facets at the same time: soft, elegant; but the naive and the lively. I think you need both a calm, very calm side and an aggressive side to be able to defend yourself, otherwise you get eaten up quickly in this society. I think the felines are mixing up what I’m describing. If I take the lion, if I take the tiger, I’m going to find that sense of presence, of elegance again. When he walks, it’s with elegance, assurance. But when he has to defend himself, he’s ready to get his claws in, too.
Interview Jonathan Baudoin*