More than three quarters of people with disabilities acquire them as adults. They have learned as adults to adapt, to take risks and do things differently. These are skills and attributes necessary to be successful for anyone in today’s world, says Andy Brown. 

In his speech at the Disability Matters European Union Conference and Awards, Andy talks about how he coped with being diagnosed with acute heart disease. He also talks about his son, Richard, who suffers from dyslexia.

Good Morning Ladies and Gentleman. Welcome to the 2015 Disability Matters Conference and welcome to Shell.

My name is Andy Brown and it is a privilege to help you kick off your day together. You are here to share and celebrate best practices. Let me be one of the first to congratulate the award winners who will be recognised tonight.

We are pleased to co-host this event which is focused on sharing best practices in promoting and working with disabilities in the workplace. 

I see a number of Shell partners here and I thank you all for sharing Shell’s, and my, passion to shine a light on the opportunities that disability awareness in the workforce and in society in general create. 

However, we are also here to listen and to learn and, most importantly, to take that learning back to our organisations. There, we can bring awareness to the potential of those with disabilities to continue to change perceptions and reduce barriers that they face every day.

There is an undeniable business need for us to promote the inclusion of people with disability in the workplace. 

The UN estimates that up to 20% of the world’s population has some form of disability. That is a substantial amount of the workforce that we need to attract to make sure we have the best people for the job.

In addition, the Business Disability Forum [1] states that one in three people has an impairment or disability, cares for a disabled person or is close to someone who is disabled. This is a reality for our employees and something we need to be mindful of and responsive to, in order to retain our talent.

At Shell, we know a diverse and inclusive work environment is integral to an engaged, motivated and high-performing workforce. 

When we consider the skills that people with disabilities can bring, but also recognise the challenges our industry is facing, it is clear that Shell needs those skills.

We have a global challenge of delivering more energy and less CO2, helping the world develop and grow, whilst also helping to release over a billion people from energy poverty.

What skills do we need to be successful? We need to be innovative in our approaches and find new ways of doing things more efficiently with lower environmental impact. People with disabilities innovate every day to manage their condition and to adapt to different environments. They find different ways to do things and, often, look at things from different perspective.

More than three quarters of people with disabilities acquire their disability as adults. So they have learned as adults to adapt, to take risks and do things differently. 

This is what I ask of people in my organisation every day –to solve a problem, to find solutions we have not been able to see, to take chances and try something new. 

There is clearly a reason why so many of the exceptional inventors and leaders in our history overcame some sort of disability. 

  • Thomas Edison, didn’t speak until the age of four, couldn’t read until the age of 12 –when he was kicked out of school –and according to his biography, he most likely suffered from ADHD which contributed to his ‘persistent questioning to learn about the workings of just about everything he encountered.’
  • Ludwig Van Beethoven also lost his hearing later in life but continued to compose some of his most famous work.
  • And, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking remarkably continues to contribute to the scientific community despite advanced stage ALS. 

These are necessary skills not only for our organisation’s success, but also for the advancement of our society. 

Our role is to shape an environment in which people with disabilities continue to want to work for Shell. I hope that is what you can help us with today.

I also said I was going to talk about why for me personally, it is important that we get this right. 

When we apply the Business Disability Forum’s employee profile to Shell, we find that 1,800 employees suffer a short or long-term disability or impairment each year . . . and up to 9,000 of our staff have dyslexia.

Early in 2014, I found myself in the first category when I was diagnosed with acute heart disease and had five bypasses grafted in emergency surgery.

I live a very fast-paced life and was on the road across the world meeting Presidents and Ministers more than half of the time. I wondered how Shell would react to my disability. Would they be quick to write me out of the equation and find a replacement? Almost instantaneously I was able to recognise how those with disability may feel – vulnerable, unsure, and at the mercy of a world that sometimes moves so fast that it too easily appears not to care and, as a consequence, unconsciously discriminates.

I was glad that I work for a company that does care. They gave to me time to recover, recognising the value that I could bring. Two months later I was back in the saddle, but I had changed. I became a little calmer and less impatient.  I spent more time on my own health, but also on the health and welfare of others. It gave me new perspectives and priorities. 

But my personal story doesn’t stop there. I have four children and my eldest Richard, now 28, suffers from dyslexia. He struggled at school and University, where he also suffered from bouts of depression. Luckily, his disability was recognised early and he was given a lot of support. 

He is exceptionally gifted, and we often describe his disability as having a brilliant computer with a rubbish printer. I have seen how with help he could grow and now he is a senior project engineer working in the Middle East. I often wonder what would have happened to him in a less enlightened age and how many more gifted people there are whose talents remain unlocked.    

We have made some positive inroads in Shell in the past few years to help us support staff with dyslexia. But we can all do more.

My story cannot be unique. I am sure you all have your own personal stories of how recognising and unlocking the potential of people with disability can lead to enormous benefits to organisation, to communities and to the individuals whose talents we unleash. 

Most important for me is to keep the conversation going. As leaders we need to be open about our own disabilities and encourage our teams to do the same. I fully believe that a respectful and empowered workforce that includes talent with disabilities and reflects the global footprint of our business, is how we will deliver better business performance.

Good luck today and I look forward to hearing about what each of you are doing in your companies and bringing those ideas back to Shell.


[1]Business Disability Forum is a not-for-profit member organisation that helps to build disability-smart organisations to improve business performance by increasing confidence, accessibility, productivity and profitability. RDS has been a Gold Partner since 2011.

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