Hugh Mitchell Forum

There is too much unnecessary awkwardness when it comes to raising awareness about disabilities, says Hugh Mitchell.

Speaking at the Disability Matters European Union Conference and Awards, he stresses the importance of having conversations about disabilities in the workplace.

He shares the journeys of two men – Mark Benson and Bob Nolan – who have very different disabilities, one mental, the other physical. Hugh says that in talking openly about their disabilities, they show great courage, and dispel any stigma wrongly associated with them.

Ladies and Gentlemen, good evening.

As Nadine just mentioned, my name is Hugh Mitchell. But for all of you, right now I’m just the man standing in the way of your dinner.

The only consolation I can offer is that I’m the last in the line of Shell staff you’ll hear from.

I assure you that I won’t take up much of your time. My role tonight is to express thanks and congratulate worthy winners of this year’s Disability Matters Awards. And it’s an honour for me to do so.

But before we get to that, I’d like to talk about a memorable meeting I had a year and a half ago. During this meeting, I met some remarkable people from Shell’s disability network, a forum for people to share experiences.

The conversation we had has stuck in my mind. And there are three points, in particular, which I’d like to share with you now.

The importance of raising awareness

Firstly, we talked about courage. The courage of an individual, who is suffering from a mental or physical disability, to reach out for help. The courage of a colleague to offer support. And the courage of family and friends of those living with disabilities, who demonstrate great strength and love.

Secondly, at this meeting with the disability network, we spoke about the fact that people with disabilities are on a continuous journey. It’s not like an injury. If you break a bone there is, hopefully, an end in sight when the bone is fully healed. This isn’t the case for people with disabilities.

There are ups and downs, good days and bad. And this is the case throughout their lives. Over the course of the conversation, I learned the importance of recognising this journey – both for an individual with a disability, and for all those who are part of their lives.

And finally, we discussed the importance of raising awareness. This is the only way to address the stigma wrongly associated with disabilities.

This should be something people working in business are good at. But although raising awareness of day-to-day business-related challenges is a natural part of a company’s culture, the same cannot be said when it comes to raising awareness about disabilities.

There’s still too much treading on eggshells. Too much unnecessary awkwardness. There’s no excuse for this.

I’m pleased to say Shell and other companies are getting better. But more needs to be done.

Keep the conversation going

The answer isn’t complicated. What it comes down to is having conversations about disabilities in the workplace. Just like the kind of conversations you’ve all been having over the last two days.

These conversations will reduce the stigma unfairly associated with disabilities. And they will encourage people with ‘invisible’ mental illnesses to speak with their line managers and their teams.

In short, these kinds of conversations will result in positive actions being taken.

For example, eighteen months ago there wasn’t enough information on Shell’s website about our approach to employing and working with people with disabilities.

This was an oversight on our part. By failing to have sufficient information available, we were potentially putting off talented people with disabilities from joining our company.

This issue was raised by some colleagues, and appropriate action was taken.

In this spirit of raising awareness, I’d like to conclude by sharing journeys of two men I met at this meeting with Shell’s disability network. Men who have shown great courage. Men who have been on an extraordinary journey. And men who raise awareness of disabilities at every opportunity they get.

Mark Benson

Mark Benson has been with Shell for 24 years.

A decade ago, he was in a very demanding new role at work. At this time, he experienced a series of tragedies at home. His wife lost a baby late on in her pregnancy. The following year, the same thing happened again. After this second terrible loss, Mark’s wife suffered a stroke.

Mark found himself increasingly unable to cope following these tragedies. Initially he suppressed his feelings. But when things got too much for him he courageously went to see his doctor, who immediately referred him to a psychiatrist.

But the word ‘psychiatrist’ terrified him. So he screwed up the referral letter, threw it in the bin, and went back to work, struggling in silence.

A year later, something snapped, he logged off from his computer, went home and finally sought the professional help he so desperately needed. He was immediately diagnosed with bipolar disorder and suffering from a severe depressive episode.

Mark received five months of intense treatment before returning to work.

On his first day back, he describes his heart racing as he walked into the office. But as he walked in, everyone applauded and showed Mark their collective support and understanding.

Since coming back, Mark’s career has gone from strength to strength. He’s won a clutch of special recognition awards for his performance. And, crucially, he dedicates a lot of time to talk with people – in groups and on an individual basis – to raise awareness about mental health.

Bob Nolan

The other person I’d like to mention is Bob Nolan, who’s worked for Shell since 1981. He is 70% deaf and has been losing his sight since he was a child. This is because of a condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa, which is gradually destroying his retina.

But Bob’s outlook is nothing but positive. And this rubs off on Shell employees all over the world who he speaks with about working with a disability.

His efforts don’t stop at work. Away from the office, Bob is Chairman of Deafblind Scotland, a society which provides support for people who are deaf, blind or both.

On top of this, he also raises money for charities. Back in 2008, he and his wife, Louise – who is also deaf – cycled from Land’s End in Cornwall, to John O’Groats in the north of Scotland. Their bike is fitted with a wing mirror so they can communicate through lip-reading. Then, in 2011, they completed a Scottish Island challenge, which involves covering 1,000 miles on a bike in just two weeks.

This isn’t just about raising money for charities he believes in. It’s also about raising awareness and encouraging others to feel they can still have an active life even if they’re losing their sight or hearing.


Mark and Bob have very different disabilities. One mental, the other physical. But they share a common character trait: and that’s great courage.

In talking openly about their disabilities, they dispel any stigma wrongly associated with them. In sharing their stories, that’s what I’ve tried to do too.

Keeping the conversations alive about working with disabilities is critical. And that’s what I encourage all of you to do in your daily lives and in the months and years ahead.

Thank you very much. And now, to the awards...

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