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A Deaf Diplomat Fights A Pound Foolish Move

September 16 2010 | by

Jane Cordell

Even in the upper e]]>recently had her promotion revoked after officials ruled that her deafness would make it too expensive to send her abroad.

Jane Cordell, who was to be Britain’s new deputy ambassador to Kazakhstan, is now suing the government for discrimination, saying that it’s the only way she can get clarity on her career. “We need answers to the question, ‘Can [people with disabilities] expect to have normal diplomatic careers, or not?’” she tells The Independent.

These days, more clarity on accommodations would be good, too. The Americans with Disabilities Act say an employer has discretion to choose among effective ‘reasonable accommodations’. Similarly, the U.K.’s Disabilities Discrimination Act requires employers to make so-called ‘reasonable adjustments,’ but the term is not defined in existing legislation.

Over and over, employers fail to see how hiring and accommodating an employee with a disability is good business. Perhaps nobody has taken the time to spell it out for the British Foreign Office, but accommodating Cordell will yield far more significant returns on investment that outweigh the costs.

Cordell is a Cambridge-educated diplomat who worked for four years as first secretary at the embassy in Warsaw. Her supervisor says Cordell did a “superb diplomatic job” in Warsaw. Fluent in Polish, she used Polish-to-English interpreters in her job as well as a rotating team of “lip speakers” who relayed information to her in real-time.

Here’s what’s interesting. While in Warsaw, Cordell also championed disability rights, though it wasn’t part of her job. She organized three disability conferences with the government, worked with Polish parliament to draft new disability legislation and helped with a bill to recognize Polish sign language.

Arguably, Cordell could do the same in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic that is still rebuilding after years under Soviet rule that crushed its political and educational system and economy. Today Kazakhstan has a 99.5% adult literacy rate and its capital is home to many colleges and universities. Many Kazakhs go onto Ivy League schools and prestigious colleges in England like Oxford.

Cordell can work to improve disability discrimination laws in Kazakhstan as well as increase work opportunities for young and educated Kazakhs with disabilities. Her efforts will contribute positively to the country’s economic well-being and also position it as a leader in international disability affairs.

Her ingenuity in Kazakhstan would also reverberate to England, where up and coming students with disabilities who are interested in interested in foreign policy and public work would want to emulate her success. This is a necessary action: A more diverse population in the workplace better reflects the global population and marketplace. Globally, 1.2 billion people report having a disability. In the U.S. alone, people with disabilities have more than $1 trillion in spending power.

Cordell’s hire also is likely to bring ongoing process and cost efficiencies. The Foreign Office claims it would cost nearly £300,000 per year ($468,400) to pay for the salaries, cost of living and travel for a team of security-cleared lip speakers shuttling between Kazakhstan and Britain — a cost deemed to exceed the definition of ‘reasonable.’

But Cordell believes the Foreign Office is overestimating the costs. In Warsaw, her lip speakers cost the government around £176,000 ($274,800) per year, which she thinks is achievable in her new role. People with disabilities are generally very conscientious about the burden of accommodations on their employer and look for ways to trim costs. By working with Cordell, the government will keep the price down and learn better processes for installing support teams for deaf and other disabled workers in foreign posts.

And don’t forget, too, that the British government would be employing four people that might otherwise not have had an opportunity to gain experience abroad working as lip speakers for diplomats. Upon the end of her assignment in Kazakhstan, these four people are fully trained and cleared to serve other deaf diplomats and foreign workers, which further reduces costs.

The fate of diplomacy jobs for deaf workers in England is in Cordell’s hands. If she does win her case, let’s hope she goes to Kazakhstan with a renewed sense of purpose to trailblaze opportunities for people with disabilities around the world.

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