An Interview with our CEO, Heather Fisken

A quote graphic featuring an image and a quote of and from, Heather Fisken, CEO of Inclusion Scotland

Q) As the new CEO of Inclusion Scotland, and as someone who has worked within the organisation for a number of years, what encouraged you to take on this new role?

“I love working for Inclusion Scotland and I’ve been here since 2012. I’ve worked with amazing colleagues and peers in other Disabled People’s Organisations and there is always something new to learn.

Leading Inclusion Scotland in its next chapter is an amazing opportunity to build on our achievements so far even in the face of the mounting challenges and discrimination disabled people are having to endure.

More importantly, there’s always more that needs to be done. The way disabled people are marginalised in our society despite all that we have to offer is shameful. Scotland can and must do better.”

Q) What lived experience do you bring to the role?

“Lived experience is the cornerstone of what we do. Inclusion Scotland’s Board and staff members are almost all disabled people. This is important;  we ‘get it’. We know that disabled people are not defined by our impairments and we know that it’s not our impairments that are the problem. Instead, it is the systems, attitudes, inaccessible services, lack of forethought, poorly designed and managed physical environments and so much more.

I was partially deaf at school age and there was no support at all. My father recently brought round my old school report cards to look at (thanks Dad!) and I admit I got quite angry when I read ‘should pay more attention’ so many times. It wasn’t that I did not want to pay attention – I could not follow what was being said.  I left school with poor results.

I managed to get a civil service job in London but lost the rest of my hearing to a virus a few months after starting. They were very keen to get rid of me but with Union help I hung on and found a more accommodating team – the team leader had deafness in the family so could easily see the small changes needed and was happy to make them.

Otherwise my life has been one of missing out on conversation, music, appointments and not being able to get a plumber to stay on the phone with me. It does not have to be this way.”

Q) As an organisation, what is your current vision and how do you aim to achieve it? 

“A Scotland where all disabled people are fully included throughout all society.

That means disabled people have equal and inclusive opportunities to be employees, employers, scientists, activists and campaigners, voters, athletes, creatives, learners, family members, dreamers, thinkers and more. Put another way, equal citizens.

We do that by breaking down the barriers to all these things, and preventing new ones from being erected, by influencing those with power and responsibility.  One way we do this, and the most important way, is by brokering opportunities for disabled people to be the decision-maker in our own lives, and in law and policy-making. As the ones with lived experience we have the expertise.”

Q) What are the most important strategic priorities for Inclusion Scotland over the next few years?

“Inclusion Scotland has been at the forefront of bringing disabled people’s expertise and lived experience to the attention of policy and lawmakers since we were founded in 2001. Looking forward we will keep working with ing Disabled People’s Organisations and individual disabled people to build all our capacity to do that.  Inclusion Scotland will  make  opportunities for all our voices to be heard in the right places and make a difference. That includes supporting disabled people into work and politics.

We know that our member DPOs across Scotland are vital and active equality and human rights defenders in their communities. We also know that many are struggling against a backdrop of a lack of capacity and scarce funding. We will develop our member offers and support to help them.

To do this, and more, Inclusion Scotland needs to be stronger, and more resilient and efficient. We are working on this and will keep doing so that our members have a membership body for years to come”

Q) What are the biggest challenges facing Disabled People in Scotland currently, and how are you and Inclusion Scotland working to address them?

“Discrimination, poverty, and bad attitudes. That’s just for starters. Breaking just these three down you’ll find inaccessible housing, education, training, work programmes, and employment opportunities.

Then there’s lower pay, inadequate benefits (assuming you survive the welfare system), and the extra costs of being a disabled person (higher in Scotland than anywhere else in the UK). There are also health inequalities, digital exclusion, and a social care support system that hinders rather than supports independent living.

Another challenge is the endless bureaucracy that goes with being a disabled person. Systems that don’t work together and which start with the presumption that you are a fraudster and therefore need to ‘catch you out’ via long and inaccessible forms.

There will always be people in any society who don’t like ‘other’ people, and we can inform and challenge them to change, but when it is the institutions and systems that are there for everyone in society, if and when they need them, that are putting up barriers to simply living a life, that’s not acceptable.

Finally, disabled people are still institutionalised and some have been subjected to abuse in these institutions. We know that disabled people died in the highest numbers during the pandemic despite our needs for survival being blatantly obvious. Now, we are facing the possibility of legislation to allow Assisted Dying in Scotland. No matter what safeguards are put into law there is always a danger that they will have cracks and clearly disabled people will fall through these cracks.”

Q) Where do you see Inclusion Scotland in 5 years time? 

“Bigger, stronger and louder.

The best measurement of that will be that disabled people and our voices are bigger, stronger and louder – in Parliament, in decision-making, in the workplace and the streets and anywhere else we choose to be, and that we are working together, challenging and learning from each other.”

Q) If you could give any piece of advice to anyone who is trying to find their voice and make a difference – what would it be? 

“Go for it. It’s your life and your truth. Whether you want to change a decision made about your life or change the way decisions are made just speak or sign or write or draw or act or point up. It’s your human right.

If you do not want to go public, that’s fine. Share your lived experience, expertise and the changes you want to see with Inclusion Scotland via our groups, programmes and surveys or just leave us a message.

We’ll help to broker a place for your voice with those who need to hear it.

Our voices matter.”