Lessons From Life On Diversity and Inclusion - Interview with Lord Chris Holmes

19 April 2017

One of Britain’s greatest Paralympic swimmers, Lord Chris Holmes has won nine gold, five silver and two bronze medals across four Games, as well as serving as Director of Paralympic Integration at London 2012. With a range of expertise in identifying and nurturing talent, Chris is also a Diversity Adviser to the Civil Service and a keynote speaker who shares his insights with corporate, sporting and community-based organisations. He has made it his mission to open up the conversation about diversity and inclusion across various industries and to demonstrate their benefits for business.


Over the past year a significant proportion of my speaking jobs, both in the UK, Europe and the rest of the world, have centered on diversity and inclusion. Happily, this has coincided with work I have been doing with the Civil Service and Channel 4 as Diversity Advisor and Chair of a Disability Advisor Group, respectively, in which we have explored various practical measures to improve diversity and promote inclusive environments. This focus is both a culmination of and natural extension to an (almost) lifelong interest in diversity and inclusion - an interest that predates the vocabulary and stems from lived experience.

Chris has been influencing the conversation about diversity & inclusion

When I was 14, I lost my sight - overnight and immediately both everything and nothing changed. For me, this is the crux of understanding diversity.

I was changed and had to relearn how to get around and do things completely differently but I felt the same. New challenges, new experiences and an additional perspective was the difference; the diversity. My sense of self, my talents and interests, and my ambitions were unchanged, and adaptations that enabled me to pursue these goals were inclusion.

Barriers went up immediately. I was to be sent to a ‘blind school’; I was now a ‘fire risk’ and could no longer train with my swim team. Inclusion was removing those barriers; the teachers at my old school putting all my lessons on cassette so I could remain at school with my friends, my swim coach agreeing to keep me on the squad if I stuck to the same training schedule. Without these early, and many subsequent, efforts I may not have got to Cambridge or been lucky enough to bring home 9 gold 5 silver and 1 bronze from the Paralympic Games.

Chris lost his sight at 14 - and it changed both everything and nothing at the same time

As organisations increasingly understand and appreciate the value of diversity and inclusion, there is a lot of good practice out there, but it is also an area that is vulnerable to box-ticking exercises or a silo-led approach (letting diversity sit in HR and nowhere else).

Without board-level leadership and a genuine culture of inclusion, it is impossible to achieve the incredible benefits. And the benefits are there to be realised. Accessing and enabling all the available talent, and a broad range of experiences, problem-solving skills, and creativity that leads to different solutions and real innovation, makes economic sense. In the uncertainty of these times of Brexit and the 4th Industrial Revolution, which organisation can afford to ignore the potential of a truly diverse and enabled workforce?

How can employers be educated about the benefits of inclusion and diversity?

I was delighted to be part of Channel 4’s year of disability and am aware they have just published a report which shares their ‘10 lessons learned’. This is a great resource for employers wondering how to progress their efforts in this area and advice ranges from the practical – availability of funding from Access to Work and disability organisations – to a reminder that making adjustments for disability in the workplace doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. It’s a fantastic example of an organisation committed to becoming truly inclusive and prepared to share learnings.I’m pleased that the conversation has come such a long way – that the vocabulary exists and organisations are increasingly committed to adapting their ways of working.

I will continue to be de facto living in the diversity and inclusion world as well as having the privilege of sharing my experiences through public speaking and consultancy to drive the difference, inspire and enable real sustainable change and unleash all the talent in any organisation.

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