To pay or not to pay?

A wad of £50 notes fanned out on a flat surface.

Two incidents in the past few weeks have highlighted an ongoing issue – paying disabled people to speak or appear at an event.

Both Naidex and Disability Expo have been called out on social media for either not paying the disabled people who have appeared or are due to appear, or have offered extremely low rates.

A tale as old as time

The discussion about paying speakers, in any industry, isn’t new. A good few years ago a well-known Yorkshire networking company was charging around £800 for people to speak at their events. Yes, you did read that correctly. There is always and will probably continue to be a shopping list of reasons why no payment is offered. No budget, good for exposure, giving back to the community, free promotion, I’ve had all of them in my own public speaking journey.

Part of the problem is that everyone has their own views on working for or or without payment – it’s a personal choice with a lot of factors at play. However when one person says yes to working for free it sets a precedent and makes it harder for those who ask to be compensated for their time and expertise. We see similar effects in other sectors – academia for example. Senior academics are in positions of power and privilege (e.g. financially secure, often not primary care-givers) and can ‘afford’ to speak for free. But this makes the field harder for junior researchers, early career academics, and those oppressed by systemic issues like racism and sexism. Often, the result is lack of diversity of speakers and representation, limited viewpoints and lack of opportunities. It’s not without substance to say that we see a similar effect in PR.

Why pay when you can get it for free?

Events are expensive to run. For organisations getting good speakers, for free, is ideal because it means fewer outgoings and therefore higher profit margins. This is a generalisation and I’m not saying this is the case for either Naidex or Disability Expo. One of the unfortunate side effects when people do decide to waive speaking fees or agree to appear for free there is that there is less pressure on organisers to make this a priority, either for their current event or a future one. This can have a bigger knock on effect in that if event organisers know that they can get good speakers for free or very little overall behaviour change in this area is less likely.

The greater good

In the case of Disability Expo I’ve seen the argument made that it’s a small disabled team coming together to create an event for disabled people, by disabled people. The reasoning (from both the organisers and those who’ve agreed to speak) for offering and accepting low or non-payment is community and the greater good. I’m not going to judge anyone’s personal decision on whether to appear or not as a speaker or panelist but I am interested to look at this from an organisational and business perspective.

If you are producing an event centering and showcasing an oppressed group of people then advocating for those people should be a primary objective. And one of the biggest issues that persists in the corporate world is disabled people being asked to work for free (I know it’s not only disabled people but all people negatively impacted by systemic ‘isms’). This extends beyond speaking opportunities to being the unofficial (read: unpaid) EDI expert in your organisation, to someone asking to pick your brain over a coffee, a catch-up that suddenly seems to have turned into a consultation, to ‘can you cast your eye over this for me?’ requests.

We are continually fighting a society which does not value disabled lives or the contributions we make. For me, an organisation whose goal is to support disabled people should have factored in speaker fees at the very first stages of planning. Ensuring speakers are compensated should be a factor in how much you decide to charge exhibitors and the sponsorship packages, especially if you’re planning on making the event free to attend.

I’m not suggesting malice or ill intent on anyone’s part here but money – specifically the redistribution of wealth – is an element of active allyship. Whilst I fully believe we should be fighting capitalism and the ways in which it continues to reward the few and penalise the many and especially systemically oppressed groups, we all still have to live in this system.

Paying disabled people for their work is contributing to the greater good. It’s setting a precedent for others to follow and demonstrating best practice when it comes to disabled people. Everyone is entitled to choose whether or not to work for free but businesses, when faced with the decision, should be offering payment by default.

“If you are producing an event centering and showcasing an oppressed group of people then advocating for those people should be a primary objective. And one of the biggest issues that persists in the corporate world is disabled people being asked to work for free.”

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