'I don't just fit into one box': Shani Dhanda highlights the importance of intersectionality

An entrepreneur from the Midlands who has Brittle Bone Disease is calling for more businesses to take into account people's individual characteristics to improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace. 

Shani Dhanda was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta - a rare genetic condition which means her bones break without any trauma.

Despite this, she says she's more than just her disability and experiences the world through multiple lenses.

She believes that more people need to pay attention to the individual characteristics that define us, which will help to "shift the dial on the nature of diversity and inclusion practices and uplift even more people".

Shani says she's had to face discrimination on a number of levels

Shani said: "As a South Asian woman who experiences disability, intersectionality has always played a big part in my life.

"I experience the world through all of those lenses and sometimes I don't know if I'm being judged on my gender, race or disability.

"Despite all statistics and the barriers I've faced, I haven't let it stop me."

Shani has spoken on the same stages as Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton, and has even featured on Bilboards and the side of buses for campaigns on diversity and inclusion.

She now educates and advises well-known companies on their diversity strategies, and has most recently been invited to speak at the United Nations Headquarters in Vienna.

She attributes her success to all of her life experiences which has helped her to become the "change-maker" that she is today.

"I was born in a big South Asian Community to a Sikh Punjabi family. So growing up if I wasn't at home or at school I would be at the Gurdwara the Sikh Temple.

"This is a place of a lot of love. It helped me become a very sociable person, but it's also a place where I did face a lot of barriers."

Shani's mother recalls the initial discrimination Shani faced from the community

Shani's mother said: "I remember when I first took Shani to the Gurdwara. The ladies there, the first thing they said to me was 'Not only did you have girl but also she's disabled', which was very heartbreaking.

"But I think that' where I got my strength from that I thought in my mind I will treat her no different to her brother and sister."

Shani said she gets her fighting spirit from her parents and has been inspired by them to make a positive impact on the community.

"It's hard to live in a world that isn't designed for you. I don't feel like people were saying that to me in a malicious way but at the end of the day.

"But at the end of the day I'm someone who I wanted to contribute to society, I wanted to get a job and wanted to be treated just like everybody else.

"So I've had to do a lot of education not only in my own community but in my own home as well."

Shani also spent a lot of time growing up at Sandwell General Hospital and described it as her "second home".

Shani was born with a rare genetic condition, known as 'Brittle Bone disease'

By the age of 14, Shani had broken her bones six times, and spent the majority of her six week school holidays in hospital.

"I remember things like waking up here when it was my birthday and my bed would be surrounded by balloons. The nurses used to take their time out to play games with me."

This had a serious impact on her education, where she was also sent to a special education school because of her disability.

"Whilst I absolutely loved the school I went to it's only now as an adult perhaps it wasn't the best place for my learning.

"And I really struggled even at main stream school because I felt that I had missed so much school I didn't even know the basics"

She never thought she would go to university but is proud that she did manage to graduate.

Shani graduating at university. Credit: Shani Dhanda

All of these barriers made Shani realise that she could not rely on others for opportunities and decided to create her own.

"It's now led me to become a change-maker. And I work with businesses and brands to make them become more inclusive."

Shani is also an entrepreneur, working to ease the financial pressure that disabled people face from unavoidable extra costs.

She's taken change into her own hands and founded three organisations that are all united with one purpose - Diversability, Asian Woman Festival, and Asian Disability Network.

"Any approach to inclusion must be intersectional. I don't just fit into one box, I straddle many boxes - as do all of us.

"One thing I would really like to see change is that we make less assumptions of people and their abilities".