Visually impaired at birth, Benjamin Louis, 33, devotes his days to promoting inclusion among people with disabilities, especially through his non-profit association: Coeur Handisport. Rated among the LinkedIn Top Voices France 2018 and 2019, he talks about his personal journey and his desire to drive change, particularly through sport.
Could you tell us about your own personal journey?
I have a rare disease, called aniridia. I’m extremely sensitive to light, which very quickly makes me feel tired, so I always wear sunglasses when I’m outside. I can’t see very far and I use either a magnifying glass or a Zoom function to see things close-up. As a child, doctors told my parents that I shouldn’t play any sport, and certainly not ball games. But at just two years of age, I already had a football. Sport enabled me to develop myself as a child and as a man, and also to mature socially.
What impact has your disability had on your work life?
I found school difficult, as the adjustments we can make to schools today weren’t available at that time, and I ended up with the equivalent to a Bac professionnel (vocational baccalaureate). After that, I started working in customer services. Then, in 2012, I discovered the Paralympic Games in London on television. At the time, I felt that sport was losing its appeal for me, and I was starting to get frustrated with the sports business. I was particularly saddened by some incidents, like the French national soccer team’s boycott during the 2010 World Cup, but the Paralympics made me reconnect with the sports world. Two weeks later, I tried out blind football for the first time at a sports club for people with disabilities. I discovered team spirit, and it was a very rewarding experience. After that, I covered my eyes to play torball, and I also did some track and field. The year after that, I went to watch the IPC Athletics World Championships in Lyon, and it made me realize just how little interest for the event and media coverage there was. So I started Coeur Handisport on social media (Facebook and Twitter), just to highlight these sports people and their competitions. Today, I also have Instagram and LinkedIn accounts. Bit by bit, with the desire to take action, to build something and to unite people around these subjects, the momentum grew. My aim now is to go even further and to make people aware of disability issues in schools, companies and among the general public. Sport is a way of talking about disability.
“The more people learn about the subject at an early age, the more you play it down, the more it becomes natural”
What can sports teach us about making people with disabilities feel included?
Sports are a real driver for change; they can help you to shape – or even reshape – your personality, making you more open to others, making you part of a group, and it can give you a schedule and enable you to set yourself objectives… and that’s what I try to show people: that it’s possible to get involved in sports, irrespective of your disability. It’s because of sports that I’ve become the person I am today, and I’m far from being alone in that.
In France, people with disabilities are twice as likely to be unemployed as the rest of the population. In the US, one in five people with a disability has lost their job (compared to one in seven for the rest of the population) since March 2020. How can we change this?
For me, it’s the result of a lack of education, because there are a lot of prejudices, worries and fear. Among companies and their leadership teams, but also across society as a whole, people’s view of disability needs to change. It should never be an issue, but it still is. The more people learn about the subject at an early age, the more you play it down, the more it becomes natural. To move things forward, we need to organize awareness campaigns in schools, and make it part of their programs; for example, by explaining the different types of disabilities, which may not always be visible. It’s also a way of making it easier for certain students to feel included. It would also be a form of bottom-up education because when the kids go home, they can deconstruct some of the prejudices their parents might have.
Do you get the impression that things are changing in the corporate world?
Disability groups have been created in some companies, so there are persons who can be contacted for support, and some firms take part in recruitment fairs dedicated to people with disabilities. The situation is changing, but the level of unemployment is not really going down. And yet, given today’s technological advances, notably with remote working, there should be more opportunities for these workers to find their place in a company. Firms have everything to gain from having a varied, diversified workforce, to gain internal reflection and thus develop further.
“You have to dare, and to stop creating limits for yourself”
85% of disabilities are not visible. How can employees be encouraged to talk about their situation to their managers and colleagues?
Given that society is not really willing to talk about disabilities, bringing this up makes people anxious. During the recruitment process, they worry about not being hired. Once they are onboard, they feel like prisoners, as they feel their careers will never develop if they mention their disability. And managers can be more or less sensitive to the question of disability. But I advise them to speak up, because a disability can change over time and one day their workplace or their working hours may need to be adjusted… It’s better to assert your rights as early as possible, rather than find yourself stuck in a dead-end. Companies should meet quotas for hiring people with disabilities, it’s actually a legal requirement, but they should also find out the real status of their existing employees first…
Could organizing the Paris Olympics and Paralympics in 2024 change the way society views disabilities?
Like the London Games, we should use them as a springboard to giveing more space to disability in our society and benefit from a legacy. In the UK, British sports people with disabilities are more often invited to TV studios, and disability has become a more natural subject to talk about… I hope that Paris 2024 will open up the same opportunities, and that sports people with disabilities will enjoy the same amount of recognition. Disability is not a fatality but an asset You have to dare, not put up any hurdles for yourself. It’s a subject that should be highlighted, so it becomes a topic like any other.