Elite sport has a unique ability to bring people together to celebrate the diversity of our society. As an employer, British Athletics recognises the impact it can have and is committed to the creation and enhancement of an inclusive culture.
Matt Downes is a major events coordinator at British Athletics, where he assists in the education and development of event officials. Alongside his day job, Matt is a disability champion for the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (ED&I) Advocates Group.
“I help promote and encourage diversity and inclusion in the workplace, improving knowledge in areas that other employees might not normally dip into,” explains Matt. “It’s about creating awareness of different issues and celebrating differences.”
The ED&I group at British Athletics is led by Donna Fraser, a former 400 metre athlete. It carries out a variety of internal and external activities to support the nine characteristics protected under the Equality Act 2010, which includes age, disability, sexual orientation and race. Each advocate focuses on one or two particular characteristics while supporting and amplifying each other’s initiatives.
Matt’s ED&I focus is on dyslexia, vision impairment and autism. He was motivated to get involved after hearing a colleague talk about their own experiences with dyslexia at work.
“I hadn’t mentioned my dyslexia to anyone at British Athletics,” says Matt. “I thought it was just something I had to get on with.”
After Matt spoke to HR and Donna, British Athletics took steps to help him improve his working environment. This included the use of ClaroRead software, which changes the colour of Matt's computer screen so he can read clearly. He was also given a Rocketbook notepad, which enables him to scan his handwritten notes and upload them straight to his computer.
“That’s why I became an advocate,” explains Matt. “It’s important to think outside the box in terms of things to be aware of.”
During Dyslexia Awareness Week in 2019, Matt gave a talk to colleagues about his experience. He said it gave people the chance to ask questions and encouraged others to admit they have difficulties reading.
Matt says the focus on ED&I at British Athletics has continued during the COVID-19 pandemic, including talks by athletes and coaches over Zoom, where colleagues could ask questions about their experiences. "The lockdown actually made it more accessible for people as everyone can log on regardless of their location, whereas we used to be split between Loughborough and Birmingham," said Matt.
More broadly, the group has worked within the sport to set up the ongoing ‘Let’s Talk About Race’ programme, the Windrush Generation reflections, the Athletics Pride Network for the LGBTQ+ community, and an International Women’s Day series.
For other organisations developing their own ED&I initiatives, Matt says the first step is to start breaking down barriers and creating awareness. "With dyslexia, I want people to be more aware so they judge me on my work rather than my spelling."
The same is true for all disabilities. "We need to create more opportunities for people to voice their concerns and to challenge other people's perceptions," says Matt. “We want to make British Athletics a place that includes everyone. A big part of that is about raising awareness, because through awareness you can change ethics.”