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CERN | Geneva | Switzerland

View Blog | Read Bio

Disability and diversity at work

National diversity has always been CERN‘s forte. With people coming from 99 different nationalities, CERN is a unique working place. However CERN recently realised that much more could be done to welcome not only people from all over the world but also people of different genders, ages, abilities, sexual orientation and ethnic origin.

This is why the Diversity office was recently created and has already started shaking some old beliefs by organizing a series of special seminars.

This week, CERN welcomed Dr Tom Shakespeare, an outstanding speaker who overcame many barriers. Bearing his surname, he said laughing, was more challenging than suffering from a growth-impairing disease and being paraplegic. But just like his unproven but most likely famous ancestor, Tom has a knack with language and captivated his audience with a lecture on how working places would benefit from being more welcoming to people having all sorts of disabilities, be they physical or mental. His key message was that people are more disabled by society than by their own minds or bodies.



“Disability is an issue of human rights and equality”, he said, “not disease”.  He went on talking about several famous physicists who made great contributions to physics despite having some form of disability. Isaac Newton was a highly anxious and insecure person probably suffering from either autism, Asperger or Tourette syndrome. Albert Einstein’s difficulties in school may have stemmed from dyslexia while Paul Dirac had some form of neurological difference giving him an eccentric and peculiar personality. In particular, he showed a compelling video where Stephen Hawking, one of the most celebrated astrophysicists, talks about his life, explaining how he was able to become so successful despite his disease, and where he gives his full support to the World Report on Disability.

This World Health Organisation report shows that one billion people in the world have some form of disabilities. This means just about 15% of all people have some level of impairment affecting the way they move, talk, hear, see, behave or think. “You might not have any disability now but most of you are at risk of developing one as you age”, Tom told the audience.

He insisted on the importance for a work place to adapt to people’s handicaps, and not the other way around, such as to enable every individual to contribute to their full potential. Neurodiversity can in fact be seen as an opportunity instead of a challenge. People with attention deficit disorder, Asperger syndrome or autism for example can contribute in their own unique ways.

He gave very valuable and simple tips on proper etiquette on how to treat disabled people with respect and dignity: don’t stare; don’t make assumption, just ask; treat the person as a human being and not a disease (like talk about a person who is blind rather than “the blind” or “the quadriplegic”); address the person directly not their parent or carer, and give them a chance to speak for themselves. Finally, ask questions about things you need to know and not just because you are curious.

Pauline Gagnon

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  • Xezlec

    His name is “Hawking”, not “Hawkings”. I don’t know why so many people get this wrong.

  • Quantum Diaries

    Thank you, Xezlec! Correction made.

  • Sorry about that. Indeed, misspelling someone’s name is rather careless. Thanks for the correction. I have to say that I work with someone whose last name is Hawkings so it is easily confusing.

    Cheers, Pauline