Celebrating difference since 2018


Sulaiman Khan & Naheed Rubi Khan

The way forward Interview by Chris Kenna

Double-page scan from the Rare with Google 2020 publication of Sulaiman Khan and Naheed Rubi Khan.

Sulaiman Khan is the Founder and Chief Purpose Officer of ThisAbility, a London-based, disability-led equity business that helps socially conscious organisations focused on sustainability, technology and design to increase revenues by engaging the estimated $8 Trillion disabled market.

Mrs. Naheed Rubi Khan, known as Rubi, is Sulaiman's mother, supporting his mission to ignite, invest in, and amplify disability-led creativity across the world.

Christopher: OK. A new beginning. What do you think that means to you?

Sulaiman: I think it’s the very concept of reinventing yourself and not being unfaithful to yourself and constantly evolving and progressing and perfecting. So for me as I get older it is trying perfect and to do things correctly all the time, and I’d rather progress. Particularly in the last 3 or 4 years I’ve really grown as a person. I’ve really been a lot more open about my disability and disability in general. And also in the wider equity, so looking at social injustice, looking at things and constantly growing and growing and learning.

A New Beginning I think means lots of hope and lots of positive things. Not forgetting the past but using the past to move forward into the future.

CK: Not forgetting, but using the past is much more prevalent now with things like Black Lives Matter and even Covid. We’ve had pandemics in the past, and history has shown us how we’ve got through them. BLM opened peoples’ eyes to injustice towards Black people and people of colour, but it has ignited the fire to injustice to disability too…

Sulaiman: Particularly in regards to BLM, you can’t separate racism from ableism. Until you address both, you can’t solve either. So I completely agree it is quite intersectional, and realise how important intersectionality is.

CK: How do you think creativity can help us move forward?

Sulaiman: Creativity is such a huge part of my life. Creativity has the power to completely change the world in a much more positive way. Advertising agencies say they’re creative, but they’re the least creative people on earth. For me, it’s looking at every single type of creativity in the world: teachers are creative, neurosurgeons are creative. For me, disabled people are the most creative people in the world because we have to adapt to society and adapt to ourselves. We have to adapt so quickly and innovatively and creatively just to survive, because society’s ableism and inaccessibility is dangerous to us. If you don’t use our creativity then you can’t survive, let alone thrive. Creativity is such a powerful tool that we don’t utilise enough.

We all have it as children but the older we get we are taught not to be creative; not to have those interesting thoughts and ideas that could really transform the world. Creativity has the power to completely change the world. Outside advertising, as well as in design, music, art and even literature, is extremely powerful in the way that you can connect to society and create social commentary about what is happening in the world and how to progress society.

What a lot of people don’t realise is that a lot of things we use today, from touch screens to texts, have been created by and for disabled people. So everything that we use, disabled people are behind it. Unfortunately, despite this, disabled people are still not treated like human beings.

Rubi: Human beings are not getting their worth.

Sulaiman: Yeah, forget worth, I think it’s just not treating us with dignity or even understanding the context. The world in general has such a hard time with disability. Even saying the word disability! It’s annoying. You can’t say ‘disabled’ or ’disability’, they say ‘differently-abled’ or ‘special needs’, because they have such a hard time with it.

CK: It feels like everyone is saying the right thing and everybody’s on board. One of the first times within the disability arena that it was really prevalent to me was when we filmed with you and your Mum and I was asking you if you wanted to come for a drink but you needed to go back.

And then we got to the bar and Outvertising is this big group for making sure that advertising reaches everybody and makes sure that everybody is seen and heard within ads. We went to the drinks and I realised there were 2 steps to get in the door and where the table was you had to go up a spiral staircase.

If you’d have said yes to the invite then I actually don’t know how you’d have got into the venue. I said to the director ‘we’ve just been filming for this organisation with a great person that I invited to come here and we can’t have this event here again’. They said ‘aww yeah but everybody likes it here’. This argument went on for two or three days. I said ‘I’m out if you don’t sort it out. You can find somebody else and give my position to somebody else because this isn’t the place for me’.

To think that that group of people feel quite important because they’re helping to move that dial and change things but didn’t want to change where they drink in soho because they like it there even though it’s not accessible…

Sulaiman: That’s the thing: 43% of people in the UK don’t know a disabled person and 76% of people in the UK haven’t invited a disabled person to a social event. So often in the particular context of disability it’s such an easy fix to find somewhere accessible. There are some very nice accessible venues but you just have to be open to it.

Rubi: Remember you got stuck while they were announcing your award?

SK: That’s a really funny story as well. I won an award back in the day for doing an excellent campaign. It was at Indigo at The O2. When I arrived, it was straight into the back because I was really late because I was stuck in traffic. I went to the stair lift and got stuck in the stair lift and ‘oh no it was working this morning’ and I can hear them announcing my name that I’d won the award.

RK: The big screen showing all your achievements talking about Sulaiman and he’s saying ‘hey I’m up here in the lift!’

CK: Did you manage to get to the stage in time?

SK: No I couldn’t get on stage so I had to accept the award off stage. It’s so bad. The ironic thing is that’s part of the reason why I won that award was for my work towards accessible leisure facilities and I couldn’t even get into the O2. You can’t make it up I swear.

You can’t make it up. Most people don’t realise that disability is hilarious. It’s so funny. The amount of things you go through as a disabled person is so, so funny.

CK: You’ve just said something that I think is really poignant—that disability is funny. And I say that seriously as well. Is that something you see much of creatively? The funny side, or do you think creatives could show that more in a respectful way?

SK: The only time that I have seen that is in the Maltesers adverts that featured disability. Even today, that is the most effective campaign in the last 10 years. Every time that advert played on TV they showed the funny side of disability in such a hilarious way. And also one thing I want to say is just because you’re disabled doesn’t mean you can’t be an arsehole. So disabled people can be complete arseholes as well and it’s got nothing to do with disability just that they’re an arsehole.

RK: Human nature.

CK: So for creatives all over the world reading this, what would you tell them so that 2021 is more representative of people with disabilities?

SK:  First of all, don’t be afraid to even say hello to disabled people, and that’s the first step to start the conversation. Even if you’re disabled, don’t be afraid to question what you think you know about disability. Always ask questions. Just utilise us, trust us, believe in us, value us and just get excited about the potential we have.

As disabled people, our creativity is completely untapped just because of ableism.

What the pandemic has proven is that we have a huge opportunity, as disabled people, particularly disabled people of colour and disabled people from other intersections, to be a much more valuable part of society, and really use our creativity to make the world a better place. Whether it’s to do with sustainability or design or whatever it is, just making sure that it is accessible and inclusive of disabilities. It’s good for everybody, not just disabled people.

43% of people in the UK don’t know a disabled person and 76% of people in the UK haven’t invited a disabled person to a social event

MK: Can I just tap in on the one bit where you just said ‘use us’. No, do not ‘use’ you, value you and value your worth in a way that just because you’re disabled does not mean that you’re an easy target to be used. If you’re worth your worth then you need to be paid your worth, that’s what I say.

CK: I totally agree and I think that’s a good segment to bring you in, Mum. I hope you don’t mind me calling you Mum but I like saying the word Mum.

RK: Call me Mama.

CK: I don’t know if I told you before, I was in care so I don’t have a Mum or a Dad.

RK: It doesn’t matter, I can be your Mama. I love kids and I’ve got quite a few that didn’t come out of me but they call me Mama and I love that. One of [Sulaiman’s] carers is from Ghana and we’ve known him for 11 years. I think when he started, he was 27/28 and called me Mama. And I'm Grandma too. You don’t need to have blood in you to share love. Love is love and God is love and I believe in that.

CK: What a beautiful way to start. You’ve made me go a bit funny. I wish the rest of the world thought like that.

RK: I just saw on myself some grey hair.

CK: You’re beautiful. I think one of the main reasons why I wanted to talk to you is that Sulaiman’s pushed so many boundaries but you’ve pretty much been by his side to push them. I just wanted to hear from you when he was younger and what he was like.

RK: When he was younger he was such a Mama’s boy! I couldn’t clean without him saying ‘Mama where are you going?’ I’d say ‘I’m going to the loo’ and he’d ask why, and I’d say ‘If I don’t I’ll wet myself!’

Other than that, what I did try to put on him was that I did not want him to be vulnerable or dependent on me or anybody in this world. I wanted him to be independent and rely on his own senses and his own ability. I wanted him to be strong. If you get hurt, or fall over, then so what? Get yourself up and keep going. Yes it hurts for a little bit but then it goes away and then you keep going. But when he’s really hurt, Mama is behind you. She’ll give a little TLC to help you keep pushing.

At the end of the day it’s been a lot of bittersweetness. We’ve had all kinds of people saying to me ‘oh it must be so hard...’ Culturally, Pakistan is a little bit weird when it comes to disability. They don’t mention disability because they think it’s God’s punishment. God does not punish, I don’t believe in that because God would never punish. If he’s created him and why would he do that to him. I don’t think I’ve been punished or that Sulaiman has been punished. I think there’s a reason for him being on this earth. Maybe for good but maybe for bad but he’s here. If someone said ‘would you want to replace him with a child with legs?’ then I’d say ‘no, thank you’.

SK: Basically, I was diagnosed at 18 months with muscular dystrophy and they said I’d die by the age of five.

RK: He had one of those rare dystrophies that they didn’t know, so they gave him a life span of five years and I thought ‘no that can’t happen.’ I went into a spiral and couldn’t get myself out of it. I had one child before my husband, the love of my life. He said ‘we can cry and mope over it or we can make the most of it’. Yes he has five years to live but we’ve already wasted two years and so we have three years to enjoy him. If we waste it, then you’ll ruin my life, you’ll ruin your daughter's life and the two children we have so let’s live day by day and see what happens’. Now he’s 30…

SK: 5… and a bit…

RK: God bless him and a pain in my backside. At the end of the day you know it’s just been a lot of struggle and a lot of sweetness too. I think how he’s grown now, especially since going to Uni. Before he was very clingy and I did not trust anybody. I was his main carer for 23 years.

CK: Where do you think his creativity came from?

RK: I wouldn’t know, to be honest with you. I won’t take the credit for it because the thing is, I don’t think I’m that creative. I only went to high school. But then again, I’m a dreamer too. I dream of things that may never happen. I see things because I believe in love, I believe in people. Doesn’t matter what colour, race or religion they are. People are people. If you love somebody that person will eventually love you back.

They can be nasty, vicious, and swear til the kingdom comes. End of the day, in that tiny bit of their heart, there will be love. I’ve had people call me Paki, ‘go back to your home’ etc. But I say ‘yeah I would love to do that but apparently I’m here so you’re stuck with me. I’m just as British as you are, but I look different. Yeah I’m brown with a head scarf but so what!’

SK: It was really hilarious especially when I was younger. My Mum was pregnant  with my younger sister. Someone said some really quite horrific stuff but basically we moved into this house, where we were like the only Asian people, the only brown family. It was quite a surreal experience…

RK: At the end of each day my mouth was aching from smiling at my neighbours.

CK: I get that.

RK: I love people and I have no prejudice against anybody but the problem is you’re having to always put this fake smile on you. Yes I’m brown, so what? I wear different clothes to you. My food has a spicy smell to it. So what? I’m a human being. Say hello.

SK: Better than just beans on toast…

RK: You know it was always a struggle. I had to make the first effort to say hello. When I lived in Europe I didn’t struggle as much as I did in England.

SK: And that’s the same thing with ableism as well. I am always the one that goes up to people and says hi to them.

RK: I’m a 60s child, I lived in Walthamstow. And Walthamstow now, we don’t have a very high Jamaican community. They moved to Hackney but from there I don’t know where they moved. A lot of my friends and neighbours were Jamaican. I had more in common with them than with my white friends.

Yeah they had trouble trying to braid my hair with the heavy vaseline and things like that but other than that I had more in common with them. I don’t know why but I did and yet it was the white families that felt a threat. They wouldn’t allow me to come into their homes.

My Jamaican Mums would give me patties and beans and rice and I’d come home with a full tummy.

Even now I notice they’re still not willing.

It's kind of like when there is a tsunami and it cleans everything out. I hope it cleans up all the dirt

CK: Do you think, because of BLM and Covid, things will change?

RK: I’ll tell you something, Black Lives Matter is a very good thing. It’s time that somebody spoke up now—we have so many beautiful lives being wasted and taken away.

When you live in America, every day in the news it’s one or two killings and so on. People think it’s normal but if it were a white, blue-eyed blond boy we would get endlessly plastered but if it’s a Black young man he must be doing something. Why do you always come to this conclusion that just because of his colour he must be doing something? When we were there, there was this boy with a scholarship from DC who got killed. All he did was he went with his brothers to get something and the shopkeeper didn’t like the look of the Black boys and went for his gun and shot him. He said he thought he was going for something but of course he was going to take out his money.

But this kind of shortness that we have is still going on. This kind of racism is still going on. We need to, not only by violence, but we need to show the politicians that make the decisions that there needs to be something positive done. That people do matter. We need to build bridges not burn them.

We still have a long way to go yet and maybe this Covid is a blessing in disguise. Showing people that with the lockdown, people of all colors indoors can understand disability and understand other people and their hardships.

For years, Sulaiman has been fighting to have flexible working hours. If you can’t work 9-5 in the office you can work just as much at home. In his bed he can work 10x faster than sitting on a chair. People say ‘no no no you have to come to the office’ and all that crap.

Now somehow they’re trying to find ways, if you just open the internet and see the number of businesses that are online now but weren’t before. What gets on my mind is that [this happens] when able-bodied people are trapped but they can't find a solution with a disabled person…

CK: How do you think creative advertising can help?

RK: My humble suggestion would be to have an open mind. It doesn’t matter if the person is disabled, approach that person and see what they’re all about. Accept their creativity. Creativity doesn’t happen in the office with white, blue-eyed people. We need to have a variety of people on our screens.

Chadwick Boseman (God bless him in heaven) opened a lot of doors for a lot of Black artists and there are very talented artists out there who are not given the chance. And the same goes for disabled people—give them the chance and you will see the difference in our society and the way we think. Allow other colours into your workplace and other kinds of people. Maybe you’ll create a fantastic output, maybe not. But at least give them the chance. If you don’t, then you’ll never see.

So that’s my humble opinion. I may be wrong but…

CK: I don’t think you are. I think that’s a brilliant place to close it. And I think let's hope that, as dreadful as it is, 2020 is a blessing in disguise here.

RK: I hope so. I hope it cleans it all up. It's kind of like when there is a tsunami and it cleans everything out. I hope it cleans up all the dirt.

Explore more

    Still frame of Dr Sanah Ahsan on a stage wearing a red suit.

    dr sanah ahsan: the practice of care and freedom against systems of domination

    Still frame of Erika Soto-Lamb talking speaking at ADCOLOR

    erika soto-lamb: challenging domination through presence

    Still frame of Jimmy Smith: talking to a group of people at ADCOLOR

    jimmy smith: on being a nathan

    Still frame of Dr Tsedale Melaku from the waist up wearing a floral dress.

    dr tsedale melaku: examining allyship

    Still frame of Aries Moross on stage at Semi Permanent Sydney.

    aries moross: creating inclusive work

    Still frame of Royce Akers on stage at Semi Permanent Sydney.

    royce akers: creating inclusive teams

    Still frame of from the Rare with Google panel discussion with  Shantell Wetherall, Royce Akers, Felicia Foxx, Nooky and Aries Moross in front of a LED screen on stage at Semi Permanent 2022.

    shantel wetherall, aries moross, royce akers, nooky and felicia foxx: how to design leadership for change?

    Still frame of Ben Miles and Nooky on stage at Semi Permnanet Sydney 2022.

    we are warriors: nooky & ben miles, ecd r/ga

    Still frame of John C Jay seated on a brown leather sofa with a black shirt and grey trousers.

    john c jay: creating connections

    Still frame of Mama Alto from the waist up wearing cat-eye tortoise shell glasses against a red studio backdrop.

    mama alto: ways to approach boundary setting

    Still frame of Africa Brooke from the waist up against a teal studio backdrop

    africa brooke: three steps to setting boundaries

    Still frame of Aries Moross from the waist up against a yellow studio backdrop.

    aries moross: know your worth and maximise your value

    Still frame of Caroline Casey from the chest up wearing thick round frame glasses against a yellow studio backdrop.

    caroline casey: with labels come limits

    Still frame of Takunda Muzondiwa against a white wall with black and white images on it and a map of Africa.

    takunda muzondiwa: hold onto your heritage

    Still frame of Jimmy Smith wearing a black t-shirt against a white wall.

    jimmy smith: stay rare

    Still frame of Blair Imani in a blue hijab.

    blair imani: the tough gets going

    Still frame of Cheryl Maas from the chest up looking off to the side against a green backdrop with a snowboard in the background.

    cheryl maas: find your unstoppable

    Still frame of Kumi Tominaga against a red studio backdrop.

    kumi tominaga: the upside of discomfort

    Still frame of Jordan Bambach against a blue studio backdrop.

    laura jordan bambach: feel the fear, and do it anyway

    Still frame of Tea Uglow in a beanie with headphones around her neck with a curtain and bookcase in the background.

    tea uglow: if the system doesn't work for you, hack it

    Still frame of Charlie Craggs with their hands clasped together from the chest up against a white curtain with flowers in the foreground.

    charlie craggs: how i tackled bigotry

    Still frame of Sandra Bold in heavy thick frame black glasses with a plant to the right.

    sandra bold: how i started a movement

    Still frame of Bejay Mulenga's profile from the shoulders up.

    bejay mulenga: how i met the queen at 21

    Still frame of Light Watkins in front of a greens studio backdrop.

    light watkins: finding meaning through meditation

    Still frame of Robett Hollis sat on a chair near the water with a bridge in the background.

    robett hollis: lead the movement you wish existed

    Still frame of Alma Har'el on stage at the Rare with Google speaker program Cannes Lions 2019

    alma har'el: liberate talent discovery

    Still frame of Liz Jackson on stage at the Rare with Google speaker program Cannes Lions 2019

    liz jackson: the original hackers

    Still frame of Ete Davies on stage at the Rare with Google speaker program  Cannes Lions 2019

    ete davies: leave no one behind

    Still shot of Wangu Chafuwa sat on a stool from waist up.

    rare community: reframing allyship

    Takunda Muzondiwa from the shoudler up against a yellow studio backdrop

    takunda muzondiwa: a spoken word poem on allyship

    Image of Dr Sanah Ahsan smiling from the shoulders up wearing a colourful striped jacket and magenta pink top.

    dr sanah ahsan: psychologist & poet

    Image of Erika Soto-Lamb wearing gold hoop earrings, purple top and a check blazer.

    erika soto-lamb: vice president, social impact strategy, showtime/mtv entertainment studios at paramount global.

    Image of Jimmy Smith in a black t-shirt from the chest up.

    jimmy smith: founder, amusement park

    Image of Dr Tsedale Melaku smiling from the chest up wearing a floral top and red blazer, with silver hoop earrings.

    dr. tsedale melaku: sociologist, assistant professor of management at the zicklin school of business, baruch college (cuny), and author of 'you don’t look like a lawyer: black women and systemic gendered racism'

    Image of Aries Moross' profile standing side on from the chest up wearing a white top with silver jewellery.

    aries moross: illustrator & art director

    Image of Shantell Wetherall laughing, looking down and to the side, wearing a navy blue top with pink translucent eyewear.

    shantel wetherall: writer, podcast host of 'hey aunty!'

    Image of Royce Akers from the shoulders up wearing a white button-up shirt with a colourful checked blazer.

    royce akers: operating partner, mash

    Image of Nooky against a brick wall wearing a black WAW t-shirt with a black cap.

    nooky: indigenous rapper

    Image of Felicia Foxx from the shoulders up wearing a black bucket hat, sunglasses and one earring.

    felicia foxx: performing artist

    Image of We Are Warriors Ben Miles and Nooky standing outside against a brick wall backdrop.

    we are warriors: nooky & ben miles, ecd r/ga

    Black and white photo of John C Jay wearing a coat and shirt.

    john c jay: president of brand creative for fast retailing, owner of uniqlo

    Image of Mama Alto

    mama alto: jazz singer & ceo transgender victoria

    Image of Africa Brook wearing red nail polish and a brown top with her hand resting against her face.

    africa brooke: consultant & writer

    Image of Caroline Casey wearing a black turtleneck, smiling into the camera from the chest up.

    caroline casey: activist & management consultant

    Image of Takunda Muzondiwa

    takunda muzondiwa: spoken word poet

    Image of Blair Imani

    blair imani: author, historian & activist

    Image of Cheryl Maas

    cheryl maas: pro-snowboarder

    Image of Kumi Tominaga

    kumi tominaga: head of japan, creative shop @ meta

    Image of Laura Jordan Bambach

    laura jordan bambach: president & chief creative officer at grey

    Image of Tea Uglow

    tea uglow: creative director

    Image of Charlie Craggs

    charlie craggs: actress, activist, and author

    Image of Sandara Bold

    sandra bold: cco at wunderman thompson benelux

    Image of Bejay Mulenga

    bejay mulenga: entrepeuneur, founder ceo, creative consultant and public speaker

    Image of Light Watkins

    light watkins: speaker, podcaster, author, teacher

    Image of Robett Hollis

    robett hollis: ex-professional snowboarder, entrepenuer, speaker and advisor

    Image of Liz Jackson

    liz jackson: founder of the disabled list

    Image of Malik Al Nasir

    malik al nasir: author, performance poet and filmmaker

    Image of Tara McKenty

    tara mckenty: co-founder of rare with google

    Image of Stefanie DiGianvincenzo

    stefanie digianvincenzo: co-founder of rare with google

    Image of Lo Harris

    lo harris: multidisciplinary artist & illustrator

    Black and white photo for Reggie Black from the shoulders up wearing a brimmed hat.

    reggie black: artist

    Image of Claudia Chinyere Akole

    claudia chinyere akole: artist & illustrator

    Image of Gemma O'Brien

    gemma o'brien: illustrator

    Image of Oliver Costello smiling from the waist up, sitting infront of a fire wearing a black shirt with white illustration.

    oliver costello: director of jagun alliance aboriginal corporation

    Image of Arieta Tegeilolo Talanoa Rika from the chest up against a backdrop of trees with a floral top and black jacket.

    arieta tegeilolo talanoa rika: writer, storyteller & founder of talanoa

    Image of Reg Flowers from the waist up wearing a grey suit and shirt.

    reg flowers: theatre professional and teaching artist

    In front of a pink publicity board, close-up headshot photograph on a pink background of Sulaiman sitting in his power wheelchair at Soho House White City.

    sulaiman khan: founder and chief radical officer of this ability limited

    Double-page scan from the Rare with Google 2020 publication featuring portait of Oliver Costello from the shoulders up.

    oliver costello our work is creation work as told to shantel wetherall

    Double-page scan from the Rare with Google 2020 publication featuring portait of Arieta Tegeilolo Talanoa Rika

    arieta tegeilolo talanoa rika the foundation of recovery interview by shantel wetherall

    Double-page scan from the Rare with Google 2020 publication of Reg Flowers.

    reg flowers flourishing on the fringe interview by shantel wetherall

    Double-page scan from the Rare with Google 2020 publication of Naomi Stead seated on a chair speaking into a microphone.

    naomi stead the architecture of wicked problems interview by shantel wetherall

    Double-page scan from the Rare with Google 2020 publication of Sulaiman Khan and Naheed Rubi Khan.

    sulaiman khan and naheed rubi khan the way forward interview by chris kenna

    An illustrated poster featuring two people in muted greens, reds, oranges and pinks by Lo Harris.

    still i rise by lo harris

    A poster by Reggie Black featuring handwritten Rare with Google mantras in blue, white and grey on a black background.

    adcolor leaders mantras by reggie black

    A typographic artwork by Claudia Chinyere featuring handwritten Rare with Google mantras in various sizes, in white on an orange background.

    rare mantras 2022 by claudia chinyere akole

    A bold, handwritten typographic artwork by Aries Moross featuring handwritten Rare with Google mantras in black and white.

    rare mantras 2021 by aries moross

    A lively, handwritten typographic artwork by Gemma OBrien featuring handwritten Rare with Google mantras in white on a green background.

    rare mantras 2020 by gemma o'brien