Despite years of making changes to the way we work and several drafts of legislation, prejudice around employing disabled people is still rife. In our survey of just under 700 businesses, carried out in conjunction with disability charity Leonard Cheshire, 86% agreed that employers would pick a non-disabled candidate over a disabled candidate, while 92% said there was still discrimination against disabled people in employment and recruitment.
Yet paradoxically, employers are more ready than they have ever been to welcome the disabled into the workplace. When it came to the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), almost 80% of respondents felt their knowledge of the legislation was either reasonable or good, although only 5% felt it was 'excellent'. The majority of respondents employed more than 25 disabled people in their organisation.
The level of discrimination disabled people still face is all the more surprising given the perception among most respondents that they are more loyal workers. Almost 90% of respondents did not agree that the average turnover rate for disabled workers would be higher than that for non-disabled workers. And, 43% did not think that disabled people would be more likely to be frequently absent - so the preconception that disabled people take more time off does not necessarily hold true.
Many employers have made adjustments to their work environments to accommodate disabled employees. Three-quarters of those questioned in our survey had been asked to make adjustments to the workplace, and almost all were able to honour those requests. Of those that couldn't accommodate the changes, the most common reason was because they were 'unreasonable'. Other factors included cost (27% felt it was too expensive) and disruption to other staff (a further 27%).
Rights and obligations
Some of the difficulties employers have in employing disabled workers seem to lie in knowing their precise rights and obligations. While most respondents felt they had a good grasp of the DDA, there was some confusion about who it applies to.
For example, when asked whether someone who'd been diagnosed with cancer, but was not yet showing signs of the disease, would be covered by the DDA, 79% agreed(this has been the case since December 2005). However, respondents were split over whether someone who had recently been diagnosed with depression would qualify - 41% said they would, while 50% said they wouldn't. In fact, if a mental illness (including depression) has a substantial, adverse and long-term effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, then the worker is covered by the DDA.
There is also a need for clarity over how employers and workers gain government assistance. Awareness of the government's Access to Work scheme was high, with more than three-quarters of respondents conscious of it, and more than half supporting disabled workers through the scheme. However, almost one-quarter said they found the scheme, which offers practical support to disabled people who are in or looking for paid employment, 'not very easy' to use.
Our survey suggests that awareness of the challenges facing disabled employees, not to mention practical adjustments to accommodate them, are high up on the corporate agenda. Where the real work needs to be done is in overcoming the discrimination that continues to stifle the progress of the disabled at work.
Accommodating the needs of disabled workers extends way beyond installing a ramp or adapting toilet facilities. Many of the respondents to our survey had gone out of their way to make the jobs of disabled employees easier and fit in more flexibly to the business. Some of the changes included:
- Employing signers to enable deaf people to attend important meetings.
- Identifying products by colour codes rather than numbers.
- Flashing lights for deaf employees and vibrating alerts for blind workers.
- Alterations to heavy doors for multiple sclerosis sufferers.
- Assisting with costs for wheelchairs, hearing aids, etc.
- Allowing dyslexic employees to dictate reports rather than write them down.
- Disabled car parking adjacent to the office.
- Providing an appropriate environment for hearing dogs/guide dogs.
- Painting doorways in bright colours for the visually impaired.