Employing disabled people – myth-busting workshop

Margaret Tullett has seen more than her fair share of conference rooms in the past year, having spent days at a time on the road talking to HR professionals and general managers about employing people with disabilities. But she loves her hectic job.

“It’s great to be able to do something you can be so passionate about,” she enthuses.

Tullett is part of the small team in charge of Employ ability, an initiative from Jobcentre Plus (part of the Department for Work and Pensions) that challenges employers’ assumptions about disabled people in the workplace.

The interactive workshops, which are run across the country, highlight the benefits of employing people with disabilities.Ironically, today’s venue – the beautiful 19th century Putteridge Bury near Luton, part of the University of Bedfordshire – has woeful disabled access, limited by its protected architectural status.

Not a passive course

Tullett kicks off proceedings by assuring delegates that this is not a passive course, with her talking at us for three hours.

There is a lot of excellent, clearly set-out literature to take away (which can be downloaded from the DWP’s website at www.dwp.gov.uk), but the purpose of the day is to get everyone thinking about how they recruit disabled people, remind them about the pool of talent they are missing out on, and inspire them to want to think and act differently.

The day also demonstrates what resources are available, allows delegates to meet the local Jobcentre Plus support team, and outlines the legal context and the Disability Discrimination Act(DDA).

True to her word, Tullett gets everyone thinking, with a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire-style quiz, which has some surprisingly difficult questions. For example, would you be able to guess what proportion of the UK working-age population is disabled, given the choice of 10%, 15%, 20% or 25%? The answer is 20%.

“Some people think that’s quite high, but the obvious question that raises is how you define disability,” points out Tullett.

“The DDA defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial or long-term effect on someone’s ability to carry out day-to-day activities.”

Mention the word ‘disability’ and people often think of mobility problems,but in factjust 5% of people with disabilities are wheelchair users. The largest group is actually those with mental health issues, at 40%, according to the Employers’ Forum on Disability.

And, of course, people are not necessarily born with disabilities – just 17% of disabled people have their disability from birth. Many disabilities are long-term illnesses – asthma or diabetes, for example – although those with such conditions might not see themselves as having a disability.

“It could happen to you or a colleague at any time,” says Tullett.

Later in the session, we watch a witty film that portrays the world as if having a disability was the norm, in which an able-bodied jobseeker is singled out for pitying looks, patronising comments and prejudiced assumptions. The story highlights the four main barriers facing disabled people in the workplace – attitude, physical, practice and procedure, and institutional – and is the catalyst for lively discussion.

Tullett says the strong business case for employing people with disabilities often surprises delegates on the course. The spending power of people with disabilities is vast – they and their families spend an astonishing £80bn per year.

“Employers think I am just going to talk about the ethical or corporate social responsibility reasons for employing people with disabilities,” she says.

“Of course, these are very good reasons, but it’s also very commercially viable. If you are not dealing with your customers – or potential customers – with disabilities, you could be missing out on significant spending power. The business case is one of the main ways of engaging people with this agenda.”

Bottom-line benefits

Indeed, research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development shows that almost two-thirds of businesses believe that having a diverse pool of talent contributes to the bottom line.

One of the biggest problems for employers is that people with disabilities are often reluctant to disclose their status for fear of discrimination.

Research out this month shows that jobseekers with disabilities are still wary of disclosing this to potential employers. Less than half (43%) will tell recruiters about their disability at the pre-application or interview phase, but 33% did not tell potential employers at all, according to figures published by diversity communications agency Greenlight. Of those who did tell employers, 44% were worried it might have an adverse impact on their application. A third were clearly getting little reassurance from employers about disclosure.

But, as Tullett points out: “If they don’t disclose, the employer can’t make a reasonable adjustment to accommodate their needs.”

The concept of ‘reasonable adjustment’ is the key. “It doesn’t mean huge, expensive changes,” says Tullett. It can range from a phased return to work after absence; putting in automatic doors; software, such as an advanced spellchecker for someone with dyslexia; or providing a mentor.

“Mental health is the area where most flexible help is needed,” she adds. “A person’s condition can deteriorate unexpectedly, so ad-hoc access is needed.”

Some adjustments don’t cost anything, such as allowing someone to work from home, or having more meetings to keep in touch with their progress. Jobcentre Plus can also offer a work psychologist, something Tullett says is not widely known.

“It’s important that managers know how to put reasonable adjustments in place as soon as possible, to prevent the person affected getting discouraged, and colleagues becoming resentful.”

A particularly worrying statistic is that only 25% of employers have heard of the Access to Workscheme, despite the fact it has existed since the mid-1990s. It focuses on the individual’s needs, and can pay, in part or entirely, for all sorts of support, including software, adaptation to premises, travel to and from work, a support worker, even awareness training for colleagues.

Awareness training is particularly helpful – a survey from the Employers’ Forum on Disability suggests 49% of people are scared of disability; afraid of saying the wrong thing. The DWP’s easy-to-read Don’t know what to say?guide is a good place to start.

If you feel your organisation is not making the most of the talent pool available, or not fully meeting the needs of its entire workforce, Tullett suggests signing up for an Employ ability session and find out what help is available. Go to www.dwp.gov.uk/employabilityto find your nearest venue.

Employ ability in practice

An important part of each workshop is the live case study – a short presentation from employers and employees on their experiences of disability in the workplace, often involving long-term illnesses.

These have included an Asda employee who was able to carry on working, in a less stressful role, after being treated for breast cancer; an employee who returned to work at the Ipswich Holiday Inn following a stroke; and Sharon Goodyer, joint managing director of Cake Bake – the company that made 400 sponge cakes for the Skoda Sabia ‘cake car’ TV advert – who has Parkinson’s disease and employs two members of staff with long-term health conditions. Goodyer’s attitude is purely rational, despite her own condition. She finds that employees with disabilities have an excellent work ethic and are less likely to be off sick, maximising the company’s productivity.

At the Luton workshop, the planned case study has been cancelled. However, the venue’s conference officer, Maxine Decent, has come up trumps with a case study from within the building. Breda O’Kane works on reception, and is a great favourite with the students, who greet her enthusiastically as they wander in and out of the building.

Many have no idea that Breda has a disability. She worked in the catering department at the university for a few years before suffering a back injury. Her confidence knocked, she was initially reluctant to take up the suggested role on reception.

“I didn’t want to let anybody down,” she confesses. “I felt embarrassed. But I was given a chance, and it’s been great. I feel very fortunate.”

She has now been in the role for 10 years, and finds the job perfectly manageable, thanks to her special orthopaedic chair and limited working hours.

Decent admits that when she was initially told about Breda’s disability, her heart sank. “We felt a bit resentful, that she was getting the job even though she had no admin skills and that we were obliged to give her a chance because of her back. We thought it would create extra work for us.

“The university runs courses for computer training, but as Breda has dyslexia she found it very difficult to keep up with the rest of the class. We have found it easier to train her ourselves within the office. We now train Breda on a need-to-know basis – when she encounters a problem, we show her how to get round it. Now she attempts everything and we love having her here. It’s been a learning curve for all of us.”

The HR professional’s view

Employ ability’s Margaret Tullett says HR can play an important role in getting management buy-in to disability awareness.

“You need commitment from senior level in the company. Without that, you can’t make the changes needed; there are institutional barriers. HR can play a key role here,” she says.

Yvonne Thiedeman, employee relations manager at North Herts District Council, attended the Luton workshop. She agrees that while HR professionals have much to gain from the course, the best approach would be to involve line mangers as much as possible.

“The session was great at highlighting and refreshing my focus on the real issues for disabled people either seeking work or being in work,” she says. “It provided important information on what support is available, and challenged standard assumptions and stereotypes about disability and disabled people in the workplace.”

She adds: “I am in the process of completing equality impact assessments on the full HR service, in line with expectations under the equalities duties for public bodies. The Employ ability session allowed me to reassess the work I had done to make sure I had considered services properly with regards to disability.

“Fortunately, we have thoroughly considered disability issues in our recruitment processes and have strong relationships with our occupational health partners, which help us to support and manage any adjustments to the working environment that our employees need. That said, like most other employers, we aren’t perfect and are working to improve all the time, which the equality impact assessment process helps us to do.”

Thiedeman concludes: “I think all HR professionals would benefit from the Employ ability sessions, but even more so if they attend with their line managers as this could help develop a shared understanding that isn’t HR-led. It is important that the recruiting managers know how simple the process is to access funds for adjustments to support a disabled person to begin a job, or to continue working in an organisation.”

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