Disability in the workplace: The forgotten minority

The government has set some very ambitious targets for recruiting more disabled people in the workplace over the next two years, but what are employers actually doing about it?

It could be argued that the UK’s approach to disabled workers revolves around a number of large-scale projects, such as the Local Employment Partnerships and £1bn Pathways to Work scheme, instead of offering the individual, tailored solutions that business and disabled people alike really need.

Even the Department for Work and Pensions admits the current approach isn’t working. Its 2008 report, Evidence on the effect of Pathways to Work on existing claimants, found that after 18 months only 4% of claimants had entered employment of any sort. And a smaller percentage had actually taken jobs involving 30 hours a week or more.

Dedicated budget

Yet it isn’t just the government that’s to blame. Last year’s Disability Standard Benchmark Survey by the Employers Forum on Disability (EFD) discovered that just 48% of organisations have a dedicated budget for disability equality. This compares with 90% for race equality and 68% for gender equality.

Given that one in five people of working age in the UK are disabled (seven million people) and that one in four of the overall population will be affected by mental ill-health during their lifetime, this obviously provides some cause for alarm.

“Society’s perception needs to move from thinking of jobs for disabled people as extra jobs and realise that everyone is on an equal footing,” explains Nick Bason, public affairs manager for the EFD.

The most important piece of legislation for disabled employees is undeniably the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), which was updated in 2005 to make it illegal to publish an advert that discriminates against disabled people and was extended in scope to cover some forms of cancer, HIV/Aids and multiple sclerosis.

Reasonable adjustments

One of the Act’s key elements is the duty it places on employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to premises and working practices to ensure that disabled employees are not disadvantaged in any way.

Yet this noble concept seems to have had an alarmingly negative influence on some employers. Disabled charity Scope found that 45% of organisations believe they cannot afford to employ a disabled person because of the cost of making reasonable adjustments.

Sadly, the reality really couldn’t be further from this opinion.

“You’re really just trying to make someone effective in the workplace, which you’d do anyway for health and safety reasons,” explains Tim Taylor, manager for equality and diversity at Lloyds TSB.

“The issues are: are you covered by the DDA, and what can you do to make the working environment better? It’s common sense,” he adds.

Realising this has enabled Lloyds TSB to massively increase its number of disabled workers, both through recruitment and internal cultural change (see case study, below). Yet the realisation that ‘reasonable adjustments’ needn’t be costly is echoed among all employers who have stuck their neck out and recruited disabled people.

“It’s the age-old problem,” says Carleigh Chadwick, InterContinental Hotels Group’s (IHG) accessibility manager for the UK and Ireland.

“From an organisational perspective it is a fear of not knowing – a lack of knowledge – that creates a fear factor. You automatically think of a disabled person in a wheelchair and that you will have to knock down walls. But reasonable adjustments might not mean that. Only 5% of disabled people are in a wheelchair so it may only be minor adjustments, such as a new desk or different keyboard that are needed.

“It is trying to educate people about that which is important, and in all honesty there is still a long way to go,” she says.

No disadvantage

Yet ‘reasonable adjustment’ isn’t the only aspect of the DDA to be feared and misunderstood by employers, as the legislation also makes it illegal to place disabled people at a disadvantage during the interview and assessment process.

Within the highly competitive labour market this is far more difficult to achieve that it sounds. Particularly, as disabled people are likely to be short on confidence, skills and, most crucially, trust.

“We work with an external provider who is a specialist in sourcing and recruiting people with disabilities,” reveals Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe, group head of diversity at Barclays.

“They cast their net wide and look for people who have a disability and are unemployed, but have the right attitude to do the job. We don’t require any formal qualifications,” he says.

“People are then assessed for their potential through a competence and aptitude test and given some work preparation training, in terms of structuring a CV, interview skills and developing their confidence for returning to work. At the end of the process, they are presented to Barclays for a first interview and generally offered a job.”

After two weeks in their new position, the disabled recruits are given an assessment and, in most cases, are asked to continue.

Unlike standard recruitment, this is driven by Barclay’s proactivity and willingness and tap into expert knowledge, because the simple fact is the whole issue of recruiting disabled people is littered with pitfalls for the under-prepared.

The right person

For other firms this process may involve working with Local Employment Partnerships, Job Centre Plus or Pathways to Work, but in all cases the reality is that while the government can supply help and support, it is the firms themselves that need to provide the finesse and slot the right person into the right job.

“Disabled people do not bring any particular benefits because they are disabled. They are not different to other employees – that is the central point,” explains Tim Savidge, HR manager at Ladbrokes call centre in Liverpool.

“When we recruit someone, we are looking for a particular set of attitudes and behaviours. The starting point is the job description and the set of competencies. If you concentrate on these it’s easy to decide how relevant the disability is. For most of the people who have been put forward to us, [their disabilities] have not been relevant at all,” he says.

Laura Frith, IHG’s vice-president of HR for UK & Ireland, adds: “Diversity is employing the right person for the right job. That in a nutshell is what we seek to do, whether it is a disabled person, a lone parent or anyone else.”

Case study: LloydsTSB

At the end of 2003, just 300 people in the Lloyds TSB group had formally declared that they had a disability of some sort on their HR record. Today, the number stands at 1,231 – or 1.9% of the workforce.

Yet this has little to do with recruitment. Instead, Lloyds TSB has created a culture where existing staff feel comfortable declaring disabilities covered by the Disability Discrimination Act, such as epilepsy, deafness or diabetes.

To achieve this, more than 1,500 managers have completed disability awareness training in the past decade, while 3,500 staff have gone through a reasonable adjustment scheme that finds solutions for everyday problems such as back pain and repetitive strain injury, alongside the more complex adjustments required for deafness or partial sight.

Over the same period, more than 200 disabled staff attended a unique three-day development programme that analysed the effect their disability had on their working lives and aimed to improve their assertiveness, CV presentation and interview skills. Around 16% of these people have subsequently been promoted.

Operationally, intranet support for line managers and disabled employees has also been put in place, plus a company-wide support network where disabled staff can discuss their difficulties in private. Lloyds TSB also encourages disabled line managers to become mentors.

Crucially, the bank now has a culture where able-bodied staff are willing to alter their own duties so that disabled workers can achieve different targets under different time constraints.

“The most important thing is to get the line managers and colleagues on side and to get them to understand a bit more about disability and how they might need to modify their own behaviour,” says Tim Taylor, manager for equality and diversity.
“It is often the intangible adjustments that are more important.”

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