Disability special report: Opening doors to employment

More than 10 years after disability access laws were first introduced in the UK there is still much confusion surrounding both the legal rights of disabled people and the legal responsibilities of businesses, including those that employ them.

The problem is that the landmark legislation covering this area – the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act – is notoriously vague. So much so, in fact, that while it was being steered through parliament by William Hague – minister for disabled people at that time – protestors outside carried placards declaring ‘Don’t be vague, Mr Hague’.

Ambiguous law

For many businesses this led to a sigh of relief because it meant that red tape and regulation was kept to a minimum. However, the Act is so ambiguous that many employers run the risk of falling foul of the law because they do not know their exact boundaries.

In 2006, not-for-profit organisation the United Kingdom Council for Access and Equality (UKCAE) was set up from within the private sector to help organisations meet their obligations under all equality legislation, including the DDA. The founders, Kim Ridge and Eoin O’Callaghan of commercial construction company CityAxis, realised that businesses were having problems with, or even ignoring, their duties under the DDA because of its ambiguity.

Audit trail

To counter the vague nature of the law, UKCAE plans to offer member employers a business framework for diversity and inclusion in the workplace, providing awareness, understanding, knowledge and skills to enable any organisation to work towards including disabled people. It aims to provide businesses with an audit trail to demonstrate how they have adapted their businesses to cater for disabled people.

According to O’Callaghan, the UKCAE ‘pathway’ scheme will help to prepare the ground for disability equality in business by educating company employees about the wider issues of diversity and inclusion as well as explaining how to dismantle barriers.

“Much is being said about the need to get people with disabilities back into the workplace and government funding and support exists to help individuals achieve that goal,” he says. “Our workforce is getting older and is set to work longer with many disabilities becoming more common with age.

Educating staff

“Business needs to take the opportunity of using these people’s skills and enthusiasm and it is up to business to prepare the ground to receive and retain people with a disability by educating the workforce in inclusion and removing any unnecessary obstacles.”

A number of key organisations have already joined UKCAE, including law firm Martineau Johnson, the National Policing Improvement Agency, and Postcomm (the independent regulator for the UK’s postal services).

And while the pathway scheme will not provide a 100% guarantee that an organisation will never face legal action over disability discrimination, if an organisation can prove it has actively sought to find a solution to the problems created by a vague law, the courts should look favourably on this.

There are 6.8 million disabled people of working age in the UK. Yet only 50% of disabled people of working age are in employment, compared with 81% of non-disabled people. If businesses can take steps to cover their liability in employing disabled people, they can make the most of this pool of available talent.

Top tips: dealing with disability

Taking a best practice approach to disability means more than knowing your obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), according to the Employers’ Forum on Disability.

One in eight UK employees has a disability, and you may have disabled people working for you they may just have decided not to declare their disability as they feel it does not affect their work.

Below is a list of top tips for dealing with disability at work:

  • Never assume there are no disabled people in your team. Some disabilities are visible – for example, mobility impairments – but other disabilities, such as epilepsy or depression, are not.
  • Look at how disability affects every aspect of your organisation, from your communications to making reasonable adjustments for disabled staff.
  • When taking on new team members, make sure the process is accessible for disabled applicants every step of the way.
  • When employing a new disabled colleague, plan ahead to make sure all induction processes are accessible. Training videos should have subtitles for deaf or hearing impaired employees or an audio description for employees with visual impairments. Check all meetings are booked in accessible rooms and that all colleagues are made aware of reasonable adjustments they may need to make, such as providing written information by e-mail or in large print.
  • Ensure you have a disability-specific policy. Research from the Employers’ Forum on Disability showed that companies closest to getting it right on disability kept it separate from their diversity policies.
  • Make sure all staff have had disability awareness training.
  • When possible, adopt flexible working practices – these work best for everyone, especially disabled people and those with families.
  • Monitor all reasonable adjustments for disabled staff regularly to ensure they continue to work effectively.
  • Get top-level buy-in for your organisation’s disability policies, and embed disability equality into all mainstream processes.
  • Set goals – what gets measured gets done. Take every opportunity to assess employment practices and policies.
  • Make sure your line managers communicate with disabled staff. Forming a disability staff network is a great way for all employees to share best practice.

Source: Employers’ Forum on Disability

Case study: Plymouth Teaching PCT

Plymouth Teaching Primary Care Trust (PCT) uses a range of outlets to ensure its vacancies reach disabled applicants, including the Routeways one-stop job shop for disabled people, Plymouth Disability Action Network, and Sun International – a network for people with mental health issues.

All of the trust’s advertisements include an equal opportunities statement and the ‘two ticks’ disability symbol, awarded by Jobcentre Plus.

On a practical level, the trust encourages disabled people to volunteer at a coffee shop at its local care centre, helping to maximise their potential and offering a stepping stone into paid employment.

In recognition of its work with disabled people, the trust was highly commended by South West disability and employment specialist PLUSS in its Employer of the Year 2006 competition. This has “built the confidence of disabled people, increased our recruitment of disabled people, and is helping us to become an employer of choice”, according to the trust.

Case study: InterContinental Hotels Group

Last year, InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) conducted a targeted recruitment initiative with Royal National Institute of Blind People Scotland and Jobcentre Plus, hiring nine new employees for IHG hotels in Edinburgh.

Organised by IHG’s training manager for the UK and Ireland and its area HR and development officer, Holiday Inn Edinburgh hosted a recruitment day in January. It invited various disability organisations to attend an awareness event to familiarise themselves with an IHG hotel as well as advertise current vacancies, and encourage their clients to attend the open day.

More than 70 people attended the open day, 30 of whom went straight to interview stage, and 12 attended a 10-day pre-employment training course.

The course, run by RNIB Scotland, was designed to both address IHG’s specific needs from new recruits, and equip the attendees with transferable skills.

After completing the course, the 12 jobseekers attended an interview. Four secured employment, and the rest were offered a six-week work placement at Holiday Inn Edinburgh. One of these applicants went on to secure permanent employment.

A spokeswoman at IHG says there were a number of business benefits from running the recruitment initiative: it widened the skills of applicants provided development for line managers and reduced absenteeism and employee turnover.

IHG says the key to success was in eliminating barriers to recruiting people with disabilities and gaining support for the initiative from hotel managers and employees. Based on the success of this project, a similar initiative has now been rolled out in London and the South East.

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