Although the Covid-19 pandemic has broken down numerous barriers that often stop disabled people finding work, there is still a way to go until public bodies are truly inclusive of people with disabilities in their recruitment strategies.
This is according to a group of influential figures who spoke on a webinar organised by Lord Holmes, a former Paralympic swimmer who in 2018 published a report exploring how to open up public appointments to disabled people.
Employees with disabilities
While 18% of the UK population have a disability, less than 6% currently hold a public sector role. Although progress had been made since Holmes’ report, change has been slow.
Oliver Dowden, secretary for digital, culture, media and sport, said it was important that the “whole nation” was represented in the public sector workforce.
“If we want to have well-run public bodies, we need to have the brightest and the best talent working in those public bodies and overseeing those public bodies. In order to do that we need to pull from every aspect of our society and it’s government’s loss when people who have a disability are unable to access those public appointments,” he said.
Helen Dolphin, an independent mobility consultant, chair of the East Midlands Railway Inclusivity Panel and co-chair of the Heathrow Access Advisory Group, shared her experience of applying for a non-executive director position at a public body which had been accredited under the government’s Disability Confident Scheme.
Despite meeting all the minimum criteria and requesting a guaranteed interview – one of the commitments Disability Confident employers agree to – Dolphin’s application was rejected before she reached the interview stage.
It’s all well and good saying you want a more diverse board, but it’s another thing entirely to actually act on that” – Helen Dolphin, independent mobility consultant
“This makes a mockery of the guaranteed interview scheme…I really do not feel there is any understanding that people with disabilities can bring to a board and it seems to me that departments will make up spurious reasons not to interview disabled people, let alone actually employ them,” she said.
“It’s all well and good saying you want a more diverse board, but it’s another thing entirely to actually act on that and benefitting from what a more diverse board will bring.”
Lord Holmes said such schemes existed to level the playing field between disabled and non-disabled candidates, “Giving pubic appointments a process which is equitable, accessible, inclusive and positive, isn’t giving a disabled person an advantage or a leg up. It merely means that disabled people, like our non-disabled counterparts… can go through the process with dignity, and equality every stage.”
The language used during the application process is also a barrier to many people with disabilities or long-term conditions, said Diane Lightfoot, CEO of the Business Disability Forum, which today launched a new think tank – called The Forum – to find ways of increasing the participation of disabled people in the development of economic and social policy.
“One of my bugbears is the word ‘disclose’ or ‘declare’… these words are really negative and suggest there’s something to be ashamed of,” said Lightfoot, who discussed the language used around disability within the recruitment process. “A lot of people who are defined as disabled under the Equality Act won’t identify with that term.”
“We did some work with a central government department that had 6% of people ticking a box to say they were disabled, but when they changed the question to ‘Do you consider yourself to have a disability or long term condition such as dyslexia or diabetes, arthritis, a heart condition or a mental health condition?’ that went up to 16%.”
Remote meetings offers the possibility of reducing the inconvenience and difficulty of attending meetings in person. This could make involvement easier for people with a variety of disabilities” – Peter Riddell, commissioner for public appointments
Lightfoot added that many workers across the UK, whether they had a disability or not, were “effectively all working with adjustments” while following guidance to work from home during the pandemic. This showed working adjustments for people with disabilities was possible.
The government’s commissioner for public appointments, Peter Riddell, agreed that the public sector should not revert back to “pre-March ways of working”.
“The Covid epidemic has pointed to ways in which people with disabilities can participate. Vital departments have proven to be innovative, resilient and successful in handling processes for public appointments remotely,” he said.
“Remarkably quickly, they developed new ways of working remotely. That’s reduced some of the inherent barriers faced by disabled people which were identified in the Holmes report. Similarly, the widespread use of remote meetings offers the possibility of reducing the inconvenience and difficulty of attending meetings in person. This could make involvement easier for people with a variety of disabilities as well as aiding geographical and social diversity.”