Paralympic gold medallist Ellie Simmonds has encouraged organisations to have open conversations with employees and job candidates who have disabilities to determine how they can be supported to perform at their best.
Speaking on a webinar organised by global HR search and recruitment firm Frazer Jones, the former British Paralympic swimmer said employers and colleagues should not feel afraid to reach out to disabled individuals to determine which terms to use when talking about their condition or find out which adjustments can be offered.
They must also develop workplace cultures where staff with disabilities feel comfortable expressing what they need, she said.
Simmonds said that one of the biggest challenges people with disabilities often face at work is the fact that colleagues and managers sometimes make assumptions about their abilities.
“You need to find out about what an individual can do before you formulate an opinion,” Simmonds advised organisations. “I know what works for me and what doesn’t.”
Clare Thornton, a partner at Frazer Jones who chaired the discussion alongside lead partner Nick Croucher, noted that employers sometimes avoided talking about disability because they had “a fear of saying the wrong thing and offending somebody”, or their actions being seen as “tokenism”.
Simmonds said it is important for organisations to establish the correct terminology they should use when talking about a person’s disability, and the best way to do this is by asking the employee or job candidate themselves.
“Just ask what we feel comfortable with – I don’t mind people coming up to me and asking what terms to use,” she said.
“I love it when people are intrigued to learn, because if you’re scared to ask a question then that’s taking step back.
I love it when people are intrigued to learn, because if you’re scared to ask a question then that’s taking step back” – Ellie Simmonds
“Be open and talk about what their needs are and what things you can do to help your employees. Talk about their disability if they’re okay talking about it; some people want to just keep it to themselves which is okay, but it’s important to open up dialogue.”
Asked what impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had, Simmonds said the wider acceptance of home working has made it easier for people with disabilities to access work, particularly if commuting is a challenge for them, but it may have also made some feel isolated.
“I love the social aspect of work and being able to talk to people face to face, which can actually be a good thing for people with disabilities. It’s just not the same talking to someone on a screen,” she said.
Although Office for National Statistics figures show the disability employment rate increased to 52.7% in Q2 2021, from 43.6% in Q2 2013, the proportion of disabled people in work fell at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Simmonds gave her top three tips for encouraging more inclusive organisations for people with disabilities:
- Be open and transparent – talk about their needs and how the organisation can help
- Listen to what they need – “Don’t just do it to tick a box”, said Simmonds
- Implement what they need – for example a more comfortable chair to sit on, more accessible toilets or lower light switches.
She also advised employers and recruitment firms to consider accessibility in their job adverts and careers pages, using larger fonts or audio to help visually impaired people, for example, and to think about making their workplaces more accessible physically, by opening up disabled toilets and introducing ramps.
A poll conducted on the webinar found that 71% of attendees rated their workplace as “moderately accessible”, while 8% said their workplace was not accessible for people with disabilities at all.
Simmonds said that an accessible workplace is one that is available to all and where everyone is treated with equity.
She said: “We need to create environments everyone is happy to be working in, and that means everyone has to play a part in inclusion.”