Employers must see the person, not the disability

With the
launch of the Disability Rights Commission campaign this week, Prime Minister
Tony Blair, writing exclusively for Personnel Today, argues that disabled
employees benefit business

Human
resources professionals need little convincing about the contribution people
with disabilities make in the workplace. They know that the talent and commitment
of disabled workers will compensate for the small costs of any necessary
equipment or adaptations many times over.

In this, HR
managers and the Government are in agreement – disabled people face enough
challenges without society creating new ones. The shared challenge for us is to
convince employers and managers that providing disabled people with a fair
chance in the workplace is not a burden or even just an opportunity to do the
right thing, but can also benefit business performance.

The heart
of this challenge is tackling prejudice and preconceptions – often held by
decent, well-meaning people who make assumptions based on ignorance. In a way,
they too are trapped in a cycle where disabled people are assumed to be
incapable of taking up work, and are therefore excluded from the workplace as
they are from so many other parts of society. This, in turn, denies disabled
people the chance to show what they can achieve, so perpetuating the
stereotypes that hold them back in the first place.

The
Government is working to create the right economic and social conditions so
that everyone can fulfil their potential. As part of this, we are committed to
helping disabled people break down the barriers they face – from school onwards
– and challenging preconceptions. Where necessary, this is backed by law to
ensure that civil rights are enjoyed by all. But it is also providing practical
help both to disabled people and prospective employers to ensure that disabled
people can compete for jobs on equal terms.

So,
alongside full implementation of the Disability Discrimination Act, and big
increases in benefits for those who need them most, we have set up the New Deal
for Disabled People, which will be extended nationally next July. This will
capitalise on the excellent work it has done already in helping more than 5,000
disabled people into jobs.

We have
also provided more practical advice and assistance to help employers recruit
and retain disabled people, and ensure their existing employees can stay in
work if they develop a disability or long-term illness. The Access to Work
scheme provides practical advice and support to disabled people and their
employers to help overcome work-related obstacles resulting from disability.

The new
Disability Rights Commission is an example of this comprehensive approach. It
provides advice as well as ensuring rights are understood on all sides and, if
necessary, can be enforced. I want the commission to come to be seen – and I
know the commission agrees about this – not as a police force for a set of
legal obligations but as a resource to help firms make the changes they need to
bring more disabled people into the workforce. It is certainly a resource which
we in government need to use fully. Although there have been advances –
including in my own office – government as a whole is still behind where we
should be.

Often these
changes are so minor that they are a drop in the ocean compared to the wider
costs of recruitment. The average cost of adaptations in the workplace is about
£50 for each disabled employee. And with a million more people in work than
three years ago, and the Government committed to the long-term aim of full
employment, meeting the needs of disabled people will, I believe, become a more
important way for companies to attract quality employees.

In the end,
all that disabled people want is the chance to show what they can do. All
employers need to do is to see the person, not their disability, and then
decide if they have the skills for the job.

And for
government – as for HR professionals – the task is to convince employers and
managers that it is often that easy. And when it is more difficult, there is
help at hand.

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