Prime Minister Tony Blair writes for Personnel Today

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 ñ 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 ñ often held by decent, well-meaning people who make assumptions based on ignorance. In a way, they too are trapped in a cycle whereby 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, means disabled people are denied the chance to show what they can achieve, so perpetuating the very stereotypes which 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 ñ from school onwards ñ and to 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 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 nationwide 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 ñ and I know the commission agrees about this ñ 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 ñ including in my own office ñ 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 and 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 ñ as for HR professionals ñ 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.

By Tony Blair

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