The importance of making your organisation more inclusive to disabled workers

Out-Law Analysis | 02 Dec 2021 | 9:44 am | 5 min. read

Employers that make their organisation more inclusive to workers with disabilities will find it easier to attract and retain talented staff at a time when some skills are in short supply, will have increased engagement and will have greater diversity of thought within their business.

On International Day of Persons with Disabilities, employers should reflect on whether their recruitment processes are fit for purpose, consider whether there is inherent bias against people with disabilities in their working culture and practices, and what more they can do to understand and address the needs of disabled employees.

What is International Day of Persons with Disabilities?

International Day of Persons with Disabilities occurs every 3 December. It is a UN-backed day dedicated to celebrating people with disabilities, learning from their experiences and galvanising action in the pursuit of equal rights and treatment. The #PurpleLightUp movement also celebrates and draws attention to the economic contribution of disabled employees around the world on 3 December.

One of the main reasons why a dedicated day is needed to highlight disability issues is because, despite some improvements across society in the past 20 years, people with disabilities continue to face a challenge in being treated equally with other members of the public. This issue is particularly acute in the employment context.

Amy website image

Amy Hextell

Senior Associate

Covid has brought into focus the challenges and underrepresentation that individuals with disabilities face in the workplace, and this is an issue that employers can no longer ignore

The issues disabled people face at work

In the UK, government statistics show that while the number of disabled people in employment in the UK has been growing over the past decade, the proportion of disabled people in work is, at 52.7%, much less than is the case for persons who do not have a disability, where 81% of people are in work.

Persons with disabilities are sometimes the victims of stigma or misconceptions, particularly in cases where the disability is  less visible such as those relating to mental health and neurodivergent thinking. Individuals with disabilities can also be disadvantaged by employers that feel nervous about doing or saying the ‘wrong’ thing.

In addition, it is still unfortunately too common that job adverts and recruitment processes are not designed with attracting disabled candidates in mind or ensuring they can access the job opportunity – in particular, candidates whose disabilities are not immediately visible.

Accessibility issues continue to be a concern. Employers need to anticipate challenges that may arise and be proactive rather than just reacting to issues when they are highlighted. The need for physical accessibility to be addressed, such as through the provision of ramps, lifts and workspaces that are wheelchair accessible, for example, has been something in the public consciousness for some time and yet still enough is not being done. The difficulty experienced by Israel’s energy minister, a wheelchair user, in accessing the COP26 conference venue in Glasgow last month was a high-profile reminder that access barriers are still not always recognised. Other barriers to access may require less significant physical steps to be taken and may include the provision of auxiliary aids or additional software.

The UK government’s figures also illustrate the concern and challenge that the Covid-19 pandemic has posed for disabled employees. Many disabled people were forced to ‘shield’ during the pandemic, preventing them from physically attending work. The number of disabled people in work in the UK also fell for a period during 2020, as the pandemic resulted in redundancies and furloughing, though the number of disabled people in employment in the UK has now recovered to above pre-pandemic levels. The ‘new normal’ of virtual interviews and working raises complex issues about how people with disabilities are or may be impacted by new ways of working.

Amy website image

Amy Hextell

Senior Associate

Notwithstanding the legal obligations on employers, evidence has shown that building a workforce which is inclusive of individuals with disabilities has a huge benefit to an organisation

Employers’ legal duties and the benefits of inclusion

Under the Equality Act 2010, UK employers have a positive legal duty to support employees with a disability, known as making ‘reasonable adjustments’. It is also unlawful for an employer to discriminate against employees or prospective employees on the basis of their disability. .

Notwithstanding the legal obligations on employers, evidence has shown that building a workforce which is inclusive of individuals with disabilities has a huge benefit to an organisation as a result of specialist skills, experiences and because it supports a business to think in a diverse way. Employees with diverse experiences may have different approaches to problem solving and true inclusion is about embracing difference. Neurodiversity, for example, is increasingly being seen by many employers – particularly in the tech world – as an asset.

Employers should be looking to build a business that is truly diverse and inclusive and one which attracts the best talent, and this includes recruiting individuals with a disability. Creating a diverse and inclusive workplace can improve moral and workplace culture for all employees, as it sends an important message about the company’s values.

There is also a particular growing expectation from the graduate community and from other young adults coming into the world of work that employers will offer additional support and have disability-friendly policies and practices in place, similar to the support and adjustments they may have received or experienced while in education. Employers that fail to offer this support risk not attracting the best talent.

Other protected characteristics, such as gender and race, have attracted a lot of media attention in recent years and have been high on boardroom agendas. However, Covid has brought into focus the challenges and underrepresentation that individuals with disabilities face in the workplace, and this is an issue that employers can no longer ignore.

We are already seeing some large employers going above and beyond minimum legal requirements in their pay gap reporting by voluntarily disclosing other diversity metrics beyond gender, including class, sexual orientation, ethnicity and disability. This is a prudent step with calls for mandatory reporting of disability pay gap data growing louder.

Actions to take to become more disability inclusive

There are positive, practical steps employers can take to improve disability inclusion and to promote open discussion:

  • Reviewing recruitment processes. Employers should assess whether their processes and procedures are designed to accommodate individuals with disability; whether they have factored in adjustments to their processes for disabled candidates; and whether their recruitment processes includes tasks, such as psychometric tests, that might disadvantage certain disabled candidates.
  • Educating the workforce on the use of inclusive language. It is important employers carefully consider the language they use in their own internal communications and policy documents, but they should also train staff to avoid using words that have negative connotations, such as saying a person is “suffering” from a disability or “confined” to a wheelchair. Tailored diversity training for managers may assist here.
  • Considering whether to implement a disability allyship initiative. This could be similar to those that many organisations have implemented for LGBTQ+ inclusion groups. Another option is to set up a disability inclusion network.
  • Considering whether proximity bias exists in your organisations. Disabled employees may be more likely to elect to work flexibly or work from home for part or all of the working week as a result of the pandemic or other factors that mean flexible working is their preference. It is important to assess whether line managers are more likely to favour team members physically present in the office over those working from home, and if so to address this.
  • Finally, it is important to fully understand an employee’s disability and their needs, and to avoid generalising or making assumptions based on knowledge of another individual’s disability.

Co-written by Holly Brannan of Pinsent Masons.

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