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Helping disabled people to thrive at work

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Disabled people can make a huge contribution to the success of a business, so it makes sense for employers to step up their efforts to recruit, retain and develop them.


As we start a new year, we have an opportunity to look afresh at our priorities. There will be many challenges ahead this year but Covid-19, and, indeed, Brexit, should not be excuses for dialling back on disability inclusion and putting it in the ‘too difficult’ box.

Indeed, if anything, I would argue that recent events have proven the need for robust, informed and agile disability inclusion policies like never before. And as we feel our way forward, managers and senior leaders have a key role to play in increasing understanding and making the business case for disability inclusion – not only as a ‘nice to have’ but as a vital element of future proofing their organisations.

Inclusive recruitment

Businesses are increasingly realising that they can’t afford to exclude a significant part of their talent pool – and this is arguably more important than ever in the current climate when businesses are having to adapt quickly in order to survive. Add on the lens of Brexit – with businesses in many sectors (notably care and construction) historically reliant on a migrant workforce – and there is a compelling argument for making sure that you reach the widest possible candidate pool when recruiting.

If you are recruiting to a technical role consider offering a work trial rather than a traditional interview. Photograph: iStock

It really is about talent: a disabled candidate may be the best candidate for the job. People who bring different skills, perspectives and lived-experience can add enormous value; it has been shown time and time again that diverse businesses and teams are more successful.

It can also support your brand – increasingly choosy and ethically minded consumers want to see business doing the right thing. And, of course, there is the legal case too – businesses who overlook diverse groups when recruiting risk costly discrimination cases.

So what practical steps can employers take to employ a more diverse workforce? It’s important to think about disability inclusion as an end-to-end process – getting it right from attraction right through to onboarding.

First, think about what you ask for when recruiting – what do you really need? Ask yourself – do you really need five years’ experience? A degree? An office base? A full time position? Or could the job be done differently? Could someone with different experiences or a less ‘traditional’ career or educational path do the job in a different way? Focus on outcomes rather than process – what you need to be done rather than how and where tasks are carried out.

Diane Lightfoot: "It really is about talent: a disabled candidate may be the best candidate for the job."

When it comes to candidate attraction, think about where you advertise. Make sure the imagery and language you use reflect disabled people – would a disabled candidate think that your organisation would welcome and support a disabled person. Use case studies and stories – and if you can give examples of adjustments that you have made or could make for disabled candidates, it can go a long way in reassuring candidates that you are truly open to meeting their needs.

Also, make sure that your job site or adverts are coherent with your wider brand and messaging. Talk to your marketing team and make sure the messages are consistent. Provide recruitment materials in different formats, and, when it comes to portals, test them with disabled candidates. Make sure they are compatible with assistive technology such as screen readers.

Check that any built-in sifting algorithms for shortlisting don’t disadvantage – or automatically reject – people who for whatever reason might have gaps in their career history or who haven’t had the opportunity to gain what you might think of as ‘standard’ qualifications.

When it comes to interviews, make sure you are testing the right skills for the job. Traditional panel interviews test… how good someone is at traditional panel interviews! That may be entirely appropriate if you are recruiting to an externally facing role such as sales or training, but if you are recruiting to a technical or back office function, for example, consider offering a working interview or work trial so that someone can show you how they would do the job rather than telling you how.

Many candidates with neurodiverse conditions such as autism, or a learning disability, may really struggle in an interview situation, but given the chance to demonstrate their skills might really excel. Testing the right skills gives you the best chance of finding the right person for the job.

Remote recruitment

In current times, you also need to think about whether your remote recruitment process is accessible. Virtual interviews may mean that there are fewer travel issues but they may be replaced by technical ones.

Make sure the technology you are using is accessible, that the lighting is good (for anyone who needs to lip read, for example), and that you provide any communication support that is needed. Remember too that body language and visual cues are lost remotely so clarity of communication is even more important.

All the way through, ask candidates if they need any adjustments to the application or to the interview process. Examples of adjustments (called reasonable adjustments in law) include sending interview questions in advance; removing the timed element of a test (for example, for someone with dyslexia); providing a sign language interpreter; or giving the candidate the opportunity to visit the premises (albeit virtually at the moment), or meet the panel in advance.

Retaining staff

But disability inclusion is not just about recruitment. With 83 per cent of disabilities acquired during the course of our working lives, disability inclusion is also about retaining skilled staff and providing colleagues with the tools they need to be as productive as possible.

Research conducted by Business Disability Forum in its ‘Great Big Adjustments’ survey shows the vital role of workplace adjustments – such as flexible working, assistive tech, and ergonomic equipment – in supporting existing staff. 80 per cent of respondents stated that their adjustments helped them stay in their job and made them more productive. And of those with adjustments in place, 42 per cent had acquired their disability while in their current role.

This places a huge responsibility on line managers to not only ensure they understand the workings of the adjustment process but to have the confidence and knowledge to begin conversations with colleagues about disability and adjustments.

Sadly, our research found that 28 per cent of those working with adjustments and 34 per cent of those without adjustments said they did not make requests because they were worried their employer might treat them differently.

How managers approach the subject of adjustments can help colleagues feel they can speak openly and honestly about their needs.

Health and safety teams are also playing an increasing role in the workplace adjustments process, which is to be welcomed. Health and safety professionals often have a helpful overview of accessibility and disability-related legislation, employment legislation, and health and safety at work regulations, meaning professionals in this field have ideal knowledge to support both employees and managers at the very start of disability-related support conversations.

Getting it right for everyone

As I hope I have shown, getting it right on disability goes far beyond just doing ‘the right thing’. It’s about getting it right for everyone – not just disabled people, but right for your business and right for all your colleagues. Disability inclusion benefits everyone. It needs advocates, however; managers and senior leaders who will ensure that it stays on the agenda across your organisation in 2021.

Diane Lightfoot is CEO of the Business Disability Forum

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