Is equality compromised by complacency? Breaking down barriers in the workplace


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I spend much of my life talking to HR people about employing disabled people. Two of the barriers you might expect me to encounter from time to time are ignorance, (“Why would I want to employ disabled people?”) and apathy, (“I’ve got far more important things to think about”). Thankfully, I don’t hear them often – partly because I chicken out and concentrate on employers who have already shown some commitment in this area.

These organisations say they understand the case for employing disabled people, and have already put everything in place. They employ lots of disabled people, hold events for them, their buildings are accessible and they have the 'two ticks' disability symbol. These are all laudable achievements of which the companies can justifiably feel proud.

Often the disabled people employed by these companies are clustered in low status, low paid jobs at the bottom of the organisation. Disabled people certainly can be employed to empty boxes or stack shelves. But those with the appropriate skills and experience should also be seen in roles such as management, marketing or finance as well. It is a fallacy to think that all disabled people can do only menial, unskilled tasks.

A large council proudly told me about the disability conference they host every year for their disabled employees. These employees were suitably grateful to the council for putting on such a conference and especially welcomed an activity that required delegates to identify actions that would enable them to contribute more fully to the work of the council. The delegates duly produced a long list of suggestions, ranging from cheap, quick-fix solutions to more major adaptations.

But the lists from the previous four conferences were all identical. The same issues had been raised and ignored year after year. Even the cheap and easy ones. The list of desired actions may have remained the same, but the disabled employees participating in the conferences didn't; many left through disillusionment.

The accessibility of buildings is always a thorny issue. A colleague of mine went to an accessibility conference recently. She called ahead to check that the building was fully accessible, and was assured that it was.

On arrival she did, indeed, find a designated parking space very near the entrance. However, the ramp to the entrance was short and very steep. Pushing her wheeled walking frame up a slope so steep required enormous strength, so much it was nearly beyond her. Returning down the slope, her frame ran away from her, dragging her behind it.

Once inside, my colleague was pleased to find a lift to the conference room on the second floor. The toilets, however, were between the first and second floors. To reach them, my colleague had to be held on a moving wheelchair lift by the caretaker who then waited outside the toilet to then hold her on the wheelchair lift back up to the second floor. Not a dignified experience.

Although the building was reasonably accessible to wheelchair-users, less than 5% of disabled people actually do use wheelchairs. I'm not suggesting we abandon ramps and lifts - they are essential. But maybe we shouldn't think our buildings are fully accessible just because a wheelchair-user can access them.

Recruitment is another interesting issue. Increasingly, organisations are going for the "two ticks" disability symbol. This is good news, except that around 90% of organisations' websites fail to meet the minimum accessibility criteria. These companies have committed to interviewing every disabled applicant who meets their minimum criteria but this means very little when the disabled applicant cannot find the advertisement for the job in the first place.

There is a lot of exceptional work happening to make the workplace more accessible to disabled people, and the beneficiaries of this are the companies who can now access this previously untapped source of talent. Having overcome major barriers such as ignorance, tight budgets or poor motivation - we must now guard against complacency, thinking we have done enough. Tackle the wider picture and we'll continue to move forward.

We're on our way.

Jane Hatton (pictured) runs her business, Evenbreak, lying flat with a lap top suspended above her as her own disability limits her ability to sit, stand or walk. She was a finalist in the Stelios Disabled Entrepreneurs Award 2008. Evenbreak is a not-for-profit job board enabling inclusive employers to attract disabled applicants.


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