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Cripwashing and the illusion of inclusion


With the publication of the UK government's National Disability Strategy in July and the Paralympics taking place this month, disability will briefly be in the spotlight this summer. It is a real opportunity for change – but we have been here before.

Prior to the London 2012 Paralympics, Sir Philip Craven, then President of the IPC, noted that "The Paralympic Games have a proven track record for changing society’s perception of people with an impairment..."

Unfortunately, in the UK at least, despite 25 years of disability discrimination legislation, that change in perception does not appear to have extended to the employment of disabled people. 

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In the last quarter of 2020 just 52.3% of the 8.4 million disabled people aged 16-64 were in employment, compared to 81.1% of people who are not disabled (almost half were economically inactive).

As the UK prime minister notes in the National Disability Strategy: "the situation facing our disabled people – one in five of the population – is not only a scandal for those involved but a waste of talent and potential that we can ill-afford".

With discrimination based on gender and ethnicity highlighted extensively in recent years, it is easy to see why the disabled are often referred to as a forgotten minority.

This despite widespread evidence that workforce diversity, including the disabled, provides numerous organisational benefits, not least in terms of innovation and competitiveness.

Disabled diversity and inclusion is relevant to ESG performance and investment. Having strong representation of disabled people within your business sends out a signal to potential hires that you care about diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Then there is the spending power of disabled households, with the purple pound worth some £250 billion to the UK economy. 

If anything, there is a suspicion that many organisations have strayed into 'cripwashing' territory, inadvertently or otherwise.

They benefit from the PR, value statements and kitemarks associated with their support for disability diversity, but fail to do much in the way of taking meaningful or sustainable action.

It's perhaps no surprise, given the flaws in the UK government's flagship Disability Confident scheme set up to support employers in capitalising on the talents disabled people can bring to the workplace.

The scheme is far from exacting in its demands. At present there is no requirement for members to have disabled people on the payroll at either level one or two of its three levels, or mandatory reporting of the proportion of disabled people in the workforce or any disability pay gap.

Of some 20,000 scheme members in July 2020 (less than 1% of total firms) just 344 were Level 3 Leaders with a requirement to employ disabled people and submit to independently verified reporting (most were public sector or non-profit organisations).

Members failing to implement required actions within three years can reapply and remain in the scheme.

Following criticism of the scheme's impact a DWP evaluation revealed that the most common action taken across all employers was "promoting they were Disability Confident".

Less than half had recruited at least one person with a disability, long-term health or mental health condition as a result of the scheme.

The disabled deserve better. The government have committed to strengthening the Disability Confident scheme, but in the meantime all organisations can and should take action proactively to improve their disability inclusion and diversity.

Senior teams should take appropriate advice on building a workplace culture where disabled employees feel welcome and can thrive in their careers.

This includes creating a psychologically safe environment, coaching non-disabled employees to be inclusive, and ensuring the views of disabled employees are heard.

Here conscious inclusion workshops can be helpful in encouraging and enabling people to be more action oriented in terms of inclusive behaviours.

Appointing a disability champion is another useful step. The UK government has done this across a number of departments in support of its National Disability Strategy. For organisations a sufficiently senior disability champion can provide a focal point for galvanising disability friendly actions and initiatives.

In terms of processes, the Disability Confident scheme is a sensible starting point as a framework for disability inclusion policies. The key is going further than mere compliance with the scheme's minimum requirements.

At Level 1, do more than just 'consider' the five Disability Confident commitments and one activity from a possible nine that will "make a difference to disabled people." Implement as many as is reasonably feasible, and do the same for Levels 2 and 3.

By being proactive in this way, organisations can ensure that a Disability Confident certificate of recognition and badge, or warm words about inclusivity in their values statement, actually signify a meaningful contribution to supporting the participation of disabled people in the workforce.


Marc Woods is a gold medal winning Paralympian and executive coach at DE&I, Leadership and Performance consultants Equiida

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