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D&I Clinic: Is it discriminatory to reserve roles for disabled applicants?

The D&I Clinic is a space for HR professionals to anonymously air their challenging D&I questions. Our guest expert Caroline Collier discusses positive discrimination in the recruitment of disabled people.

Q. Is it discriminatory to reserve roles for disabled applicants?

A. The simple answer is no, but many recruiters are unaware of this.

In fact, the Equality Act allows recruiters to treat a disabled person more favourably than a non-disabled person, because being non-disabled is not a protected characteristic. That applies to the whole recruitment process, for any type of role.

Read more: Is positive action always a positive thing?

Recognising that many employers were unclear on this, we recently worked with Acas and fellow deaf and disabled people’s organisation (DDPO) Inclusion London, to change the wording in Acas’ recruitment guidance.

The law allows employers to advertise specifically for, and recruit, disabled people in any role, or to treat them more favourably in the recruitment process, such as guaranteeing interviews to all disabled candidates that meet the minimum criteria.

There is also no need to demonstrate an occupational requirement for the candidate to be disabled.

The only exception to this is where the recruiter is targeting disabled people with a particular type of lived experience of disability.

For instance, if you wanted to reserve a role for someone with a visual impairment, that would need to be because there was a genuine occupational requirement, such as providing peer support to other people with a visual impairment.

Otherwise, so long as a role is open to all disabled people, you can reserve literally any role for disabled applicants only.

Some readers might be wondering whether reserving roles in this way is unfair to people who are not disabled.

However, rates of employment are nearly 30% lower for disabled people and one of the key reasons for this is the obstacles they can face in the recruitment process.

By reserving roles, you are levelling the playing field, not lifting some people above others.

If you make it clear in your recruitment literature the role is reserved (I find incorporating ‘peer’ into the job title an effective way to do this), and outline options for remote work and flexible hours, you will be unlocking access to a whole new talent pool who might not apply to your usual roles.

Sometimes, employers can be hesitant to recruit in this way due to concern that they might get it wrong.

It is easy to avoid this by working with one of the many organisations that advise on accessibility and inclusion if you feel you need support or working with a specialist recruitment agency.

Reserving roles for disabled people can be a real boon.

The majority of our staff at Inclusion Barnet identify as disabled and it brings many benefits beyond the usual skills and experience required for the roles.

Having lived experience of disability often leads to high levels of empathy, flexibility, efficiency, and drive; important qualities for any vacancy you might be looking to fill.

People’s needs will differ, but asking each candidate what their access needs are, and aiming to meet these as far as is reasonably possible, can be enough.

Caroline Collier is CEO of Inclusion Barnet and director of Inclusion Unlimited

This article first appeared in the July/August 2023 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.