Building back better with disability inclusive policies

The United Nations’ International Day of Persons with Disabilities (3 December) is an opportunity to highlight the many contributions that disabled people make to our economy, our workplaces and society.

This year, it is also a time to reflect on the events of 2020 and how they have impacted on the disability inclusion agenda both within our own organisations and at a wider public policy level.

The UN’s theme for 2020 of ‘Building Back Better’ highlights the opportunity – and the imperative: we have to create a “new normal” as we move into 2021. Not seeking to return our workplaces to how they looked pre-pandemic but striving to achieve something better – a truly disability-inclusive workplace.

Further reading

The effect of COVID-19 on hidden disabilities

Concerning disability unemployment rate needs urgent government action

We need to start talking about the disability wage gap

What does building back better look like?

Building back better does not mean throwing out everything we knew previously about disability inclusion and starting again. The cornerstones remain the same. Focus on gaining senior leadership buy-in and public commitment, grow line/people manager confidence to support their teams and back it all up with practical support in the form of a robust workplace adjustments process.

The pandemic has not changed what matters, but those building blocks now look a little different.

Research carried out by Business Disability Forum among its 300-plus members shows that during the early stages of lockdown, senior leaders were more closely involved in the adjustments process for all staff than they had ever been previously, and I hope this will lead to a better understanding of the value of adjustments as productivity tools for everyone.

I also hope it will remove the fear that many disabled colleagues experience when asking for adjustments and the stigma of having to ‘declare’ your disability in order to get the tools you need to do your job effectively.

Line managers are crucial to the adjustments process. The pandemic has increased the pressure on already time-poor managers and presented the additional challenge of managing teams remotely.

We know, through calls to our advice line, that managers are often afraid of getting it wrong when it comes to talking to their teams about disability and this can result in inertia.

Adapting to home working has highlighted the huge amount of responsibility that often falls to line managers, in terms of their team’s welfare and productivity, and HR professionals’ role in equipping managers with the tools and confidence to have conversations about disability is vitally important.

Encouraging managers to take a step back and to question whether something else is going on before they start a performance management process, for example, is also crucial.

The public policy agenda

How we view disability inclusion within our organisations is also, of course, affected by society and the wider public policy agenda.

I would argue that some of the language used around the pandemic has not helped and the use of the word “vulnerable” has been a particular issue.

Official guidance has seemed to conflate vulnerability to COVID-19 with disability – while overlooking those who may be vulnerable in other ways, e.g. people who may find it difficult to social distance perhaps due to a visual impairment.

At the same time, we have seen public policy and legislation around COVID-19 developed at speed, often with little input from the people and businesses that will be affected by it most and without the proper use of equality impact assessments.

While public safety may have necessitated this speed, the unintended consequences are extremely worrying. We have a seen significant increase in disability hate crime since the start of the pandemic.

Together, these two factors risk turning the clock back on the disability inclusion agenda to a medical model and a time when disability was viewed as a health and safety risk, potentially eroding hard-won rights and gains.

Employers need to recognise the risk of discrimination in treating disabled people as a homogenous group and instead maintain a person-centred, individualised approach as they make difficult decisions about their workforce.

This is a critical time for disability inclusion. As policy makers look to the future, we have an opportunity to create a more informed, effective and inclusive society.

To do this, businesses, employers and disabled people must be involved in the discussion. That is why today we have launched a new thinktank, The Forum, to bring together employers, businesses, disabled people and policy makers to develop evidenced, disability inclusive public policy.

All are invited to take part in the consultation; we are beginning by looking at current inclusive employment initiatives and schemes and the proposed National Disability Strategy and would welcome your views.

As 2020 has shown, to build back better, we must build back inclusively.

Diane Lightfoot, CEO, Business Disability Forum