Disability inclusion starts with HR

Today marks International Day of Persons with Disabilities, a crucial yearly reminder to celebrate the one billion people around the world with a disability and recognise their talents and contributions

It’s a day that challenges the pervasive narrative that disabled people aren’t good enough or are in some way ‘less’. But the fight for disability inclusion can’t succeed in 24 hours – it’s a struggle that has to take place all year.

And HR must help lead the charge in this fight. The UK has a disability employment gap of almost 30%; more than 80% of non-disabled people are employed compared to 53.2% of disabled people. This isn’t because disabled people aren’t capable of the work, it’s because they face innumerable barriers to employment due to their difference. The workplace is currently structured to shut out disabled talent.

We need to break these visible and invisible barriers – and HR teams are uniquely placed to do it.

The first step to breaking down the barriers isn’t a physical action, it’s a mindset shift. According to research by Scope around one in three people believe disabled people are less productive than non-disabled people. I actually think this proportion is even higher, and that a lot more people subconsciously hold this view because that’s the message we constantly hear in society.

Disability is framed as a weakness rather than a difference and this is reinforced by the language we use, the way disabled people are depicted and our fear of discussing disability. This view has created an internal bias, meaning that society thinks disabled people are less capable or skilled in a work environment and that they can be a drain on resources.

Taking steps to tackle disability discrimination won’t work unless we change this core belief and start recognising disabled employees as an asset. Disabled people are incredibly resourceful, adaptable, resilient, creative and determined – we’ve honed these skills navigating the countless obstacles that face us in everyday life. These are qualities hiring managers are desperate to attract yet they fail to notice them in a disabled candidate, focusing on their perceived inability rather than their skills.

What’s needed for authentic inclusivity is a reform of the recruitment process and evolution of company structures. It means dismantling the barriers disabled people face from the minute a job advert is posted to how promotions are handled. The power to do this is firmly in HR’s hands.

HR teams need to take a close look at every element of the hiring process. Is your website accessible so everyone can view your job adverts? And do those adverts explicitly say you welcome disabled applicants? The impact of these few words is massive – encouraging disabled jobseekers who may be put off by past experience of discrimination. Are your managers trained in holding interviews that allow disabled and neurodiverse candidates to present themselves best? Do you ask candidates themselves what they’ll need to carry out the job, or do you automatically assume their answer? These are small changes all businesses should be making to ensure they’re not missing out on disabled talent.

Inclusion shouldn't stop when you sign a contract either. If your company structures aren’t also inclusive then any disabled people you hire won’t be able to stay. One key way companies can create an inclusive environment is through implementing flexible working. Allowing staff to work from home on certain days or on shifted hours enables them to complete their work in the way that best suits them and doesn’t create additional challenges.

Technology will also help your business become disability inclusive. Screen-reading software, captioning videos and using alt text for visuals are all ways you can make the information you share and create accessible, both for internal and external audiences. Think of the money spent on assistive technology not as an expense but an investment that wins you more disabled talent. However, it’s always important to check with your disabled employees that the technology you’ve identified will be useful, rather than assuming what they may need.

Finally, there’s work HR teams can do in terms of company culture. Are your company socials inclusive to disabled employees, and are you using the right language at work (formally or informally) to discuss disability? Have you run disability education sessions with your teams? It’s not enough for your recruitment processes or work hours to be inclusive and accessible: you need to embed inclusion at every level of the organisation.

International Day of Persons with Disabilities is a fantastic opportunity to celebrate the diversity and complexity of disabled people but it needs to go further. I’d like to see it become a collective annual review on disability inclusion; the chance to measure our progress and set targets for the next year. Will you join me?

Liz Johnson is a Paralympian and co-founder of The Ability People