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Ready, willing and able? Employing disabled people

Getting disabled people into work is firmly on the government's agenda, but can businesses provide suitable workplaces?

Few HR professionals will be unaware of diversity issues, and many will have taken steps to address gender imbalances or ensure ethnic minorities are represented in the workforce.

Disability, however, is one strand of diversity that is rarely discussed. But external factors mean that cannot be the case much longer. With around 19% of the UK population classed as disabled and people staying in work longer than ever before (the prevalence of disability rises with age), ensuring disabled people can access employment is now firmly on the government’s radar.

At a recent event attended by HR magazine, disability minister Justin Tomlinson said that with the UK almost at full employment, companies looking for skilled staff should “open their eyes” to the “amazing opportunity” of hiring disabled people. “Time and again employers are telling me making changes has been worth the investment,” he added.

But are employers able to deliver? Anecdotal evidence suggests not. Alice Weightman, founder of recruitment consultancy Hanson Search says she has never been asked to draw up a shortlist with disabled people represented.

One problem is that companies often don’t feel they know how to discuss it, she suggests. “It’s about businesses knowing how best to talk about it, without feeling they’re going to offend someone or be hurled in front of a tribunal.”

Disabilities aren’t always visible, and many employees (particularly those at the early stages of their careers) keep quiet. “Employers shy away from disability and often individuals don’t want to bring it up,” Weightman says.

“People are often nervous just talking about disability – will they use the right language, will they say the right thing, what they can or cannot ask a disabled person,” Transport for London (TfL) HR director Tricia Riley adds. “This often leads to avoidance of the topic entirely, which is not good for disabled people, their work colleagues or the organisations they work for.”

Businesses stand to benefit from engaging with the issue, Riley says. “It is important firstly because it’s the right thing to do, but it also has benefits to us as an employer and in our role delivering public transport in London. A diversity of employee experience leads to a better understanding of the diverse needs of Londoners.”

Also, Weightman suggests that if steps are taken to employ a disabled person, often the result is someone who is more engaged and likely to stay than many other employees. In cases where an existing employee develops a disability the costs of finding someone else for the role would be high and often outweigh those associated with accommodating a person’s disability, she says.

And businesses could be missing out on talent by excluding disabled people from their recruitment processes. Weightman suggests employers have to be careful writing job briefs, avoiding sweeping statements that might unnecessarily preclude disabled people from applying.

Employers can learn from the approaches taken in other areas of diversity, such as gender and race, says Weightman. Progress here has shown that more effective than setting targets to address imbalances is trying to create a company culture that is inclusive. “It’s about taking it beyond the CSR angle and having it as part of the DNA of the organisation,” she says.

A key part of this is making sure managers are trained in the best ways to deal with disabilities. “It shouldn’t just be the CEO and HR,” Weightman says. “It is often individual line managers who make the biggest difference.”

The recruitment industry also plays a role, adds Weightman. “We are gatekeepers for clients and we have a responsibility to think about how we can create a more diverse workforce and educate clients on how to do that.”

The government is working with businesses to get more disabled people into work through its Disability Confident campaign. It recognises that the attitudes of employers and the ‘fear factor’ are major barriers, and is trying to challenge misconceptions and educate companies about the benefits that can be had from employing disabled people, according to Department for Work and Pensions spokesman Ben Ward.

Tomlinson has said that more and more businesses are backing the scheme: “This isn’t just about doing what’s right, it’s about realising that diverse workplaces are stronger workplaces and that means stronger businesses to drive our economic growth.”

Many employers have taken steps to address disability and factor it into their recruitment processes. One example is EDF Energy, which runs a ‘Steps into Work’ programme at its Barnwood office in Gloucester with National Star College. Steps into Work is an initiative led by Remploy, an organisation that provides employment services for disabled people, and through employer-run programmes gives opportunities for those with learning disabilities to gain experience in the workplace.

“Through this programme we have learned a lot about ourselves that will help us in the future,” continuous improvement and operations support director Peter Prozesky says. “It’s taught us much about what it really means to be a diverse workplace and is helping to change our culture.”

EDF started the programme in 2013 and is planning to extend it to other places, including the Hinkley Point B nuclear power station in Somerset, despite challenges posed by the strict safety and security regulations on such a site.

TfL is another example and Riley explains that it has signed up to the Two Ticks scheme, which ensures that candidates who declare a disability during the recruitment process are guaranteed an interview if they meet the minimum requirements.

“This helps disabled candidates feel confident that they will be treated fairly and reduces the likelihood that managers will make assumptions about candidates’ capabilities before meeting them and seeing what they can do,” Riley says.

There is a Disability Staff Network Group open to all TfL employees and the organisation has a reasonable adjustment process for disabled staff.

TfL also has a Steps into Work programme, delivered with Barnet and Southgate College. Riley says the employment rate for adults with learning disabilities is 6.6%, compared with 40% of Steps into Work students from the 2013 group finding paid employment within 12 months.

“Another key benefit for us is raising awareness of disabilities among our staff and challenging preconceptions,” she says.

The programme includes training to build the confidence of managers to talk about disability with students and other staff. “With knowledge and the right attitude you shouldn’t go too far wrong,” Riley says.