In the midst of such economic uncertainty, there is a risk that diversity and inclusion budgets – particularly disability inclusion - may be seen as ‘easy pickings’
It is vital that disability champions, whether in HR or wider teams, are ready to make the business case for disability inclusion and demonstrate the value of investing, both for now and the future.
The legal case
Employers who fail to recognise the strong legal case for continued investment in disability inclusion risk discrimination cases being brought against them in the future.
Disability is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. COVID-19 has not changed that, but it certainly has caused confusion for many employers over what is discrimination and what is simply protecting their staff.
The language used around disability during the pandemic has not helped. From the beginning, disabled people have been collectively and incorrectly described by the government and media as vulnerable to COVID-19, even though many disabled people are no more at risk from the virus than their non-disabled colleagues.
This has put employers in a difficult position, unsure whether colleagues who are regarded as having a disability should be permitted to return to their place of work or whether they should be viewed as a health and safety risk.
At this point, some employers who have not sought advice from colleagues with an in-depth knowledge of disability and diverse conditions, have introduced group risk assessments. While these may be carried out with the best intentions, the risk of them resulting in future discrimination cases is high.
They are based on assumptions about which colleagues have a disability and what would be in their best interests. It is not true, for example, that all disabled people prefer or need to work from home. At the same time, colleagues who may have less visible disabilities (90% of disabilities are non-visible) or are pre-diagnosis may get overlooked completely.
The law requires employers to treat employees as individuals. To do that, employers must take an individual, person-centred, approach to risk and draw on the knowledge of disability specialists.
The moral and commercial case
But investing in disability inclusion is about far more than avoiding a law suit. With one in five people in the UK having a disability, it is about recognising the value of disabled people as employees, customers and within society.
If disability inclusion is not high on your agenda then you are unlikely to be attracting or retaining the best staff. With 83% of disabilities acquired during our working lives this is not just a recruitment issue.
For businesses to survive and thrive during this pandemic, employers will need to rely on the skills and loyalty of their staff. Remember that you may not even know that your best salesperson has a disability.
They may not have told you and they may never wish or feel the need to do so, but if you do not give out the message that you value them and who they are, you may find that they will quickly find a competitor who does.
It is also important to remember that it is not only disabled people who care about disability inclusion. If this pandemic has taught us anything it is that we all need to look after each other. We expect our employers to play their part by encouraging the growth of business cultures where everyone is supported and valued.
Employers will face many difficult decisions over the coming months, but continuing to prioritise disability inclusion should not be one of them. It is not a question of can you afford to still invest. It is rather a case of can you afford not to.
Bela Gor is head of legal at Business Disability Forum