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Challenge people to improve their perceptions of disability

A sailing project paired people with disabilities and those without, to test how awareness can be increased in a positive way

The capabilities of disabled employees are frequently underestimated in the workplace, research seen exclusively by HR magazine has shown.

The Hult International Business School partnered with the Jubilee Sailing Trust to organise a voyage comprising able-bodied employees and those with physical and intellectual disabilities. The researchers were interested to uncover how perceptions of disability changed when the crew were faced with a set of challenges in unfamiliar contexts.

“We found from talking to those with disabilities that they often felt they were patronised in the workplace, and that employers frequently underestimated what they were capable of,” said Grace Brown, research specialist at Ashridge, part of the Hult Business School.

“On the other hand, able-bodied employees wanted to better understand disability but often felt as though they might cause offence through bringing it up.”

The researchers found that people’s perceptions of disability were far more positive after the trip. Through using a buddy system on deck employees gained a greater awareness of each others’ strengths and limitations.

“Being at sea was a new experience for everyone, so the crew were put into a position where they felt equally vulnerable,” said Brown. “Through working together they found that they focused on each other’s strengths rather than weaknesses.”

Dolina O’Neill, senior HR business partner at Barclays, took part in the voyage. “I have anxiety, and before I started the voyage I was really concerned about being away from home and faced with a situation that was totally outside my comfort zone,” she said.

“But as the journey progressed we became more open with each other, and discovered that we were all the same in terms of our confidence levels and fears,” she added. “My buddy told me that she hated it when people are awkward about her disability. It struck me when I got back that we’ve got to do more to integrate people with and without disabilities. We’ve got to get people talking.”

In terms of how other employers can replicate the experience, Brown highlighted the importance of taking people out of their day-to-day routines, and of workshops and training involving teamwork.

“We’d love for people to start having a natural conversation in the office to gain understanding, but it often doesn’t happen that way,” she said. “We’ve seen from other kinds of social movements that if you want a change it involves stepping out of your comfort zone and setting up a space where people feel like they can talk.”

Brown noted the importance of putting the emphasis firmly on everyone, able-bodied and those with disabilities, having personal strengths and weaknesses.

Occupational psychologist and CEO of Genius Within, Nancy Doyle (who appeared on the BBC series Employable Me), agreed that employers must do more to highlight this. “Regardless of if you have a disability or not everyone has strengths and weaknesses. But for people with disabilities what they can’t do is emphasised by society, and felt in a far more poignant way,” she said.

Doyle said that changes in perceptions can only start once employers recruit more people with disabilities. “The fact is that the majority of employers are not offering the conditions or the necessary, simple adjustments needed,” she said. “Stigma is still rife, and a lot are still unwilling to recruit people with disabilities because of a simple lack of knowledge.”

“Change needs to come from the top. There are 13.3 million disabled people in the UK, and if their skills aren’t promoted and used that’s a huge loss to businesses too,” she said.