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Barriers for disabled people in the workplace

The success of the UK’s Paralympians last summer did much to change attitudes and challenge misconceptions around disabled people.

“It was the first time I had heard people talking on a daily basis about the achievements of disabled people and the amazing things they had done – and not just about their disabilities,” says Beth Carruthers, director of employment services at Remploy. “That has prevailed across society as a whole and employers are certainly alive to that.”

Businesses are now more willing to consider people with disabilities, says Mark Brooks, head of communications at Shaw Trust, a not-for-profit organisation that helps find disabled people employment. “The shift has been from ‘can’t’ to wanting to, but needing help,” he says. “For employers, the key thing is to get the best staff and, if they need extra support, they’re able to get that.”

Often employers require help in identifying issues that may unwittingly be deterring those with disabilities from applying for positions in the first place. Ms Carruthers cites the use of telephone interviews or online applications as potential barriers for some disabled people, as well as software that can filter out applicants, without the involvement of a human being, on grounds of not having particular skills or experiences.

“The reality is that, if you’ve become disabled while in work, it’s likely that you’re looking for a different job from the one you have experience in,” she points out. “You might have transferable skills, but does that really come out in an automated CV search? It’s unlikely. Employers need some hints and tips; what they don’t need is a stick.”

Ian Cox, managing director of Performance Telecom, attended a course on homeworking to identify new ways of encouraging a more diverse workforce into call centres, an industry that has traditionally suffered from high levels of staff turnover.

He now operates Contactability, an organisation that aims to place people with disabilities into the industry, either in the centres themselves, working from home or in a “hub environment”, a resource organisations can draw on to meet periods of peak demand. The service is scheduled to launch in September.

“We decided right from the start that it would be a collection of partners who would be able to offer the various paths to employment,” he says. “More people are using different channels to communicate, so whereas someone who is deaf wouldn’t be able to take phone calls, there’s a natural fit with being able to respond to emails or SMS [text] messages.”

Mr Cox concedes that those with learning disabilities often struggle to find work, but the hub concept, where call centres are operated by third parties with greater experience, could enable employers to draw on their skills without having to commit to any extra training or management time.

Some employers do still have concerns around taking on those with disabilities, admits Ms Carruthers, including perceptions that they tend to take more time off sick – anecdotal evidence suggests the reality is the exact opposite – and worries over what measures they will have to take to accommodate people in the office or workplace.

“With a disabled employee, you have to recognise whether there is something about the disability that is getting in the way and, if there is, you have to overcome it,” she says. “The key is not to recruit disabled people for the sake of recruiting them, but to recruit disabled people who can do the job.”

The key is not to recruit disabled people for the sake of recruiting them, but to recruit disabled people who can do the job

Schemes, such as Marks & Spencer’s Marks & Start, and Sainsbury’s You Can, that take on people with disabilities to help them gain valuable experience, which can lead to permanent opportunities, can help overcome this, she says. Both parties are able to see whether they are a good match and those affected by disabilities can offer suggestions to improve the scheme.

With an ageing population and people tending to work for longer, employers are also increasingly likely to need to make simple adjustments for disabled employees within their existing workforce.

“Most of what I talk about is non-visible disabilities, people who are not stereotypically disabled with the wheelchair or the white stick,” says Bela Gor, legal director at Business Disability Forum. “Most don’t call themselves disabled. They think of themselves as having developed a health condition, which they’re managing, and they need assistance from their employer to manage in some cases.”

Tom Walker, head of employment at law firm Manches, says employers should not fear either hiring disabled people or being compelled to make costly alterations. “The law on disability discrimination recognises that sometimes a disabled person needs more favourable treatment in order to reach the famous ‘level playing field’,” he says. “But if the employer carefully considers what can be done, they will be fulfilling their duty. The employer need not carry out measures to the detriment of other employees or that cannot be justified economically.”