Transforming approaches to disability

Despite advances in gender and racial equality, are enough businesses making their workplaces more inclusive for people with disabilities?


Disability is still a “dirty word”. So says disability advocate Marianne Waite, who believes many people are uncomfortable with even the idea of disability.

Waite, who suffers from several “hidden conditions” and founded her own brand inclusivity consultancy, has just completed a two-year secondment at campaign organisation The Valuable 500 to head up inclusive design at advertising agency Interbrand.

Launched in 2019, The Valuable 500’s aim is to compel 500 chief executives to make three critical pledges on disability inclusion. These are to make at least one firm commitment to action, share it internally and externally, and ensure disability is on the board agenda. 

With 439 chief executives’ signatures, including CEOs at Interbrand, Virgin Media, EY, Unilever and WPP, it is just short of its goal, although 200 live conversations remain in play. 

Japanese technology conglomerate Hitachi is the latest to join, announcing its intent to “build more accessible workplace environments” and provide “employment opportunities where each individual can fully demonstrate their own abilities in keeping with their unique circumstances”. 

The likes of Unilever and Virgin Media have even set targets. By 2025 Unilever aims to have people with disabilities representing 5 per cent of its workforce. As part of Virgin Media’s Meaningful Connections Plan, it has a goal “to create hundreds more employment opportunities for people from under-represented communities”. 

Virgin Media has also developed the #WorkWithMe pledge companies can join to receive practical advice on how to improve workplace policies, practices and culture for disabled people.

Making real change

While just one of The Valuable 500’s chief executives actually has a disability, Waite believes it’s important for the other 438 “to work to break down that echo chamber so we all feel comfortable talking about this”, moving away from “the same people talking to the same people about the same things”. 

“It’s about getting CEOs to invest resources, time and attention to break through this barrier that has meant disabled people were constantly being left behind and off different agendas,” says Waite.

One big barrier she and The Valuable 500 team identified was getting on a chief executive’s radar. Not enough, she believes, are “leaning in” to disability. “For CEOs who have so many different things vying for their attention, we wanted the purpose to be simple and free,” she says.

“But the steps to join demand action, which means it’s been instrumental in organisations actively working to remove barriers. There’s this beautiful sense of accountability people are delivering against.”

Impact of flexible working

The increasing adoption of remote and flexible working has provided some gratification for disability proponents.

As Jane Hatton, director at specialist disability recruiter Evenbreak, elaborates: “Disabled people have been told for decades that most roles can’t be done from home and of course we now know that’s not the case. We have noticed much more interest in the recruitment of disabled people in the last few months through a combination of the Black Lives Matter movement, a growing understanding of societal inequalities and the widespread move to remote working.”

Data from Evenbreak reveals its yearly candidate numbers increased 43 per cent during 2020, with 17 per cent looking for completely remote positions. Yet remote and flexible working is just the tip of the iceberg for breaking down the barriers. 

As Hatton says: “More flexible working has certainly opened up more opportunities for some disabled people, but we need to make sure we don’t assume all disabled people are happy to work from home and that offices and transport don’t need to be accessible.”

Justine Campbell, managing partner for talent at EY, UK and Ireland, agrees remote working has helped improve access to the workplace for some people with disabilities, but adds it has also highlighted invisible barriers for those who identify as neurodiverse.

“Reading from computer screens all day can be harder for those with dyslexia, while Zoom meetings can be challenging when you have a stammer, or a hearing or visual impairments. We have made a commitment to subtitle everything and have screen readers, but we know there’s more we can do,” she acknowledges.

Including disabled colleagues

This “positive attitude to implementing adjustment” is welcomed by Dom Hyams, head of digital strategy at agency Purple Goat, which works with brands to better represent and reach the disabled community. Yet disabled colleagues need to be “brought into the conversation” to guide policy and decision-making, he advises.

“Company leaders shouldn’t be making all the decisions for that particular community; there needs to be the dialogue,” says Hyams, who has osteogenesis imperfecta, which affects his stature and mobility.

For example, EY’s AbilityEY Network helps inform decision-making on issues such as workplace accessibility, policies and support for disabled employees. Virgin Media’s Ultraviolet and Our Indigo Mind networks provide wider company guidance, for instance, on how to present and deliver its latest TV advert featuring a wheelchair user. Unilever, meanwhile, is using insights from a global employee survey to help refine its programmes, alongside input from its global employee resource group for people with disabilities and their allies, Enable@Unilever.

Prioritising the right partnerships

Advertising agency Ogilvy, a Valuable 500 signatory through holding group WPP, is prioritising “finding the right partnerships”, such as with Evenbreak and the Brixton Finishing School, to open up more opportunities for disabled talent. 

“We need partners who can give us their expertise in finding an engaging way of connecting with more emerging talent with a disability,” says Ogilvy UK’s chief people officer Helen Matthews. “The partnership piece is the first milestone we have to achieve for the next couple of months; get that set up, lean in, get them to lean on us and vice versa.”

Recruiting more emerging disabled talent is one thing, but guiding them to the top of an organisation is often overlooked, both Purple Goat’s Hyam and Interbrand’s Waite point out. “Looking beyond just recruitment to progression of disabled talent within an organisation is really important to tackle,” says Waite.

For Virgin Media’s chief operating officer Jeff Dodds, disability as a key component of its diversity and inclusivity efforts is “critical” to the company’s growth. He poses an interesting question: “One in five people in the UK are disabled, so if you’re not employing disabled people, how do you know you’re offering them the right services?”