Hidden majority not to be ignored

Businesses can best accommodate disability in its varying forms by making room for difference and enabling people, like those featured here, to join the workforce, writes Tim Smedley

Society’s default image of disability, emblazoned on parking spaces and toilet cubicle doors, is of a person in a wheelchair. However, fewer than 8 per cent of disabled people actually use wheelchairs.

The majority of disabilities are non-visual. Most disabilities begin during a person’s working life, rather than from childhood, and many people prefer not to disclose their disability at all. All of which could add up to a scary situation for employers: the Equality Act requires employers to make “reasonable adjustments”, yet if installing wheelchair ramps only covers a small proportion of disabilities, just what is an employer to do?

In truth, there’s plenty that businesses can do and none of it is onerous. If a physically disabled colleague requires office alternations, there is generous funding and advice available from the government’s Access to Work programme. But, for the most part, accommodating disabled colleagues simply concerns the culture of an organisation rather than making physical changes.

Clodagh O’Reilly advises companies on disability, diversity and assessment for workplace consultancy Kenexa. “Accommodating disability is about accommodating difference,” she says. “Any environment which is encouraging, with respect and role-modelling from the top, is going to be more healthy for people to be themselves, including being able to work with their disability as opposed to being sidelined.”

For the most part, accommodating disabled colleagues simply concerns the culture of an organisation rather than making physical changes

Ms O’Reilly speaks from personal as well as professional experience. She has suffered from manic depression in the past and is dyslexic; both recognised disabilities under the Equality Act. When working at PricewaterhouseCoopers she founded the Disabled Employee Network as well as a national dyslexia forum for people in professional services.

Such employee networks, she says, provide “a signal of acceptance that we have people like that here and we celebrate that, and want people like that”. “It’s the same as having lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender [LGBT] networks or ethnic minority networks; any visible networking or events just gives people permission to disclose,” she says. “It makes it less likely for people to avoid admitting they are dyslexic, for example, if there is a dyslexic network at work and training courses available to help them.”

Ms O’Reilly argues that the disability agenda is ten to fifteen years behind that of the LGBT, but she is seeing steady improvements. Louise Taft, an employment specialist at the law firm Prolegal, also believes there is still a long way to go in terms of educating employers. “But there are some businesses which are doing a lot in terms of looking at the business need for flexibility,” she says.

For disabled employees, the ability to talk openly about their condition remains a personal issue. Ms Taft, who also does pro-bono work for an HIV charity, says she is often asked the question whether people should disclose their status to their employer. “My answer always is ‘do you need adjustments?’ Because if you do, then you need to disclose. If you don’t, then it’s your call. The same would apply for any other [non-visible] condition,” she says.

For both the employer and the individual, a lot could be gained by openness and embracing diversity. “Every time you demonstrate commitment to your staff, you are buying loyalty, not just from the person you have made the commitment on behalf of, but as a message to all your staff,” says Ms O’Reilly. “There is a huge advantage from the implied psychological contract that says ‘we’ll support our people through thick and thin’.”

CASE STUDIES

REPETITIVE STRAIN

James Bennet, technology sector director, global technology group, Ernst & Young

About five years ago I was diagnosed with RSI [repetitive strain injury]. I was unable to type for about six months, which in a B2B [business-to-business] consulting organisation is challenging. The firm connected me with Access to Work and provided me with a very ergonomic set-up in terms of screens, mouse and chair. I dictate long emails which are typed out for me, which also helps with my dyslexia.

I got involved with the Disability Working Group because, as a large and complex organisation, processes can have unintended consequences. For example, the first thing I was required to do when I had this condition was to fill out a form online, which of course I couldn’t. It’s about making sure we are thinking about different accessibility needs. Self-assessment really speeds the process up and is much more effective.

I put on my email footer “Apologies for errors/typos as I am dyslexic”. I prefer people to know I am dyslexic, rather than see an email with typos and think you are stupid or sloppy. I am also very involved with our mental health group, which is perhaps the last taboo of disability. I have personally suffered from some severe bouts of depression, so we have put up an internal intranet site to share stories and advice on how to access support, but also to show that senior, high-performing people within our business have had mental health problems too.

The overriding goal is that we are a disability-confident organisation and that we want people with a whole range of disabilities to feel that they can join our organisation, and that we can support whatever needs they have.

BRITTLE BONES 

Allan MacKillop, project manager, and disability and inclusion network lead, CGI (formerly Logica)

I was born with the skeletal condition known as osteogenesis imperfect or, as it’s often referred to, “brittle bones”. The imperfection restricts the ossification (hardening) process during childhood, creating a much weaker skeleton than normal. I’m both of abnormally small stature and wheelchair-bound, and over time the natural deterioration of the bone within my inner ear has also led to partial deafness.

I think most disabled people have probably had one or two negative experiences with regard to a lack of understanding at work. This can often be caused by a lack of formal processes to underpin diversity support. The single thing that has had the most negative impact on my career is the movement from in-house IT provision to a more outsourced service delivery model. As companies strive to control costs this has created a natural reduction of infrastructure services, making it more problematic to support the needs of an impaired employee.

My own adjustments include a car-parking space, lower desk height, desk-mounted printer, audio-adapted telephone, smaller swivel chair and a personal fire evacuation plan. The adjustments were put in place a number of years ago in conjunction with my own line manager, health and safety, and Access to Work.

The positive attitude of my employer really helps. If the level of engagement between employer and employee is strong, everything else should fall into place. Many problems can be worked through without much distress. Having the correct working culture in place should minimise the risk of misunderstandings and confrontation.

STROKE

Simon Birri, senior producer/director, IMG Media

In August 2008 I had an aneurysm which resulted in a stroke. I lost a lot of strength and use in my left side and also have some cognitive problems, particularly around memory and time-keeping.

At the time I was working as a sports TV producer and director. I travelled a lot around the world, directing and producing outside broadcasts. When my aneurysm happened I couldn’t imagine going back.

But my illness protection provider Unum liaised with my employer to come up with schedules that would ease me back into the workplace and looked at what needs I might have, such as a special chair or keyboard. They also monitored my progress to ensure it wasn’t too much, too soon. I changed job roles and am now office-based, helping out with ideas and research into other productions, twice a week for six hours on a Tuesday and a Thursday.

IMG Media has an accessibility committee at work that meets regularly. It makes a huge difference, because otherwise people might not notice a need that may be there. For example, it’s very easy for me to get lost, so just having maps around on every floor saying where different places and rooms are is vital for me and people like me, and it’s something that no one else would really have thought about.

People are overly keen not to offend. My company actually produced Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympics and its late-night programme The Last Leg – a comedy programme making light of Paralympic issues – which helped a lot.