Why business needs to get serious about disability inclusion

Although strides towards greater inclusion have been made for other protected groups, there is still much to be done when it comes to the recruitment, management and support of people with disabilities

In the UK alone, 14.6 million people are disabled, including 21% of working-age adults, according to the figures from the government. Yet when it comes to disability inclusion in the workplace, there is still a long way to go, according to a Raconteur panel of experts speaking in honour of Disability Pride month

“We are the largest minority group,” says Mark Esho, founder of social enterprise The Circle Foundation. “But, to a certain extent, we’ve got the least power.”

Part of this, he says, is down to the attitude of many leaders when it comes to bringing disabled people into their organisations. A study conducted by recruitment company PageGroup in December 2021 found that almost a quarter (22%) of business leaders say they are unlikely to hire candidates with known disabilities

It should come as little surprise, then, that barely half of disabled people are in work.

Barriers to disability recruitment

PageGroup’s research uncovered a number of reasons why businesses are failing to hire disabled people. These include not having the right support in place, the costs of modifying tech and equipment, and the fear of litigation if employment is unsuccessful. 

“Businesses are scared of doing the wrong thing,” says Ollie Thorn, senior manager of DE&I client solutions at Michael Page, a branch of PageGroup. “Disability affects people in so many different ways and, because of that, the reasonable adjustments people need can be so varied. That creates an element of fear.”

The upshot of this, he explains, is that the issue of disability inclusion slips down hiring managers’ priorities. “As soon as there’s something on someone’s to-do list that they’re a little bit scared of doing, inevitably that gets ratcheted down.” 

Another major barrier comes as a result of the way many employers think of equity, diversity and inclusion, says Esho. “A lot of employers pay lip service to inclusion. They have all these EDI policies, but they only cover certain groups, and often not disabled people. They think they’re filling their quota by hiring all the other minorities.” 

But giving into fear and uncertainty, or taking a lazy box-checking approach to diversity, will harm businesses in the long run, particularly as the great resignation continues.

“Businesses are really struggling to hire people at the moment,” says Thorn. “Yet there are so many people with disabilities looking for work. The businesses that can be innovative and move in this space have a serious competitive advantage, because they are going to be able to tap into this incredible talent pool.”

How to improve hiring processes

Taking the first step to improve recruitment processes does not need to be costly. Working to improve the resources a business already has is a good start. PageGroup, for example, has just relaunched its UK website to make it more accessible to those with disabilities.

“The majority of businesses don’t have accessible tools within the recruitment process, which stops people from even finding the job ads,” says Thorn.

The Circle Foundation has worked to make its interviewing process by making it more flexible and individualised. This can mean something as simple as pausing the formal interview to have a cup of tea and a chat when a candidate arrives looking visibly nervous, giving them time to acclimatise. The organisation has also allowed remote working since 2012. 

“The reason we introduced remote working is simply because we wanted to get more disabled people into our company,” says Esho. “If there’s a will, there’s a way.” 

This will is, perhaps, the most important first step on the road to disability inclusion, says Burcu Borysik, head of policy and campaigns at Crohn’s & Colitis UK. “If there is a commitment made in the recruitment process that anyone with a disability, visible or invisible, will be supported through their employment, that recognition has been shown to have a positive impact on people’s willingness to apply for those roles.” 

Why disability is not a ‘them’ versus ‘us’ scenario

Recruitment is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to disability inclusion, however, and it is just as important to tear down barriers and stigma in the workplace. Beyond bringing disabled talent into an organisation, leaders and managers must consider how to support workers who may acquire a disability. 

“Some 80% of disability is acquired between the ages of 18 and 64, which is workforce age,” explains Caroline Casey, founder of global business collective The Valuable 500. “So what do you do? Do you keep that employee? Invest in that employee? Support that employee?” 

Thorn points out that disability is the only minority group that “anyone can be a part of tomorrow”. He speaks from experience having sustained an injury that led to a physical disability during his career in the military.

Borysik also acquired her disability while working. When she first experienced the sudden onset of her condition, her work life didn’t change to accommodate the shifts in her personal life. “I had to go to the loo every 15 minutes and I lost about two stone. At the time I was being asked to travel between cities and I simply couldn’t do that unless I went against medical advice.” 

She was, she explains, ambitious and didn’t want to miss out on important meetings or be passed over for promotion. A simple adjustment, such as allowing her to join meetings virtually, would have cost the business nothing and could well have brought benefits for people beyond Borysik herself. 

“We’re all going to have a disability. I’m going to acquire more as I get older,” says Casey, who has ocular albinism. “This isn’t about ‘them’ and ‘they’, this is about future-proofing our world for us through an inclusive business system.”

The benefits of disability inclusion

Creating a culture of diversity and inclusion is more than simply a “good” thing to do, from an ethical standpoint, “it makes good business sense,” says Borysik. Crohn’s & Colitis UK has recently launched Are You IN?, a campaign to encourage companies to sign pledges showing their commitment to making the workplace more inclusive. 

“Working with organisations on the campaign, we hear that making the accommodations and taking the steps to create a culture of inclusion can improve the productivity of the workforce, reduce staff turnover, drive better employee wellbeing and boost innovation,” says Borysik. 

Working with people who have experience of disabilities can open up a range of opportunities for businesses. As Casey points out, the disability community represents 54% of the world’s population and is worth an estimated £13tn.

Casey says: “You get the talent into your business because that talent, with lived experience of disability, brings insight and innovation and knows how to speak to that market.”

Better for some, better for all

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we all need accommodations to some degree. Embracing widespread working from home benefited thousands of people, not least many of the disabled community. 

Casey points to the example of the remote control, designed to help blind people watch television and now used by TV owners everywhere. Accessibility ramps may have been created with wheelchairs in mind, but they are a lifeline for parents with prams and people with a range of mobility issues. 

“One of my favourite phrases is ‘small change is necessary for some and beneficial for all’,” says Thorn. Leaders who understand this have a better chance of attracting the best talent, accessing new markets and, perhaps, even improving the business world for future workers.