Why businesses need to make disability inclusion a higher priority

Organisations must do far more than just pay lip service to ensuring disabled people can thrive in their careers, argues Marc Woods

Starting today, around 4,400 athletes, all with some degree of disability, will compete at the Tokyo Paralympics. For two weeks, attention will be focused on disability, briefly fulfilling the organiser's aim of raising "awareness of unity in diversity among citizens of the world." Yet, while the performance excellence of the disabled at the Paralympics is celebrated, it seems we are less willing to extend an invitation for disabled people to contribute to society through employment.

In the UK, notwithstanding 25 years of protection from discrimination on the grounds of disability, limited progress has been made on disability diversity in the workforce. The statistics paint a disappointing picture. At the end of 2020, of the 8.4 million disabled people aged 16-64 in the UK just over half (52 per cent) were employed, compared with 81 per cent of people who were not disabled that were in work. Furthermore, a significant proportion of the disabled were economically inactive.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Family Resources Survey for the year 2019-20, revealed that less than half of the employed disabled people that were surveyed (48 per cent), agreed or strongly agreed that their employer was flexible and made sufficient reasonable adjustments for disabled people. Only a quarter (24 per cent) agreed or strongly agreed that their promotion opportunities were the same as that of their colleagues. 

And what of the UK government's flagship Disability Confident scheme, aimed at supporting employers in capitalising on the talents disabled people can bring to the workplace? For a start, less than 1 per cent of the employers in the UK were signed up, and a DWP member survey of the scheme's impact showed that under half of the responding organisations had recruited at least one person with a disability, long-term health or mental health condition as a result of the scheme.

The disabled deserve better.

Now though, with the publication of the UK government's new National Disability Strategy in July 2020, there is a chance that disability diversity will finally move up organisations’ agendas. In the strategy's foreword, prime minister Boris Johnson notes that "the situation facing our disabled people – one in five of the population – is not only a scandal for those involved but a waste of talent and potential that we can ill afford”.

This much should already be evident to managers and directors, considering widespread evidence that diversity in the workforce, including the lived experience that disabled people bring, provides numerous organisational benefits, not least in terms of innovation and competitiveness. Workforce diversity contributes to environmental social and governance (ESG) performance and investment based on ESG metrics. Strong representation of disabled people within your business sends a signal to potential hires that you care about diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Not forgetting the purchasing power of disabled people and the members of their household, worth some $13tn globally and £250bn to the UK economy.

The same reasons for not doing more to employ disabled people tend to crop up in conversations with organisations: the cost outweighs the benefits; infrastructure issues; misunderstandings about what disability means to a person's ability to do the job, and how line managers and co-workers will respond. But with the right approach, all of these barriers can be overcome.

A good place to start is for senior decision makers to take appropriate advice on building a workplace culture where disabled employees feel welcome, engaged, valued and can thrive in their careers. This includes how to create a psychologically and physically safe environment, coaching non-disabled employees to be inclusive, and ensuring the views of disabled employees are heard. Conscious inclusion workshops can be helpful in encouraging and enabling people to be more action oriented in terms of inclusive behaviours.

Most of all, perhaps, managers need support in developing a framework for disability inclusion policies. This is where the Disability Confident scheme should provide invaluable assistance. However, in its current form the scheme is underwhelming in its ambition, asking relatively little of member organisations. At present there is no requirement for members to have disabled people on the payroll at either level one or two of its three levels, or for mandatory reporting of the proportion of disabled people in the workforce or reporting of any disability pay gap. 

For their part, many members seem to prefer the membership certificate to meaningful action. As of July 2020, there were 20,000 scheme members but just 344 had progressed to level 3 – Disability Confident Leader status – requiring them to employ disabled people and submit to independently verified reporting (most that had were public sector or non-profit organisations).

The government has committed to strengthening the Disability Confident scheme. But managers should not wait for a lengthy consultation process to play out. Instead, they should proactively take steps to ensure that their organisation is a welcoming and fair place to work, and improve the inclusion of disabled people.

Join the scheme, but go further than minimum compliance with the Disability Confident guidelines. At level one, for example, do more than just 'consider' the five Disability Confident commitments. Undertake more than one activity from a possible nine that will "make a difference to disabled people”. Try to implement as many measures as is reasonably feasible, doing the same for levels two and three.

Appointing a disability champion is a very useful measure. Providing they are sufficiently senior, a disability champion creates a focal point for galvanising disability-friendly actions and initiatives.

Before the London 2012 Paralympics, Sir Philip Craven, then president of the IPC, proudly noted that "the Paralympic Games have a proven track record for changing society’s perception of people with an impairment".  It’s about time the government and organisations made sure that this change of perception extended to supporting the participation of disabled people in the workforce.

Marc Woods is a gold medal-winning Paralympic swimmer, and co-founder and executive coach at Equiida