Leading The Way On Disability Diversity

Marc Woods, gold medal winning Paralympian and co-founder of DE&I, Leadership and Performance consultants Equiida, challenges senior leaders to do more on disability diversity.

Limited progress on disability diversity

Following the announcement of the UK government’s National Disability Strategy in July and with Tokyo hosting the Paralympics in August, for a short while attention will be focused on disability. As usual the talk is of raised awareness being a catalyst for change – but we have been here before. In the run up to 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…”.  But while this may be the case in some regards, in the UK at least, despite a quarter of a century of protection from disability discrimination legislation, it is a change in perception that does not appear to have extended to the employment of disabled people.

The statistics show that, in the last quarter of 2020, there were 8.4 million disabled people aged 16-64 in the UK. Of these, a considerable proportion were economically inactive and only 52.3% were in employment, whereas 81.1% of people who were not disabled were in work.  According to the Department of Work and Pensions  (DWP) Family Resources Survey for the year 2019-2020, under half of employed disabled people that were surveyed (48%), agreed or strongly agreed that their employer was flexible and made sufficient reasonable adjustments for disabled people. While just a quarter (24%) agreed or strongly agreed that their promotion opportunities were the same as their colleagues’.

As Boris Johnson, UK Prime Minister, notes in the foreword to the National Disability Strategy “the situation facing our disabled people – 1 in 5 of the population – is not only a scandal for those involved but a waste of talent and potential that we can ill-afford.”  While the issues of gender and ethnicity discrimination have been highlighted extensively in recent years, and rightly so, disability has received scant regard in comparison. No wonder then that the disabled are often referred to as a forgotten minority. This needs to change.

The benefits of disability diversity

The comparative disregard of the disabled’s employment plight makes little sense when you consider 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. It contributes to Environmental Social and Governance performance and investment based on ESG metrics. Having strong representation of disabled people within your business sends out a signal to potential hires that you care about diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Then there is the spending power of disabled people and the members of their household, estimated to be worth some $13 trillion globally and £250bn to the UK economy.

The lack of progress in increasing the participation of disabled people in work is possibly not that surprising, though, given the flaws evident in the UK Government’s flagship Disability Confident scheme. The scheme, which was set up to support employers in capitalising on the talents disabled people can bring to the workplace, has had a troubled history, relaunched early on, with organisations slow to sign up initially and even slower to progress through the three levels of the scheme to become disability confident Leaders.

Part of the problem is the current scheme’s poverty of ambition and the little it asks of the leaders of organisations that are members. 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.

In turn the majority of its members show little inclination to move beyond the minimum required. As of July 2020, there were 20,000 scheme members (less than 1% of the total of UK firms), but just 344 had progressed to level 3 Leaders status, requiring them to employ disabled people and submit to independently verified reporting (most that had were public sector or non-profit organisations).  If a member fails to implement required actions within three years then they can reapply and remain in the scheme. The DWP evaluated the scheme following criticism of its impact. Less than half of all employer members responding to the DWP’s survey had recruited at least one person with a disability, long-term health or mental health condition as a result of the scheme.

Leaders must do more than the minimum

The disabled deserve better. 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.

The government has committed to strengthening the Disability Confident scheme, but in the meantime senior leaders, if they haven’t already, should take action proactively to improve their organisation’s inclusion of disabled people.

A good place to start is by taking appropriate advice on building a workplace culture where disabled employees feel welcome and can thrive in their careers. This will include 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, both at a senior level and throughout the organisation, to be more action oriented in terms of inclusive behaviours.

Another useful step is to follow the government’s lead and appoint a disability champion. A sufficiently senior disability champion can provide a focal point for galvanising disability friendly actions and initiatives. In terms of processes, the Disability Confident scheme is a good framework for disability inclusion policies. The key is going further than just complying with the minimum requirements. So for level one, an organisation’s leadership should be doing more than just ‘considering’ the 5 Disability Confident commitments and undertaking more than one activity from a possible nine that will “make a difference to disabled people.” Instead they should try to implement as many measures as is reasonably feasible, and do the same for levels two and three.

By being proactive in this way, organisations can make a meaningful contribution to supporting the participation of disabled people in the workforce.  And make sure that disability diversity in work is on the agenda for more than a few months every four years. 

Marc Woods is a gold medal winning Paralympian and co-founder and executive coach at DE&I, Leadership and Performance consultants Equiida.

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