By 2022, organisations that do not employ people with disabilities will fall behind their competitors. That’s the stark prediction from global research company Gartner. Yet, many organisations struggle to attract and retain workers with disabilities or long-term health conditions. So what’s going wrong?
“There are still a lot of prejudices and myths that we need to overcome. Businesses and their leaders often worry that there will be additional financial and legal issues”, said Steve Shutts, Chairman of Astriid, a charity that helps people with long-term health conditions find employment. “There needs to be better awareness about what is involved – especially when it comes to making reasonable adjustments”.
All UK employers are legally required to support disabled job applicants and employees by making reasonable adjustments. This means ensuring disabled people can overcome any substantial disadvantages they may have in doing their jobs and progressing in work, and that’s when concerns about costs can set in.
Many of these adjustments, however, are relatively simple and inexpensive. For example, agreeing to flexible or reduced hours to suit someone with a long-term illness is considered a reasonable adjustment. As is the provision of additional training or assistive technologies, which could involve installing a screen reader for someone that is visually impaired or optical character recognition software for a colleague with a neurodiversity condition.
“Discussions about reasonable adjustments and accessibility in the workplace are often focused on physical factors, such as providing wheelchair ramps”, said Pippa Stacey who suffers from ME and blogs on chronic illness issues. “This needs to evolve to include people with long-term health conditions and the specific challenges that they face”.
Schemes to support reasonable adjustments
There are various schemes that can help employers make workplaces more accessible for everyone. For example, organisations and individuals can apply for a grant under the Access to Work programme to fund special equipment, travel, and communication support. There’s also the Disability Confident scheme, which aims to give employers the skills and tools they need to break down barriers and make the most of the talents of disabled people. There’s a lot of hidden talent to unlock: around half of all working-age disabled people are unemployed.
Although attitudes and workplaces are starting to change, only 20,000 organisations have signed up to Disability Confident since it was launched by the UK government in 2016. With an ambition to get another one million disabled people into work by 2027, Disability Confident needs more employers to join its ranks.
“A lot of organisations have been in survival mode due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Recruiting and retaining a wider talent pool could make a massive difference to their future success”, commented Steve. “The pandemic has resulted in new ways of working, which are much more inclusive. Organisations need to use this as an opportunity to unlock a hidden talent pool”.
Retaining employees with disabilities
Recruiting people with disabilities and long-term illnesses is just the beginning. Employers also need to make a concerted effort to retain their skills. Pippa believes employers need to place a bigger emphasis on communication. “Regular check-ins with line managers are really valuable and provide an opportunity to raise any issues and discuss job progression”, she explained. “People with disabilities and long-term health conditions don’t want to feel they are just a tick in the diversity box; they want to advance their skills and careers like everyone else”.
People often develop a disability or health condition while already in employment. Organisations that have already introduced flexible working policies and embraced workplace equality schemes, such as Disability Confident, will be better placed to support existing employees and retain their experience.
“The world is in turmoil and we need all hands on deck to address the current challenges”, said Nasser Siabi, CEO of Microlink, a specialist supplier of assistive technologies. “Employers need to stop looking at disability as a barrier; it’s our imagination that is causing the barrier”.
This article was written by Helen Guyatt, a journalist, and storyteller. She has been writing about business and IT trends for more than 20 years for a range of publications and corporate clients. Helen often trades her keyboard for a baking bowl and enjoys making (and eating) copious amounts of cake. She is passionate about highlighting social and sustainability issues to help make the world a better place to live in.