The difference in the employment rates of disabled and non-disabled people has only decreased by 5% over the last decade, and hardly at all since 2020. We look at how OSH professionals can help drive inclusivity.
As the UN prepares to mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities on 3 December, how far has the UK come in achieving a more inclusive, accessible and sustainable world?
Last year, UN secretary-general António Guterres focused on how COVID-19 had exposed barriers faced by the one billion people with disabilities worldwide and called for action. The UK government’s promise to get a million more disabled people into employment (DWP, 2022) was achieved five years ahead of schedule, but the disability employment gap – the difference in the employment rate between disabled and non-disabled people – has yet to significantly fall. In the first quarter of 2022, it was 28.2% – a drop of 0.5% since the first quarter of 2020, and a decrease of 5.6% since the same quarter in 2014 (DWP, 2022).
Whether a result of prejudice, wider constraints or a lack of knowledge and training around best practice, it is clear not all employers are willing, or able, to step up. ‘We get calls all the time from employees with upper limb and neurological conditions who cannot type, or whose speech is affected, who haven’t been given appropriate technology to overcome these issues, or from people with physical conditions being asked to “take the stairs” as part of a health initiative, and from employers saying their building isn’t wheelchair accessible and are unsure what to do,’ says Angela Matthews (pictured), head of policy and research at the Business Disability Forum.
It is not just about change at an organisational level, adds Angela: ‘While it’s vital employers fully embrace inclusivity, we really need a wider, more strategic response from government. For example, inaccessible transport connections greatly reduce the number of working opportunities open to disabled people and, in turn, the disabled talent pool that employers can draw from.’
Mind the gap
Disability charity Scope calls this the social model of disability. The model says that ‘people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference. Barriers can be physical, like buildings not having accessible toilets. Or they can be caused by people’s attitudes to difference, like assuming disabled people can’t do certain things’ (Scope, 2022).
While not every organisation employs this model, they are legally required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for people with disabilities (Government Equalities Office and Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2013) and remove barriers preventing them from full participation – which the social model helped bring into law.
Not everyone is comfortable disclosing a disability. Last year, the TUC found that one in eight disabled workers didn’t tell their employer about their disability. Worryingly, one in four of these felt they would be treated unfairly if they did (TUC, 2021).
It’s a situation Matt Clayton TechIOSH (pictured), compliance and permit office manager at Wellcome Sanger Institute, is familiar with. ‘I’d been overlooked for promotion in a previous role, when I’d been off sick with diabetes, so for seven years I didn’t disclose it. In the high-stress environments I was working in, I did not want it to affect the way I was perceived and for it to be seen as a weakness.’ Others may not want to reveal personal information for cultural or religious reasons. Angela explains: ‘It’s a common misunderstanding among employers and disabled people that an employee has to reveal their disability before an employer’s legal duty to make reasonable adjustments engages. In fact, employers are required by law to make these when they could reasonably be expected to know an employee has, or may have, a disability and it is something that line managers and OSH professionals need to be aware of.’
Case study: Creating an inclusive workforce
Leading the way in creating an inclusive workforce that reflects the diversity of the nation – and benefiting from the varied perspectives, approaches to problem-solving and innovative thinking that this brings – is GCHQ, the UK’s intelligence, cyber and security agency.
One of the biggest employers of neurodiverse people in the country, the organisation values their unique skill-set, such as having an aptitude for pattern recognition. Joanna Cavan, director of strategy, policy and engagement, explains: ‘We’ve adapted our recruitment processes so they are more accessible to neurodiverse candidates, allowing notes to be brought into interviews, extra time to answer and enabling questions to be parked and returned to. By levelling the playing field, we don’t miss talented people.
‘We also have adjustments available in our workplace to enable neurodiverse colleagues to thrive, such as mind-mapping software, noise-cancelling headphones and voice-to-text/text-to-voice software.’
For GCHQ, true inclusion and diversity are nothing short of critical. ‘We simply couldn’t achieve the brilliant things we do if everyone here thought in the same way,’ Joanna says.
Creating the right environment
‘Nobody should feel obliged to reveal their disability at work, but the reality is that employers aren’t well versed in common conditions like diabetes, let alone rarer ones. There’s a huge need for education,’ says Matt.
This lack of awareness could prevent suitable additional safety controls to support disabled workers being identified, or mean measures are not implemented or managed effectively. ‘Practice on PEEPs [Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans] remains poor,’ says Angela. ‘Many employers don’t know who has a PEEP or even if everyone who needs one has one. Worse still, I repeatedly see cases where judgements are made about different conditions, where employers fail to consider that someone with autism or a learning disability might need as much help exiting the building in an emergency as a wheelchair user.’
Creating positive, open and safe environments, where people feel able to talk about their disability if they choose to, is vital. ‘Trust is key to honest conversations,’ says Matt. ‘You need to know that an organisation genuinely cares about the changes you need to perform to the best of your ability, wants to make them and will do so in a reasonable timeframe.’
Ensuring systems are effective, transparent, visible and accountable further underlines this commitment. ‘Robust processes to regularly review reasonable adjustments and maintain any equipment these require, combined with line manager and OSH knowledge of procedures and available support, consistently applied across an organisation, transform the workplace experience for disabled people,’ confirms Angela. It’s important employers instigate dialogue too, as some employees feel more comfortable sharing information when asked. Open questions, such as ‘How can we help?’, give the respondent control over the topics covered.
Matt adds: ‘My current company embodies putting people first, so I can keep them in the loop with changes in my condition – for example, the recent heatwave was a nightmare, as insulin reacts quicker when your veins are more open – without feeling judged for not always having it under control.’
Organisations often fall at the first hurdle in attracting disabled talent. ‘Every employer should check their application systems are succinct, clear and compatible with a wide range of assistive technologies [ATs]. Many people using ATs will use them in their job too and, if the application system isn’t compatible with how they communicate and work, they will likely conclude that your organisation isn’t right for them,’ says Angela.
An organisation’s recruitment materials and online presence should also visibly demonstrate that it promotes disability inclusion, so potential candidates feel confident the environment will value and support them.
‘Being an accredited member of the Disability Confident scheme can send the right message to prospective staff, but is only meaningful if the process of attaining it is used to transform the experience of disabled employees,’ warns Angela. ‘It can’t just be a marketing exercise. Diversity and inclusion, HR and OSH teams need to work together and insist that it is led by senior members of staff across the business to drive real change.’
Establishing and promoting a peer- to-peer support network ensures people can see ‘someone like me’ in the team. A reverse mentoring scheme, where disabled employees ensure senior leadership hears first hand how well the organisation is performing on inclusivity, also sends a strong message of commitment, while vocal support at all levels of a zero- tolerance approach to harassment, bullying and discrimination offers the reassurance of a safe working environment for all.
The UK government’s Access to Work scheme provides grants of up to £65,180 a year for support beyond reasonable adjustments for people who have a disability or long-term physical or mental health condition. ‘It’s a brilliant, world-leading scheme, which can be the difference between people being in work and leaving,’ says Angela. However, low awareness of the scheme among employers and employees is a huge issue.
As the onus is on the employee to apply for a grant, it is important OSH, HR, Diversity and Inclusion and line managers promote the scheme and offer support with forms and assessments.
‘The grant can include provision of ATs, but this will only benefit employees if a company’s IT systems are compatible,’ says Angela. ‘Employers must also provide appropriate working environments for AT users. For example, speech-to-text and text-to-speech software can struggle in noisy, open-plan offices.’
The GB Health and Safety Executive’s new guidance for workers who are disabled or with long-term health conditions also provides more support. It has information on starting conversations with workers and making suitable adjustments or modifications, as well as links to resources from partner organisations, including IOSH’s occupational health toolkit.
Creating an environment where everyone is supported to reach their full potential is essential. Angela says: ‘Every employee should be valued in their own right. It’s about creating a culture that welcomes and values all differences, sees diversity as an asset and where people feel comfortable being themselves. That’s when organisations are truly inclusive.’
Campaigns such as IOSH’s Catch the Wave can help facilitate social change and demonstrate to customers and the wider world that organisations put people first. OSH teams have a key role in breaking down barriers to ensure all employees can bring their diversity of experience and wealth of talent to the table.
DWP. (2022) Government hits goal to see a million more disabled people in work. (accessed 5 September 2022).
Government Equalities Office & Equality and Human Rights Commission. (2013) Equality Act 2010: guidance. (accessed 5 September 2022).
ONS. (2022) A08: Labour market status of disabled people. (accessed 5 September 2022).
Scope. (2018) Disability employment gap has barely changed in a decade. (accessed 5 September 2022).
Scope. (2022) Social model of disability. (accessed 5 September 2022).
TUC. (2021) Disabled workers’ experiences during the pandemic. (accessed 5 September 2022).