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Supporting employees with disabilities

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Almost four million people employed in the UK have a disability. That equates to nearly 12% of the workforce, according to ONS data. Yet, disabilities are still misunderstood and not properly supported in the workplace.

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Research by the Equality Human Rights Commission suggests that the prospects of disabled people have actually worsened over the past three years. The report, called Is Britain Fairer? found there are increasingly large gaps between disabled and non-disabled people. ‘The persistent disadvantages faced by certain groups raise significant concerns that some people are being forgotten or left behind,’ says the report. Disabled people earn significantly less than the non-disabled, and are more likely to be doing lower level jobs. The latest pay gap figures put the difference at 13.1%.

So, how can employers better support their disabled staff to ensure a more diverse and inclusive workforce?

Change the culture

Matt Boyd founded recruitment company Exceptional Individuals (EI), to help those with neurodiversity, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism, into employment. The company has also worked with the likes of Allianz, Aldi and Ford on how to support their disabled employees. All of EI’s employees also have disabilities. Boyd says the first thing to tackle is changing the understanding of disabilities to recognise positives and not just negatives – particularly around neurodiversity, which is often misunderstood and not always visible. ‘When people talk about dyslexia, they just associate it with someone who wasn’t very good at spelling at school. We try and break those understandings down and try and build them back up to what it actually is and how it affects people,’ he says. For example, Boyd has dyslexia and struggles with spelling but is a great at remembering and processing numbers.

Direct Line Group held a week of events and talks last year to educate employees on disabilities and invisible illnesses, called Invisible Fight Week, and due to its success a second one was scheduled for October this year. Mark Evans, marketing director at Direct Line, says the week is all about ‘normalising the conversation’ by having speakers talk about their experiences of illness. ‘There’s still a lot of stigma. So I think one of the biggest benefits was that week was a bit of a slam dunk of raising awareness and profile and understanding, and evoking curiosity,’ says Evans. During the week, six employees revealed they were dyslexic. However, Evans recognises this kind of event is much easier for big companies who can devote time to awareness weeks like these. ‘It’s harder when you don’t have a massive HR team who are banging the drum. I’m sure hidden beneath the FTSE and beneath the 250 that there’s a whole manner of sins going on,’ says Evans. But small businesses can also make changes where they can to support their staff and become a more inclusive environment.

Independent pet shop in Brighton, The Pet Shed, offers young adults with learning difficulties work placements in partnership with charity Team Domenica to give them customer service experience and an idea of what kind of careers they might want. One of their interns Chris realised he did not like loud noises in the workplace, while another called Ashleigh discovered she needed a job that was less physically demanding. ‘Feedback has been very positive with candidates gaining confidence in the ‘real world’,’ says Hannah James, founder of The Pet Shed. ‘The reason I agreed to offer training was purely down to community. As a sister of someone with severe learning difficulties, I saw it as an opportunity to help those at a disadvantage in society.’

Level the playing field

Beyond culture change, being inclusive is about supporting individual staff with their specific needs to bring out the best in employees. Hult International Business School studied the outcomes of putting able bodied executives from Barclays and disabled people on a tall ship voyage around the UK and translated it to what organisations could learn about supporting people with disabilities in the workplace. The report, which is due to be published soon, recorded the able-bodied executives’ attitudes to disabled people before and after the excursion. The main outcome, according to the report’s author Grace Brown, was the change in perceptions of what disabled people were able to do. The ship was made into a level playing field and accessibility barriers were removed, for example there were lifts for wheelchair users. ‘It opened their eyes to how much the environment is disabling rather than people’s physical impairments,’ says Brown.

In her opinion, Brown suggests businesses should do the same in the workplace – and remove all physical barriers that might discriminate against some employees. ‘Wherever businesses can, and where it’s possible, they should use universal designs from the outset so designs are not just suitable for the typical person, but something that’s inclusive from the outset rather than using bolt-on reasonable adjustments afterward.’ These physical changes in the workplace can include ramps and lifts for wheelchair users, dictation software or advanced spellcheckers such as VeritySpell by Oribi for dyslexic employees.

Understand your employees needs

Support needs to be mindful of each individual and often varies with each employee. For employees with autism, hot desking can be unhelpful. Instead, employers should ensure the individual has a fixed desk, consistent lighting and technology. Employees should also be able to use headphones to block out noise, and be given regular breaks in order to work to the best of their ability. ‘A lot of the time it’s small changes that can have a massive impact. My colleague Simon regularly has fits, so it’s about making the team know he has them. He doesn’t want support when he has them, so sometimes he’ll just pass out when you’re walking with him,’ says Boyd.

Tom Gee, who is now a senior consultant for agency Gemini People, turned to EI to help him find a job with a company who was more understanding of his dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD than his former employer. ‘In previous jobs where senior leadership hasn’t been as forward thinking or considerate as to how people’s minds work differently, it’s been a problem and caused a lot of conflict and frustration between me and management,’ says Gee. ‘Where I currently am, I chose because they didn’t treat me telling them about what I need with any degree of sympathy or suspicion.’ ‘The most important thing they have given me is flexibility and understanding. They trust that just because my admin isn’t perfect that I am still getting on with the job I need to do. If I ask for something, such as a second screen, to go and work in a quiet room for half a day, for someone to double check what should be simple things for me, it gets done without question.’ Lynne Gaines, HR consultant at Lifeworks, says: ‘It is vital that you take the time to understand the impact of their disability or health condition and the direct impact of this on their job role. Listen and get to know your employees.’ Gaines says this could mean restructuring a job, being flexible with hours and part time working, or allowing leaves of absence. For Lloyds Banking Group, this meant adding services that employees with mental health problems could use. The company extended its private medical benefit with Bupa to cover £50,000 this year, and made sure the mental health cover equaled the cover for physical health. Lloyds also offers line manager mental health training, an employee assistance programme, which includes access to counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy sessions, and a discounted membership for employees for meditation app Headspace.

Recruit diversely

Beyond supporting existing employees, businesses also need to look towards supporting potential employees through their recruitment process. Evans calls this the ‘holy grail’ of inclusion, as so often the application process for a job discriminates against those who struggle with spelling or tests because of their disability. Boyd, from EI, says around 40% of unemployed people have neurodiversity of some kind. ‘When I was applying for work, it was more about my spelling,’ says Boyd. ‘I had a first in my degree but couldn’t get in front of an employer because of the application processes because if I get one spelling wrong then my application ended up in the bin.’ EI helps employees facing the same issues as Boyd to create a good CV, cover letter and be ready for interview. But EI also wants the recruitment process to change in order to be more accessible. Evans says Direct Line are doing this through recruiting more from headhunter and recruiter lists instead of the traditional CV and application form process. But Boyd says there is still a long way to go. He suggests that too often they get calls when an employee is leaving an organisation because they’re dyslexic and they aren’t properly supported. ‘That’s too late,’ he says. ‘The culture within the organisation needs to be there from the start.’


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