EngagementDiversity & InclusionDisability in the workplace: past, present and future

Disability in the workplace: past, present and future

Disability discrimination may be illegal, yet for many, it still pervades every step of the job application process. How can this be changed?

Research has found that people with disabilities on average apply for 60% more jobs than their non-disabled peers. And despite having all the necessary qualifications, a large proportion of the seven million disabled people of working age in the UK remain unemployed. To mark International Day of Disabled Persons 2018 Jess McNicholas Managing Director – Inclusion, Diversity and Corporate Citizenship at State Street discusses further.

For those successful in the job hunt, disability bias doesn’t simply end with the signing of an employee’s contract. In fact, one-third of the UK’s disabled workforce feel uncomfortable disclosing their conditions to their colleagues; some for fear of social judgement, others for fear of the damage it could do to their career.

Reaching untapped potential

This situation is not only unacceptable on a human level but detrimental to your business. A recent study from the Centre for Talent Innovation found that 75% of the disabled workforce in the US reported having market-worthy ideas, but almost half of the employees had been ignored by those with the power to take action. This poses a barer to the development of office innovation.

In order to attract great talent, the attitudes surrounding disability in the workplace need to change. Not only must companies work to accommodate their disabled workforce by providing them with the physical and technological adjustments they need, companies must create a more inclusive work culture where it is normal to discuss disabilities openly.

Finding the right words

Although changing the status quo is challenging, there are simple steps companies can take to ensure they are moving in the right direction. For instance, any organisation looking to eradicate disability discrimination within their workforce can start by actively encouraging its employees — particularly those in leadership roles — to vocalise their support for disabled peers. Setting a precedent for inclusive behaviour is essential to dismantling the barriers that hamper disabled employees’ professional progression and it helps open new lines of communication.

In 2014, the UK’s Office for Disability Issues released a guide on how to speak with and about those with disabilities. Making a concerted effort to avoid bias expressions or the use of disability-related terms with negative connotations is important, as the language you choose to use unequivocally shapes how you view others.

While keeping up with the ever-changing landscape of accepted terms can prove difficult, a good rule of thumb is to avoid any remarks which strip a disabled person of their individuality or frame them as a victim. For instance, rather than using the collective term ‘the disabled’, use ‘people with disabilities’, or ‘disabled people’. And rather than describing someone as ‘suffering from’ a health condition, describe them as ‘having’ one.

Progress in this area has undoubtedly been made. But as disability stigma continues to plague the workplace, companies should take the initiative to educate staff on the correct terminology to ensure an inclusive environment.

What we do

Having been recognised this year by the Disability Equality Index as one of the best places to work for people with disabilities, we are committed to providing our disabled employees with the necessary emotional, physical and technological assistance to progress.

A key component of our success in this area is State Street’s Disability Awareness Alliance, an employee resource group dedicated to understanding abilities, raising awareness and driving change. The group advocates for change internally by striving to create an environment where conversations surrounding disability are the norm, and externally by teaming up with organisations like the National Braille Press program in Boston to give back to the community.

State Street also recognises the importance of providing support for its employees with ‘invisible disabilities’. The company provides mental health-specific first-aid training through Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) and has also created a new employee network SHINE; a group dedicated to helping those affected by mental illnesses. The network recently partnered with leading UK mental health charity SANE to increase its reach and provide support not only to State Street employees, but to their friends and carers as well.

While the industry is making progress when it comes to mental health in the workplace, research reveals that 40 percent of UK employees still experience anxiety at work on a regular basis, and without proper legislation in place, there is still much to be done to eliminate stigmas. To that end, both MHFA and SANE endorsed and signed the open letter[5] to Theresa May last month, which called for the government to amend current Health and Safety first aid regulations to explicitly include mental health. This is an important endeavour, which State Street wholeheartedly supports.

By Jess McNicholas

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