“The Paralympic Games have a proven track record for changing society’s perception of people with an impairment..."
— Sir Philip Craven (London 2012 Paralympics)
Starting today, approximately 4,400 athletes with varying degrees of disability will compete in the Tokyo Paralympics. While the performance excellence of the disabled at the Paralympics is celebrated, it appears that we are less willing to extend an invitation for disabled people to contribute to society through employment for two weeks.
Despite 25 years of disability discrimination protection in the UK, there has been little progress on disability diversity in the workforce. The statistics paint a bleak picture. At the end of 2020, of the 8.4 million disabled people aged 16-64 in the UK just over half (52 per cent) were employed, compared with 81 per cent of people who were not disabled that were in work. Furthermore, a significant proportion of the disabled were economically inactive.
According to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Family Resources Survey for 2019-20, less than half of employed disabled people (48%) agreed or strongly agreed that their employer was flexible and made adequate reasonable adjustments for disabled people. Only a quarter (24%) agreed or strongly agreed that their promotion opportunities were comparable to those of their coworkers.
And what of the UK government's flagship Disability Confident scheme, aimed at supporting employers in capitalising on the talents disabled people can bring to the workplace? For a start, less than 1 per cent of the employers in the UK were signed up, and a DWP member survey of the scheme's impact showed that under half of the responding organisations had recruited at least one person with a disability, long-term health or mental health condition as a result of the scheme.
The disabled deserve better.
With the publication of the UK government's new National Disability Strategy in July 2020, however, there is a chance that disability diversity will finally move up the agendas of organisations. Prime Minister Boris Johnson writes in the strategy's foreword that "the situation facing our disabled people - one in every five of the population - is not only a scandal for those involved, but a waste of talent and potential that we can ill afford."
This much should be obvious to managers and directors, given the overwhelming evidence that workforce diversity, including the lived experience that disabled people bring, provides numerous organisational benefits, not least in terms of innovation and competitiveness. Workforce diversity improves environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance and ESG-based investment. Strong representation of disabled people in your company sends a message to potential employees that you value diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Not to mention the purchasing power of disabled people and their household members, which is worth $13 trillion globally and £250 billion to the UK economy.
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.
A good place to begin is for senior decision makers to seek appropriate advice on how to create a workplace culture in which disabled employees feel welcome, engaged, valued, and able to thrive in their careers. This includes creating a psychologically and physically safe environment, coaching non-disabled employees to be inclusive, and ensuring disabled employees' perspectives are heard. Conscious inclusion workshops can help to encourage and enable people to take more action in terms of inclusive behaviours.
Perhaps most importantly, managers require assistance in developing a framework for disability inclusion policies. This is where the Disability Confident scheme should come in handy. However, in its current form, the scheme lacks ambition and asks too little of member organisations. There is currently no requirement for members to have disabled people on their payroll at either level one or level two of its three levels, nor is there any requirement for mandatory reporting of the proportion of disabled people in the workforce or reporting of any disability pay gap.
For their part, many members seem to prefer the membership certificate to meaningful action. As of July 2020, there were 20,000 scheme members but just 344 had progressed to level 3 – Disability Confident Leader status – requiring them to employ disabled people and submit to independently verified reporting (most that had were public sector or non-profit organisations).
The government has pledged to strengthen the Disability Confident programme. Managers, on the other hand, should not wait for a lengthy consultation process to conclude. Instead, they should take proactive steps to make their organisation a welcoming and equitable place to work, as well as to improve disabled people's inclusion.
Participate in the scheme, but go above and beyond the Disability Confident guidelines. Do more than just 'consider' the five Disability Confident commitments at level one, for example. Take part in more than one activity from a list of nine that will "make a difference to disabled people," and try to implement as many measures as is reasonably possible at levels two and three.
Appointing a disability champion is a very useful measure. Providing they are sufficiently senior, a disability champion creates a focal point for galvanising disability-friendly actions and initiatives.
Before 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". It’s about time the government and organisations made sure that this change of perception extended to supporting the participation of disabled people in the workforce.