By Holly Webster
Holly is a creative writer with extensive experience in supporting and helping charities and organisations raise awareness and tackle some of the most important challenges in the workplace and society.
Holly is no stranger to many of the challenges outlined in this piece, an article which she hopes will bring to light some of the challenges disabled people face in the workplace, helping HR and businesses create a fairer and more inclusive workplace for all.
Whilst researching for this article, two facts stood out. In 2018, ONS published figures showing that the gap between abled-bodied and disabled people’s employment figures has stood at around 30% points for around a decade. In their own research, the disability charity Scope have found that two-thirds of respondents said they feel awkward when they meet disabled people.
With the right support, disabled people can do anything they desire. The biggest barriers put in a disabled person’s way are the perceptions of able-bodied people and the actions that come with the misconceptions.
In this article, we want to explore the connection between the perceptions of people and the worrying fact that there is a consistent employment deficit with those with disabilities. We hope to give some advice around this and open a chance for important conversations to happen in companies that can improve the situation for disabled people.
To start off, it’s important to state that this article has been written and researched by someone with a disability and with the experiences of a variety of disabilities in mind. So different experiences of work and disability have gone into the research, and then been collated for this article, meaning that the advice has come from disabled people, to help you get a sense of how to facilitate our needs.
- Types of disability
- Every disabled person has different needs
- Don’t assume ability levels
- How accessible are your promotional materials?
- Don’t be afraid to talk about our disabilities and ask questions
- Adapt just as much as they do for you
- Remember that disability is fluid
- They are not just a ‘disabled employee’
- Promotional Material
- Give them equal opportunities to grow
- Positive discrimination is just as bad as negative
- It’s not all bad
- If they leave, be careful how you portray them in references
Types of Disability
There are 7 groups of disabilities that during my research, were the standard classifications for disability. These are:
- Physical (Paralysed, amputees)
- Sensory (Vision impairment, hearing loss)
- Intellectual (Learning difficulties)
- Mental health/emotional (Mental illness, ADHD)
- Developmental (Spina Bifida)
- Invisible (diabetes)
- Those limited in how much they can do due to illness (cancer)
These breakdowns are a great help when thinking of how to successfully employ and support a disabled person. They provide a starting point for you to find out more about where their disabilities fit and how you can accommodate to their needs.
Every disabled person has different needs
Whilst it would be easier for all involved if every person had the same needs, it’s just not feasible. Disabilities are like all other identity features, there’s lots of them and everyone has different relationships with theirs. It’s important to adapt to the individual rather than to your knowledge of their diagnosis. This will help each employee feel like they are being seen and heard, and that the company really cares about their needs.
So how can you ensure that every aspect of your company is disabled friendly?
Well, it starts from the moment you approach people for a role to the second that person leaves the company. To give you a beginning point of assessment, think about your employee journey.
- What does the hiring process look like?
- What is the company culture like?
- What is the building like access-wise?
- What are the progression opportunities?
- What is the process for time off?
- How does an employee go about leaving the company?
Every moment that your employees go through must be as accessible to a disabled person as reasonably as possible. These are called reasonable adjustments and by law must be met. So, it’s important that if you are aware that something is a large aspect of your company life, whether that’s professional or social, it is assessed as to how accessible it is.
However, as there are so many different types of disabilities and each disabled person is an individual, getting them involved is a huge aspect of being truly disability friendly to all disabled employees that pass through your doors.
Don’t assume ability levels
Unfortunately, when some people meet a person with a disability, they assume that they have communication issues without asking. This usually leads to them speaking to them in a way that makes us frustrated, ignored and most of us will just shut off if you ‘dumb down’ how you speak to us.
Every disabled person will communicate differently and understand information in different ways. It’s extremely important when communicating with a disabled person to remember this and let them show you/tell you how they need you to communicate with them. Writing instructions in an email for an employee rather than in person can be the difference between that task being done in an afternoon versus a week. Particularly, if they are new and haven’t built the relationship with you to talk to you about their problems, they might not be able to communicate immediately why they’re having issues.
Further to communication, allow yourself to be surprised but not shocked by what they can achieve. You might see them doing something that you thought was complicated, and it may shock you that they’re capable of it. To them however, they’re just doing a part of their job that they always knew that they were capable of doing. Or if they weren’t, they knew they were capable of learning.
To reiterate a point made earlier, disabled people can do anything, they just sometimes do it differently. So, if they need to achieve something, they will find a way. It might not be a way you are familiar with and that can be worrying, it’s easy to want to jump in and show them how to do it ‘properly’. Giving them that space to show you what they are capable of though, increases their confidence and consequently – their abilities.
How accessible are your promotional materials?
The first experience of your company that a new potential employee will have will be the job advert. After that they usually check out the company website to get more information. For those with sensory disabilities, adaptations to your website like bigger writing, captions on pictures and videos and the ability to use voice readers so that they can access the information in a way that is easier for them, will be the difference between them applying for the job or not.
Don’t be afraid to talk about our disabilities and ask questions
Disabled people are used to having to constantly adapt. Most don’t let their disabilities change what their dreams and goals are, so they find a way to make it happen that works for them. So, if you’re unsure as to how to make an aspect of their work life accessible, start the conversation and process with them – not for or because of them.
As mentioned before, their impression of how disability friendly your company is starts right at the beginning. Even though you first meet them when they come in for their interview don’t forget that they will have a whole application process to navigate before they get to that point.
Flexibility is key here, because you could be missing out on great candidates purely because their experience with applying was too rigid and they felt that they weren’t good enough.
Having specific criteria for a role is important and helps to make the hiring process run smoother because you know exactly what you are looking for. However, sometimes looking at what a person could be in the role rather than what they have been in their past experiences, opens a whole new level of success.
Particularly for someone who has had health challenges their whole life or a traumatic event happen to them, their CV might have some significant gaps whilst they were focusing on the curveballs that health challenges can bring.
When you’re skimming through CVs and looking for who you want to invite in for an interview, make a note of who you think might be good with a few tweaks to their job role and responsibilities. Of course, the chosen candidate needs to be able to fulfil the role in some way, otherwise they are doing a whole new job but if you can change the role to fit to their strengths then they will shine.
Everyone deserves a chance of success but those who have complicated pasts, don’t often get them. The people who get to see that you are willing to look at their strengths, rather than the gaps, will appreciate that you have given them a chance. This will also improve their productivity and make them more committed to the company because they know that you are investing in them and believe in what they can do- rather than what they can’t.
Adapt just as much as they do for you
It’s been mentioned a few times but being flexible is a huge part of making sure that the experience of disabled employees is a good one and equitable to that of their abled-bodied peers, as much as possible.
The employee will be adapting as much as they possibly can, to ensure that they are doing a good job for you. Look at what you’re able to do for them. Again, the best way to do this is through conversation and letting the person lead the way for the most part. This will give them a sense of control and empower them to make their employment with you successful for both sides.
But what exactly can you do to make these adaptations?
Luckily, the best thing about making these adaptations in the modern workplace, means that there are already resources and companies that can help make this process easier and more likely to create sustainable change. There are companies all over the world that are dedicated to getting disabled people into work, easier. Some of the things they can help with are:
- Directing you to disabled people full of talent, that are ready to work
- Assessing the accessibility of your premises
- Providing adaptable equipment that will help the employee do the job to their full potential, whilst also being comfortable
- Allow your company to be certified Disability Friendly
- Providing a network to advocate for them if they are unable to do it for themselves
Having these resources in place can help make these processes easier for you and the employee, which is just as important as improving the disability employment gap. It can also make sure that after you have them in your wheelhouse as a company, any further processes of onboarding a disabled person can be smoother, establishing the initial change and keeping it going.
Remember that disability is fluid
Although the standard explanation of someone’s disability is likely to stay the same, the way it presents itself will not. They will have times when they are more ill than usual or get overwhelmed more easily depending on their type of disability. It’s not always easy to articulate this without feeling like you’re making excuses.
So, most will appreciate it if you approach them early on and give them a quiet, confidential space for them to tell you how their disability regularly presents itself. But also give them the chance to tell you if something is happening that is out of the ordinary or if it’s just a particularly bad spell of illness. It might even be an anniversary of medical trauma that is harder for them to work through.
Allowing them to talk to you openly about what they have going on will ensure that they can feel free to be their authentic self in the workplace. Sometimes they may not be able to meet deadlines so easily, and yes, they will probably look more stressed out than normal. Of course, as someone who is highly interested in the success of the business, it is important for you to ensure that the employee is a productive asset for the team and overlooking this because of their disability would be a step in the wrong direction. However, where possible, let the team around them know that any worries about their productivity shouldn’t become office gossip.
In terms of how you can help them be flexible in a logistic sense, see if you can incorporate more days off and hours off for appointments. Doing this in a way that will allow them to take care of what really matters but doesn’t take too much of their responsibility away, will improve their productivity when they are doing well and allow them to achieve a healthy, balanced lifestyle.
And of course, the last year has proved to us all that remote working is possible and can be very successful, particularly for those who have a lot to juggle. So, approach them with their options when it comes to where and how they work. Again, flexibility is the key word here. Allowing them to shape their own work life to an extent will give them the chance to thrive in their own way, because they will know what is best.
They are not just a ‘disabled employee’
Whilst this statement is a basic one and stands alone as a point, it forms the basis of several desires and frustrations of people when it comes to how they have been treated because of their disability.
Having a disability is often a mammoth task to deal with, but its not the only part of the person. This is important to remember for many reasons and can help encourage a good employee to employer relationship.
As mentioned before, disabled people are capable of so many things with the right adaptations, and this doesn’t just pertain to work. We enjoy different hobbies to varying levels, just like any able-bodied person. According to research done by the disability charity Scope, 1 in 3 people see disabled people as being less productive than non-disabled people.
When I was speaking to one of the people who helped me shape this article, I got this quote: “Don’t judge me by my better days and consequently think that I’m ‘failing’ on my less than better days” and this sums it up so well. Because every day is different, it’s possible that a disabled employee would be able to go out with their friends at the weekend but then be struggling with pain or sickness in the week. These two things are rarely connected, so make sure that you don’t judge them for this.
Personally, I have a vitamin B12 deficiency as part of my medical conditions. When I’m due my injection, I get very tired and it’s a struggle to get out of bed in the morning. However, this comes on quickly around a week before I’m due my injection. I can be fine on the Wednesday and then unable to get out of bed on the Thursday, then have my injection on the Friday and be okay again.
So, when reviewing a disabled employee and their performance, try to think about dips in their performance as potential times when they were dealing with bad health spells. Of course, it’s important to hold them accountable if they aren’t performing at an acceptable level consistently but hard days do happen and for disabled people, they can happen often.
On the same topic of looking at them as a whole person rather than a disabled one, don’t just accept their non-disabled traits – embrace them. Whilst it’s great if disability isn’t a topic you’re afraid of talking about in the workplace, focusing on nothing but a person’s disability is just as dangerous as ignoring it.
With there being a huge push on diversity and inclusion over the last few years particularly, a lot of companies are incorporating quotas of what proportion of their workforce they want different backgrounds to hold. Putting numbers to your plans to move your company forward is great and allows you to keep an eye on how successful you are, but it’s important to not make people feel like numbers.
Celebrate them and yes, absolutely use your diversity as a company as a USP for future investors or interview candidates but don’t focus on the numbers – focus on the people. Introduce them to new employees as ‘*Their name* does this job, they are *interesting fact about them*’ and allow them to guide the rest of the conversation.
Steer away from ‘This is *their name*, they have *disability*’ as an introduction to the person, as it portrays the opinion that you only care about them for their diversity points. If the person has an invisible disability, this can be more of a point to think about because even if the person has made a disclosure to you, they may not be comfortable with everyone knowing.
It also helps to keep them engaged with their work and enjoy working with your team, if they can have chats about what was on TV last night or a holiday that they are planning. The social aspect of a person’s job can be key to their satisfaction and that in turn can help your company’s employee retention.
If they don’t want to be part of your promotional material, don’t question it
Most workplaces take promotional pictures from time to time, particularly if they have a service or product to sell. This can help them improve their reputation and bring in new business. It can also help you to bring in potential future talent into your workplace.
There’s no question that for minorities, seeing people in roles that they want or in companies that they want to apply for, can be inspiring and lots of disabled people would be happy to be a part of that. Some wouldn’t though, and you need to as an employer, ask before you do. Using their information and photo without asking if it’s okay can easily make someone feel like they’re only there to make your company look good.
If you value them and want them to feel worthwhile when working with you, then start conversations about how comfortable they are with you promoting them as a disabled member of your staff. It doesn’t matter if it’s easy to tell that they are disabled, there’s still a difference between it being embraced and not flaunted.
If you think that there is something that their identity could be a good promotion for, pull them into a formal meeting and ask them. Lay out the plans for the project, tell them exactly how their information or identity would be used, then allow them to ask any questions before deciding. If they say no or want to know what the company is getting out of it, then be okay with having that conversation.
Just the act of having that meeting will build a better connection between you and them. Then in future, if they change their mind from their initial answer – they will feel like they can come to you.
Give them equal opportunities to grow
Not many people will go into a job and want to do the same thing, day in and out for the rest of their life. Sometimes when you employ disabled people, particularly if it is through a charity or agency, you will hash out roles and responsibilities for this person. It’s all too easy to map these out and then never review them because you know that it’s something the person is capable of.
But, if able-bodied people are given ample opportunities for promotion or extra job responsibilities plus access to extra training that pertains to the kind of business you’re running – then so should disabled people.
Keep up with reviewing the employee’s performance and if you think that they would be good for a particular growth and development opportunity, then offer it to them. Or if nothing specific comes up, make sure that you are always encouraging them to want to chase development opportunities. They will know what is important to them and whether a promotion or training course is right for them.
Positive discrimination is just as bad as negative
When talking about the way employees are being treated, it’s easy to focus on the negative discrimination that they face. There is mandatory training in most workplaces on diversity and inclusion that makes sure that any new starters understand the importance of avoiding negative discrimination. However, not much focus is put on the impact of positive discrimination.
Positive discrimination is where someone is given something because of a part of their identity.
I and many other disabled people will openly tell you that we only want what we earn. So, any time that we are given access to something or given a bonus over others because we’re disabled, we’d honestly rather not have it.
So, when you are thinking about whether a disabled employee deserves a raise or a promotion, or any kind of benefit within the workplace, give it to them because they earned it. If it’s something that all employees have the chance to gain, don’t show favouritism towards a disabled employee just to give them a ‘confidence boost’. Help them develop their skills sure, but make sure it’s what you’re doing for all staff.
We want equality, not superiority.
It’s not all bad
Being completely honest, being disabled can be hard and scary. It can also be completely fine and not affect our lives too much. Refrain from seeing someone’s disability as a negative thing in their life, it adds to the stigma and makes us feel like it’s something we should be ashamed of.
Has there been times in my life when being disabled has gotten me down and I kind of wished I wasn’t disabled? Absolutely.
That doesn’t mean that I always have a negative relationship with it, it just means that sometimes it’s hard to deal with. Support us when we need it, but don’t pity us. Also refrain from talking about cures for disabilities and illnesses. Most of us don’t want to be ‘healed’ and again, it adds to this feeling that our disabilities are something to be ashamed of. If you want to support us in our health improvement, be happy for us when we have good days but remember that bad days don’t mean that our lives aren’t worth living.
If they leave, be careful how you portray them in references
If one of your employees decides to leave at any point, you may be approached by their new prospective employer for a reference. Whilst it’s important to be truthful, be mindful that there may be moments in their employment with you where their performance wasn’t as good as usual. This again comes back to the fact that disability, along with life, is fluid. So, when writing these recommendations, remember to include the positives of the employee, whilst also not putting too much of a focus on times when their health was a potential factor in their performance.
Most of these factors will carry through life with them, so not perceiving these at a negative can help them to keep growing in their careers.
Being disabled also helps you develop a lot of skills that you need just to go about your day-to-day life. These can be valuable to their growth and should definitely be nurtured.
I could talk about so much more when it comes to improving the workplace for disabled people, but the last piece of advice I want to leave with you is this: Disabled people are just people and deserve to be treated like one.
Humans are complex, we have changing needs and abilities. We’ve also experienced different things throughout our lives. This is no different for people with disabilities, and not expecting it to be is important in building good relationships with disabled staff and being truly disability friendly. We know that the ideas and attitudes towards disability have been drilled into you by society, so we don’t blame you for them, but we do appreciate you challenging them.