The recruitment of disabled workers is a duty. However, workplace policy often fails to articulate the need to address the rights of disabled individuals.
For so many reasons, the employment of disabled people is rarely a common topic in general conversation, and it’s likely that most people feel that organisations automatically reflect the community they serve. However, while many disabled workers enjoy their jobs, it’s probable that even more have struggled to find employment within organisations which address their needs, despite their right to a professional environment that‘s free from discrimination. This might be because – without the voice of disabled workers’ organisations – they don’t understand the ways in which they exclude, let alone how to solve the issue.
It is not up to disabled employees or disabled clients to be more fluent about their experience (forests of documents on this topic already exist). The onus is on us as business leaders to articulate more clearly the barriers facing the disabled population. At the heart of responsible business in an imperative to take equality seriously as a route to better sustainability, in line with other social and environmental reporting responsibilities. The distinctive nature of the disadvantaged disabled people’s experience at work is an indirect cost to society; therefore, more equitable participation is both an investment and a far cheaper option over time.
As the Equality Act 2010 makes clear, business leaders have a duty to address equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace in order to acknowledge the wide variation, knowledge, capabilities and strength among the disabled population. What’s more, the organisation has a duty to be proactive in addressing sexism, racism, homophobia and religious intolerance within its walls and culture.
Disabled people face specific barriers, so it makes sense to remove any barriers we can identify before recruitment starts. In addition, there should be a clear commitment or long-term plan to keep moving forward as our relationships with disabled workers deepen, and the organisation’s inclusive practice develops. The voice of disabled people (which underpins disability equality) is critical, much as the voice of women influenced the rise of feminism. The legitimacy of your dialogue as an organisation, as recognised shared interests alone give an articulation of prejudice, discrimination and inequality specific to disabled people as a group. Disability equality helps us clarify definitions that may already exist, and adds significant nuance. While many groups have campaigned for disabled people’s rights to work and to enjoy equality as employees since the 1980s, the laws around this still only twenty years old. Two decades of minimal progress seems a long time, and the argument that major change demands huge investment must be challenged. It’s time for us as responsible leaders to end this avoidance and the justification of damaging complacency. As the overnight change to home working under COVID suggests, it was not time, effort and money that are the biggest barriers to addressing these matters, but an unwillingness to change.
The disability employment gap
While workplaces don’t go far enough to recruitment and promote disabled workers, they contribute (maybe unwittingly) to the injustice imposed on the disabled population. This is an issue of human rights, and it manifests in the significant probability that if you’re a disabled person, you’ll remain unemployed.
The size of the disabled population is surprisingly large: within a company of 1000 employees, 100 workers will probably have impairment, whether or not they identify as disabled. The total will far exceed the number parked in the handful of accessible bays outside the building. Yet for many of us, this is a revelation, as we tend to underestimate the size and diversity of the disabled population. As a result, we also tend to underestimate the scale of the inequality and the cost of the disability employment gap to industry as a whole.
Quite clearly, therefore, there is a bigger issue, far greater than the occasional lack of individual fit. Better practice is patchy, and given the diversity of impairment, while it’s likely that most difference has been accommodated somewhere, overall inclusive practice is not yet a reality. Instead, since disabled workers have no less experience, skill or wisdom than their non-disabled colleagues, our organisation and institutions seem to be sources of injustice. Disabled workers currently face far greater barriers than most employers imagine, so many are forced to rely on those organisations who are willing to remedy the disadvantage they face. For business leaders, the challenge is therefore to direct organisational change that benefits both disabled individuals and the wider working community.