Disabled employees continue to face a variety of hurdles to cope with in addition to their day job. We look at how employers can help remove those barriers to allow everyone to thrive.
Read this article to understand:
- The challenges disabled people still face, including in the workplace
- What progress has been made and what remains to be done
- How companies can help disabled employees thrive
As someone who is both disabled and works closely with other disabled people, I can honestly say I’m blown away every single day by the sheer weight of talent in the disabled community. And every single day I’m equally frustrated that so many businesses are missing out on that talent
One in six people worldwide – 1.3 billion – are disabled.1 But by some estimates, 80 per cent of impairments and conditions are invisible, from neurological conditions to chronic pain, which can make them easy to ignore.2,3
“When it comes to DE&I [diversity, equity and inclusion] initiatives, far too often disability is left off companies’ agendas,” says Kume-Holland. “One study found that, while 90 per cent of companies claim to prioritise diversity and inclusion, just four per cent consider disability in those initiatives.”
Not enough is being done to tackle the physical and accessibility barriers disabled people face at work and in society, including stigma and discrimination by employers and hiring managers. According to Scope, a disability equality charity, the employment rate of disabled people is 53 per cent, compared to 82 per cent of non-disabled people – an employment gap that has remained close to 30 per cent for over a decade.4 Kume-Holland says disabled people also have lower promotion rates and average salaries, “a disability pay gap we can’t even measure properly, because too often the data isn’t collected”.
Sally Hooper, workplace disability inclusion programme lead at Scope, adds that, while awareness and inclusive practices in the recruitment and retention of disabled people are growing, more must be done to address the disability employment gap.
“Our research has shown a disabled person has to apply for 60 per cent more roles than a non-disabled person to secure work,” she says. “Disabled people can work, want to work and are actively trying to work, but it takes them 60 per cent more effort to achieve it. There is still a lot of work to do.”
Yet the benefits of inclusivity to organisations are now obvious, from accessing a large pool of untapped talent to better serving stakeholders and customers, but also boosting productivity and profitability (see “Economics and ethics: Why diversity matters”).5
“If we managed even just to halve the disability employment gap, it would boost UK output by around £50 billion a year,” says Hooper. “It's also estimated the collective spending power of disabled people and their households is around £274 billion. And yet many organisations do not include disabled people as a core consumer group.”
Kume-Holland adds that to overcome the barriers they face in society and work, disabled people often develop a unique skill set – including an innovative approach to problem solving. “Businesses who can harness this incredibly talented pool of employees are going to do better than those who can’t,” she says.
In this article, we delve into the key challenges people with a disability face to get and stay in work and discuss how companies can help employees with disabilities thrive.
Hurdles and barriers
Despite some progress, too many barriers still prevent disabled people from thriving in the workplace. To begin with, too many workplaces are not up to scratch when it comes to physical or digital accessibility – the basics disabled people need to be able to navigate the workplace, offline and online.
Disabled people can also face extra costs of living and working, including travel, equipment, medical and household costs. Scope’s findings show that even after accounting for benefits, disabled households face extra costs of £975 per month on average to achieve the same standard of living as equivalent non-disabled households.6
For Amy Thomas, responsible investment analyst and disability workstream chair at Aviva Investors, who is profoundly deaf, hybrid meetings and loud venues for work socials or conferences mean she cannot always hear conversations.
“Usually, conferences are in rooms where people are speaking into microphones and it comes out of loudspeakers, which is great for most people I'm sure,” she says. “But I have a cochlear implant and I don't process sounds the same way, so something very loud sounds muffled to me, almost like being underwater, and I can't hear a word of it.
There is this culture where things aren’t particularly accessible
“There is this culture where things aren’t particularly accessible and it’s the same online; many webinars don't have subtitles or live captions,” she adds.
In terms of hiring, one barrier for disabled people is the accessibility of job application processes, many of which are online, says Dr Daniel Derbyshire, behavioural economics researcher and research fellow at the University of Exeter Medical School.
“Webforms that need to be filled in are not necessarily accessible, especially if they haven't been designed very well, and it can be hard to read job specifications on a PDF,” he says. “Basic accessibility things like that can make it difficult to apply, in particular for people with sensory and learning disabilities.”
Scope recently published a report that surveyed 1,000 disabled people and 269 employers to identify the challenges in retaining disabled talent. Hooper says a failure to understand the importance of reasonable adjustments (such as height-adjustable workstations, accessible computer keyboards and speech-to-text software) is one key issue that came out of the study.7
“48 per cent of disabled people who fell out work said they had encountered issues with reasonable adjustments,” she says. “Some reported having to wait up to four months for adjustments to be implemented, which makes it harder to settle into and learn a new role.”
Beyond physical accessibility, barriers in conventional workplace practices and processes set up needless hurdles.
Too often disabled people are having to navigate unnecessary barriers while also trying to get on with their jobs
“Whether it’s presenteeism [the expectation that employees must still show up to the office if they are unwell], barriers in promotion practices or countless other examples, too often disabled people are having to navigate unnecessary barriers while also trying to get on with their jobs,” says Kume-Holland.
One of them is job design, particularly around flexible hours and locations. In Scope’s report on employee retention, over a third of disabled people said more flexible contracts and ways of working would have helped retain them in work. However, 60 per cent of disabled people who fell out of work were not offered hybrid or remote working options. COVID-19 helped change attitudes, but employers must take care not to fall back into inflexible habits.
“I get issues where, for example, my [cochlear implant] battery didn't charge properly the night before,” says Thomas. “I’m in the office and suddenly my battery dies. Batteries can take between five and seven hours to charge, so most of the time, I find it easier to go work from home.
“As another example, I had a colleague with Crohn’s disease,” she adds. “For him, every day is different. He has good days and can go into the office; other days aren’t so good. It’s on those days when having a hybrid working environment is such a benefit.”
The Scope report also found statutory sick pay is so low it can force disabled people to return to work earlier than they would like, sometimes against medical advice, while a lack of flexibility means disabled people don’t get sick pay if they return to work on fewer hours. “As a result, a quarter of disabled people who needed to take time off work due to ill health said this led to them being forced out of work,” wrote the authors.8
Attitudes and understanding: Dispelling myths
But beyond the basics, people living with a condition or impairment also face barriers stemming from others’ lack of knowledge, thoughtlessness or even outright discrimination.
“It’s important to note attitudinal barriers disabled people face: the assumptions people make about lives disabled people can lead, the skills they can have and the things they can achieve,” says Kume-Holland. “You can have the most accessible processes and procedures in place, but if ignorant assumptions remain intact, disabled people aren’t going to thrive in your workplace.”
Starting with hiring practices, research jointly conducted this year by the University of Exeter’s Business School and Medical School found just under three-quarters of participating hiring and HR managers showed some level of implicit bias against disabled people (Figure 1). It also found disabled people are underrepresented in the HR profession and in making hiring decisions, whereas implicit biases have been shown to be lower for people who have impairments themselves or who know someone with an impairment. The study concludes there is a clear need for greater disability representation within HR and hiring manager levels, which could improve attitudes towards disabled people and the disability employment gap.9
Figure 1: People implicitly prefer people without a disability (n=108)
Source: Frontiers in Rehabilitation Sciences, March 22, 2023.10
Derbyshire, lead author of the study, explains this tendency to discriminate stems from two types of unconscious bias, but also persistent myths around more practical issues.
“Unconscious bias covers different kinds of biases,” he says. “One is similarity bias, whereby people prefer people like themselves. Obviously, that is going to impact people with visible disabilities, whether that's being in a wheelchair or other accessible equipment.”
The second is confirmation bias, where people pay more attention to information that confirms their beliefs and underplay or discredit information that goes against them. This makes it difficult to change their assumptions about disabled people.
“For example, there is an expectation disabled people have higher rates of sickness absence and lower productivity,” says Derbyshire.
Most necessary adjustments are cheap or even free to make
Another myth is companies will have to make costly adjustments to workplaces. That is a particularly big concern for small businesses, which tend to be resource constrained. Yet most necessary adjustments are cheap or even free to make.
“It's things like providing a specific parking space, letting someone sit by or away from a window, or close to the toilets, depending on their condition, or how you lay out your workspace,” says Derbyshire.
Kume-Holland says the average cost of reasonable adjustments is thought to be £75 per person, while more expensive adjustments can be supported in a range of ways, such as by the government’s Access to Work Scheme.
Colleagues and managers can also make it more difficult, sometimes through thoughtlessness. Thomas says she faces reoccurring issues such as people putting their hand in front of their mouths or speaking with their back to her in a meeting, but also feeling left out of general chit-chat.
But disabled employees can also face negative attitudes and discrimination.
“42 per cent of disabled people have experienced negative attitudes in the workplace from managers, and 90 per cent of disabled people who have experienced discrimination at work said it caused them to leave their job,” says Hooper.
In terms of career progression, this difficulty compounds with another persistent myth that means disabled people are not always offered the same training and development opportunities as others.
There can be myths that disabled people are just happy to have a job and don't want to climb the ladder
“There can be myths that disabled people are just happy to have a job and don't want to climb the ladder,” says Derbyshire. “This fits in with other myths, such as lower productivity and increased absence, which can make companies think it is not worth investing in someone who may be off for extended periods.
“Then, when it does come to promotion opportunities, the skills necessary to progress are mismatched,” he adds.
Kume-Holland says the lack of awareness around disability, coupled with assumptions and stereotypes, can be a big barrier to furthering inclusion.
“Lack of awareness and representation means there are lots of misconceptions around ‘what disability looks like’,” she says. “As someone with a range of less-visible disabilities, I’ve found myself in positions where it has been hard to get people to understand the adjustments I need because I didn’t conform to society’s stereotypical view of ‘disabled’.”
With 80 per cent of conditions and impairments being invisible, we cannot make assumptions
With 80 per cent of conditions and impairments being invisible, we cannot make assumptions.
“I’ve heard so many people tell me, ‘We don’t have any disabled employees in this company’, but what that means to me is that no one has disclosed, and you’re doing something very wrong to get to that point,” adds Kume-Holland.
Thomas says more people disclosing would bring several benefits, from going straight through to in-person interviews when applying for a job to having role models if senior people disclosed. But the biggest advantage would be making daily interactions at work much easier for everyone.
“When I tell a new colleague I am profoundly deaf, I get more accommodated compared to before I tell them,” she says. “That's a benefit for those people speaking up and saying what impairment they have, but also the people around them, because it avoids miscommunication and frustration.”
Derbyshire adds one factor research consistently shows as leading to lower bias is having friends, family members or colleagues who are disabled.
"It starts to remove that ‘otherness’ with respect to disability,” he says. “It takes disability out of the box and puts it into real terms.”
Yet many people remain reluctant to disclose. Firstly, many fear stigma and discrimination. Derbyshire says it generates a lot of anxiety around if, when and how to disclose.
“On top of one in five people going as far as hiding their impairment or condition, 50 per cent of disabled people fear losing their job if they disclose,” says Hooper.
Language can also be an impediment, both because the term "disclosure" itself can be seen as negative and because of the way people view their conditions.
Sometimes, people can have a long-term health condition or impairment but might not identify with the term disabled
“Sometimes, people can have a long-term health condition or impairment but might not identify with the term disabled,” she says. “So, it's about how you ask those questions and how you encourage that conversation with anybody who may benefit from adjustments within their role.”
Thomas also says some people don’t want to be considered differently and it can be a sensitive topic.
“However, I also think this is an area where employers, from broad company policies and processes through to individual line managers, can make a massive difference: helping to create an environment where people feel comfortable and empowered to disclose and are supported when they do,” says Kume-Holland.
Helping employees thrive
While most employers are actively trying to build more inclusive environments, there are blind spots. The first step to improving the work experience for people with impairments is talking to them.
“It often takes someone to break down the door and force their way into a non-inclusive environment to start pointing out what is not inclusive; otherwise, you don't realise why it's not inclusive,” says Derbyshire.
Hooper also recommends a few overarching measures to identify and improve on shortcomings, from collecting data to looking at the resources on offer from specialist organisations like Scope and Patchwork Hub, regularly reviewing the company’s action plan and dedicating resources to implementing change.
The most successful organisations at creating change have developed project teams around those recommendations to push them through
“The most successful organisations at creating change have developed project teams around those recommendations to push them through,” she says. “If it's something somebody volunteers to do on top of a day job, things can get pushed down the priority list, so having dedicated resource is important.”
Companies should look at several areas, covering recruitment, awareness and understanding, adjustments and flexible working.
“[Good recruitment policies] can signal to disabled candidates the company cares about disability inclusion,” says Kume-Holland.
Companies can sign up to the UK Government’s Disability Confident Scheme,11 publish disability reporting figures, post jobs on dedicated boards like Patchwork Hub, ensure the language and format of job descriptions are accessible and think about selection criteria.
“Although further education is more accessible than it ever has been, it is still not fully accessible to everybody, so firms might ask for equivalent experiences or eligibility criteria other than a degree,” says Hooper.
Employers can also introduce a guaranteed interview scheme for a disabled person who meets the minimum criteria for a role. And they can consider sending interview questions in advance, giving people the opportunity to prepare, as well as ensuring flexibility and adjustments in the interview process.
“Make it clear on the job post you want to help candidates put their best foot forward and proactively ask about adjustments,” says Kume-Holland. “And then make sure you’ve got the flexibility to action those adjustments.”
Hooper adds companies should encourage the conversation around adjustments at all touch points, as one in five people hide their condition from their employer, who therefore can't assume people will disclose.
“We generally recommend at least two avenues to request adjustments,” she adds. “If the company has a neutral avenue through, for example, an adjustments team in HR and an employee resource group, people who have experienced negative attitudes from their managers might feel more comfortable.”
Having a clearly defined and communicated adjustment process is important. This includes an adjustment “passport” that can follow employees as they move through the organisation, so they don’t need to bring up the adjustments they need every time they start a new role. Hooper says some companies bring new recruits in before their start date, so they can see how the office is set up and what software is used, which can help them get a better idea of what adjustments might work best for them.
Kume-Holland adds raising adjustments at every opportunity can help other employees, including those with an undiagnosed neurodiverse condition or carers and parents who could benefit from greater flexibility.
It shouldn’t be a battle for a disabled person to get adjustments they need
“Do all you can to take the burden off the employee around raising the topic,” she says. “It shouldn’t be a battle for a disabled person to get adjustments they need.”
It is also good practice to have a central budget for adjustments. It means line managers don’t have to worry about an adjustment affecting their own budget, and that adjustments can be paid for and made without delay, even if it takes time for an Access to Work grant to come through.
A key part of job design and possible adjustments is to be flexible in terms of working patterns. Hooper lists options such as self-rostering for shift work where possible; matching working hours to outputs, so workers can leave when the day's work is done; and compressed or staggered hours, giving employees a choice of when they work their contracted hours.
“Government data shows disabled people able to work remotely are less likely to drop out of work,” she says. “When COVID-19 happened, every job role that could be done remotely was done remotely. So, even though it had been denied to many people consistently prior to that, we have proved over the last three years it works.”
Employers are increasingly aware of and able to offer job-sharing, which can help disabled employees, but also many others with, for example, caring responsibilities.
“A lot of the things that are good at making work and recruitment more inclusive for disabled people are generally beneficial and more inclusive for lots of other people,” says Derbyshire. “So, you need a full-time equivalent, but is there a reason that couldn't be two jobs, along any kind of split that works for the two candidates?”
Sick leave and return-to-work processes should also be considered
Sick leave and return-to-work processes after an illness or other medical problem should also be considered when thinking about flexibility. Scope recommends introducing disability leave, a fixed number of absence days that can be recorded separately from sick leave, allowing staff to attend medical appointments or recover from illness.
“Disability leave works particularly well for individuals with fluctuating conditions, who can be put at a disadvantage if you have rigid attendance requirements,” says Hooper. “In our report, 44 per cent of disabled people who have previously fallen out of work told us disability leave would have helped them keep their job.”
Awareness and allyship
To help grow awareness and bust the persistent myths that hinder inclusion, companies should consider mandatory disability inclusion training for managers, general training and awareness days, reverse mentoring schemes for senior leaders and working closely with employee resource groups to better understand the barriers that exist in the workplace. They can also encourage senior leaders who have a lived experience of disability to openly share it to help build confidence.
On career progression, everyone should reflect on their own assumptions
And on career progression, Kume-Holland recommends everyone should reflect on their own assumptions. “Are you more impressed with presenteeism than results? What springs to mind when you see someone has taken career breaks? Far too many people’s gut reaction to these sorts of questions creates an environment that can stall the careers of talented disabled professionals,” she says.
Allies can also make a significant difference. Kume-Holland says they are vital to making inclusive practices mainstream, through individual actions and attitudes.
“Change will only happen when non-disabled people have a proper awareness of disability inclusion and accessible practices are built into the standard ‘way we do things’,” she says. “This will require allies to implement, support and drive things forward.”
Allies can start by attending training, as well as events set up by employee resource groups, listening to their disabled colleagues and making changes, like ensuring the content they create is as accessible as possible, for colleagues and customers.
Hooper recommends learning about the social model of disability, which puts the responsibility on everyone to remove the barriers created for disabled people by the way society is structured.12
Once allies have gained a better understanding, they should be ready to challenge the status quo
She adds that once allies have gained a better understanding, they should be ready to challenge the status quo, by pointing out non-inclusive behaviours, so inclusion becomes fully integrated into ways of working and not an afterthought.
Thomas believes allyship comes down to listening to colleagues and being considerate.
“When people tell you what they need, be thoughtful about it and make sure you are doing the small things like repeating what someone said, even if you think it wasn't that important, so they are included,” she says.
“It's also about having an open mind. Instead of getting annoyed at people and thinking they're too lazy to come to the office or to pick up phone calls, consider they might prefer a Teams message or e-mail. Have an open thinking process of asking why rather than just getting frustrated,” she adds.
Disability inclusion is a win-win for everyone, in that it makes business and social sense. And while inclusive practices are vital for disabled people, they can benefit everyone.
Kume-Holland concludes: “My final message to any employer would be: what are you waiting for?”