How can we tackle the disability employment gap?

26 April 2021

The representation of different minority groups in the workplace is steadily improving yet the representation of disabilities, both visible and hidden, is still considerably low. A recent report by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) found that just 52 per cent of people with disabilities are in employment compared with 81 per cent of those without. This equates to a shocking 29 per cent difference in the employment rate.

Coupled with this, research has also found employees with disabilities are more likely to experience workplace bullying and harassment than any other group – and are more likely to feel pressured to work when unwell. The relatively small percentage of people with disabilities in employment signals that work needs to be done to ensure workplaces, from recruitment through to retention, are a place where everyone can succeed.

What is the disability employment gap?

The disability employment gap refers to the gap between those with disabilities, physical and developmental, to those without. In the UK, for example, London has the highest rate of unemployment for people with disabilities – with an estimated 370,000 people with disabilities out of work. It is crucial that businesses drive their own learning and make space within their wider D&I agendas to prioritise the creation of systems and practices that allow people with disabilities to enter the workforce, and beyond that, progress through an organisation.

We know that diverse teams perform better. In fact, research shows that a 10 per cent increase in the employment rate amongst disabled adults would result in a £12 billion contribution to the UK economy. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pledged to deliver a disability strategy which is to be the “most ambitious and transformative endeavour for disabled people in a generation”, and business leaders across the nation have voiced their support. Whilst change is yet to come, it’s clear that businesses are wasting huge opportunities to expand their workforces and will risk losing out on talent if they fail to create inclusive environments.

So how can employers transform workplaces to tackle the disability employment gap?

Understand your legal rights and obligations

Under the Equality Act 2010, employers have a legal duty to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to enable their employees with disabilities to work. These adjustments can be to the workplace, providing equipment and training, and offering alternate work models. Some companies have struggled to do so due to the ambiguity around what constitutes as ‘reasonable’.

Research conducted into the workplace experiences of employees with disabilities found that they struggled to secure basic but essential adjustments to their working environment.

Their employers struggled to comply with their legal obligations due to the uncertainty around what was or wasn’t considered ‘reasonable’, and the employees applying for alternate work allocation or flexible hours were seen as a breach of the right to equal treatment or an attempt to secure special favours.

Adjustments can be seen as a personal problem, rather than an organisational responsibility. This is not the case. To enhance the number of employees with disabilities in organisations, employers need to take steps to make the workplace as comfortable and safe as possible. To create an inclusive workspace is to consider the requirements of each individual and make personal adjustments.

Thankfully, the guidelines are now a little clearer. A ‘reasonable adjustment’ includes:

  • Adapting equipment i.e. chairs, keyboards and voice recognition software
  • Providing ramps and stairway lifts
  • Installing automatic doors
  • Allowing a guide dog into the building
  • Allowing a wheelchair user to work on ground levels
  • Offering flexible or part-time working.

Businesses ought to celebrate the strengths and successes of their workforce, whilst also accommodating their needs and provide the appropriate support.

Consider language

Like the debate around the use of the term ‘BAME’, there is some ambiguity around the sort of language we should be using when discussing disability. It might be the case that society and businesses are not engaging in the conversation due to a lack of knowledge and confidence around language. If language remains a barrier for businesses, it is imperative to recognise the appropriate language to use and stay informed.

Employers should seek the support of external training providers and specialists to ensure that they are addressing the challenges surrounding language and access to work for candidates. Being uncomfortable or unsure about how to approach this is no longer an excuse for a lack of action.

This problem speaks to a much wider issue of ‘othering,’ whereby an individual or group is viewed as intrinsically different, setting them apart from the majority. ‘Othering’ risks undermining the value that disabled professionals can bring to a business. Changing the language we use around disability and raising awareness is key to unlocking stigma and fostering an inclusive working environment.

Introduce employment gap reporting

The UK government acknowledges the benefits of disability employment reporting, arguing it allows employers to understand what barriers disabled employees face at work, inform company plans to become more inclusive and create a better working environment.

Many organisations already gather data on the diversity of their workforce such as gender, ethnicity and sexuality to inform inclusive working practices, but often fail to do so with disability data.

Disability employment gap reporting will empower companies to address the representation of employees with disabilities in their workforce, and in turn increase the company’s recruitment and employee retention. Measuring and tracking data is one of the most effective ways in which to identify areas that require improvement. Often overlooked, data is important to be able to track progress and pinpoint areas of improvement. It gives businesses a tangible starting point and helps understanding of where change is needed.

It has been recommended by the CSJ that the Government should extend workplace reporting to disability for businesses with over 250 employees, and that employers should be required to report their mean and median disability pay gaps, the percentage of employees in each pay quartile who are disabled, and the mean and median bonuses paid to both disabled and non-disabled people.

By publishing disability data, it will demonstrate to employees with disabilities and potential candidates that your company is serious about creating a fair, diverse and inclusive environment which better reflects the world in which it exists.

The Government has committed to get one million more people with disabilities into work by 2027, so it’s time for organisations to take responsibility for their own actions in order to fill the disability employment gap.

We are all potentially ‘at risk’ of chronic illness or disability, so it’s important for employers to combat the lack of disability diversity in the workplace for good. Contact us today to see how we can help you recruit the highest quality talent for your business.