Hiring disabled workers: the impact of re-thinking disability policies

23 December 2019

In the UK, of the 7.7 million people of working age with disabilities, only 52.6 per cent are currently in work; a shocking statistic compared to 81.5 per cent of those without disabilities. There is a clear and alarming disparity here, and despite considerable efforts from government and businesses alike to readdress the balance, there is still much to be done to improve the representation of these candidates.

Disability policy is frequently incorporated into central business practice, primarily to ensure that workplaces are ‘disability-friendly’. However, from the offset there are many issues with taking a blanket approach and often misunderstandings about what a disability-inclusive workplace actually looks like.

Accommodating multiple levels of disability

The word disability is too readily associated with just people in wheelchairs which may be understandable given that the universal symbol used to signify a disabled person is just that. However 93 per cent of people with disabilitiesworldwide do not use a wheelchair and it is simple misunderstandings such as this which underpin many misguided attitudes regarding disability.

Across most businesses there is a tangible level of ignorance surrounding hiring a disabled worker. Business owners’ immediate thoughts may centre around accessibility and the sheer cost of ‘adapting and moderating’ a workplace, yet this is often not the case.

Sometimes, moderations will need to be made, but actually there are also a wide range of ‘invisible disabilities’ that are also important to take into consideration. Sources estimate that between three and 26 million Americans alone suffer from an invisible disability. These ailments can range from anything such as diabetes, cystic fibrosis, psychological illnesses such as anxiety and depression, to neurodiverse issues such as ADHD or learning difficulties. Just by looking at this list, it’s clear to see there are a variety of considerations and policies that could be adopted on a case-by-case basis to ensure the wellness of these employees.

Who do we hold to account?

Both businesses and governments are responsible for the effective creation and application of successful and appropriate disability policies. In the UK, with a Conservative majority government at the helm, four new disability-specific policies have been suggested in the party’s 2020 manifesto:

  1. To abolish hospital parking charges for disabled people
  2. Committing to an extra £1 billion a year to fund the social care system
  3. Allocating an extra £74 million over three years to fund further capacity in community settings for autistic people and people with learning difficulties who are currently in long-term hospital settings
  4. Doubling the minimum personal independence payment (PIP) award length

While all positive policies, in theory, you will notice there are no new intentions to encourage the disabled community into work within these nor for businesses to be more proactive about ensuring equality in their hiring processes. And with the number of disabled people living in poverty rising by 200,000 from April 2018 to 2019, it’s clear this is an area of real concern.

Government and businesses must work together to attract disabled people into the workforce, offering clear provisions and aid where it is required. Diverse thinking is good for business and hiring people with different experiences and approaches has been long proved to be commercially beneficial. There is a compelling case for hiring people with disabilities and yet only 9 per cent of employers recognise this.

Rethinking policy: successes and pioneers

Despite a need for improvement in policy across the board, there are a large number of companies that are pioneering disability hiring and successful policy-making – taking on board all considerations and ailments – in order to become a truly inclusive employer.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of incorporating diversity policy is to ensure you are not sectioning or stigmatising the issue even further; this would be detrimental to the entire movement. Educating the wider team about invisible disabilities is a good start; after all, they may not even know they exist. Multinational technology company IBM requires all employees, no matter what level or department, to participate in a disability awareness training programme during onboarding to ensure this is successfully met.

Policymaking doesn’t stop at education and onboarding. However, during the process of bringing new staff onboard, it may well be the case that the business uses psychometric testing or regular testing to determine ability. It is important to consider disabilities that could benefit from extra time or additional support to ensure fair practice.  The Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) is a good example of a company that champions this practice effectively.

There are other companies that also go that extra mile for their staff, offering benefits to the entire team that could well encourage and endorse applications from disabled people as an indirect by-product. Managed healthcare company Aetna, for example, has on-site pharmacies, physical therapists and even massage services to improve the wellbeing of all employees. The fact of the matter being, these policies don’t only have to benefit one or a group of individuals, but in fact, the whole team.

As a business owner, it can be beneficial to do your research and think about the bigger picture too. Encompassed under the ‘invisible disability’ umbrella are a range of mental health illnesses; mental health negatively impacts one in four people and between 25- 40 per cent of people with a learning disability also suffer with their mental health. Incorporating mental health strategy with your disability policy, as well as wider wellness strategy, could be considered a good move. Channel 4 is committed to this, having trained a large number of their team in mental health first aid. Additionally, food manufacturing company Innocent Smoothies offers a wide plethora of indirect wellness benefits such as: flexible working, free gym and free breakfast to encourage physical wellbeing too.

The detrimental effect of not hiring disabled workers

The unemployment of disabled workers is unquestionably adding to a substantial disability pay gap in the UK, standing at 15.5 per cent. To put that into perspective, disabled workers are currently working two months of the year with technically no pay. This needs to be rectified to avoid heightened patterns of austerity in the UK. The situation in the US shows no improvement either, with workers with disabilities who have at least a high school education earning 37 per cent less on average than their peers.

Ultimately, hiring disabled people makes complete business sense. Not only will it improve levels of diversity, widen perspective and improve diverse thinking within the corporation, but it will enhance innovation and profits – with studies showing that diverse teams make better business decisions. Ignorance may be the biggest barrier to improving representation of disabled workers, but it can be overcome with effective education and thoughtful policy.