Building A “Culture Of Access” — Making The Most Of Disabled Talent At Work

There are an estimated eight million people in the UK living with some form of disability, and almost one in two are unemployed. In fact, disabled people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as their non-disabled peers.

What this incredible statistic tells us, is that there is an army of about four million perfectly educated and skilled people in the UK, who are inactive but could be working. That is about half the population of London, and more than the population of Wales.

Why the unemployment rate for disabled people is so high

The unfortunate truth appears to be that negative stereotypes and perceptions hold disabled people back. Businesses and hiring managers are likely to undervalue and under recognise pretty much anybody with a disability — no matter how minor — because they fear recruiting them will incur costly expenses and inconveniences.

That has been the historical precedent, anyway. Fortunately, the negative stereotyping is showing signs of fading away, and mainly because the evidence is mounting that businesses often flourish after investing in disabled workers and talent.

And while there is truth in that some disabled candidates require adjustments to help them settle in an office or work environment, the reality is that most of these adjustments are very minor and inexpensive. From a hiring perspective, it is sobering to think that a few minor adjustments could be all that stands in the way from the recruitment of the ideal disabled candidate, over the recruitment of a less-than ideal (but able-bodied) alternative.

A successful case study

In 2016, an engineering company called Morgan Sindall Construction made the unorthodox commitment to hiring more employees with disabilities and to building a “culture of access”. Since then, the company’s director of human resources, Dawn Moore, has had nothing to report except for positive changes.

In a company-wide survey, Moore reported that all-round employee satisfaction and workplace recommendations had jumped from 50 to 95%. Staff turnover rates had plummeted, resulting in less hiring and training costs. Perhaps most importantly, the employees seemed to think that the company valued their own personal wellbeing over the actual work being done itself.

Morgan Sindall’s current ambition is to be officially recognised as a ‘Leader’ in disability inclusivity by the UK government’s Disability Confident scheme. In other words, this will be an official recognition that there is a full-fledged culture of access there, one that benefits all employees.

How the Disability Confident scheme works

The Department for Work and Pensions launched the Disability Confident scheme in 2016 to fight the negative stigmas surrounding disabled people and work. In the early days, many people had misgivings about it. Businesses feared the scheme demanded changes that were too costly and ambitious — all for the sake of hiring one or two disabled employees.

True, for some small businesses any ‘extra’ costs can be an issue. But the overall picture emerging is that Disability Confident has been a quiet success. At the time of writing, more than 17,000 British businesses have signed up to the first stage, the ‘Committed’ level of the scheme. This will put them in the same position as Morgan Sindall four years ago, requiring pledges to reform hiring practices, along with encouraging and making it easy to recruit disabled employees (and to hold on to them).

Once the checks and balances of ‘Committed’ are ticked off, businesses progress on to ‘Employer’ status and finally, ‘Leader’ status. But the ‘Leader’ status can only be awarded if the businesses can demonstrate its culture of access; that it has made positive changes to the lives of disabled people, by encouraging them to come and work there.

Not just disabled workers — other ways the culture of access improves work

Building a culture of access is largely about changing attitudes and challenging orthodox traditions that may be harmful. It requires a lot more sensitivity to the needs and mental health of others. But it also encourages support, understanding, clearer communication and a greater degree of listening.

These are all benefits that reach every employee in the business. After all, even an able-bodied person will have mental health troubles, or need some adjustments at some point in their working lives.

Established cultures of access like this help to explain why, in the companies that build them, employee satisfaction levels, retention levels, and feelings of self-esteem tend to skyrocket. The intention is to encourage disabled people into work, but the lasting effects encourage everyone to stay in the company.

Do we need disabled workers?

Despite the success with Morgan Sindall, similar recruitment reforms are still unorthodox in the larger British engineering sector. This is strange, because the British engineering sector has been grappling with a free-fall crisis in recruitment for half a decade now.

As more CEOs, hiring managers, and companies in general begin to sit up and take notice — that disabled workers are just as skilled and talented and motivated as their non-disabled peers — the four million or so disabled workers currently underutilised in the UK might actually prove to be an essential lifeline to some industries.

There are literally millions of people waiting to begin working. All this talk of skills shortages and recruitment problems can disappear overnight; all it takes is a change of mindset.

The most striking thing is, building a culture of access is easy. All managers and CEOs need to do is listen to their workers; encourage them, communicate with them more effectively, and be more welcoming. In such a culture, surely employees and companies alike can only flourish.

This is a guest post article, written by Neil Wright of Webster Wheelchairs, a company that supplies wheelchairs and other disability-friendly equipment to businesses and health institutions in the UK. 

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