How to support disabled employees in the workplace
Eastenders actress Rose Ayling-Ellis, made history in 2021 as the first deaf contestant to take part in the celebrity dance competition Strictly Come Dancing. Alongside her professional dance partner, Giovanni Pernice, she was crowned the winner, despite only being able to hear parts of the music and keeping time by counting beats.
So, what can employers learn from Rose Ayling-Ellis’s Strictly Come Dancing win?
The Strictly win demonstrates there may be a huge pool of untapped talent which businesses shouldn’t ignore. Particularly in view of the ageing population and the likelihood that a greater proportion of the workforce will develop a health condition or disability. Organisations with a diverse and inclusive workforce can tap into different perspectives and skills which ultimately boosts innovation and performance.
The disability employment gap
In the same year that Rose won strictly, the Department for Work & Pensions reported on the ‘disability employment gap’. In 2021 the disability employment rate was 52.7%, compared to 81.0% for non-disabled people. These statistics relate to the employment of working-age disabled people in the UK. The government has committed to reducing the gap between the employment rates of disabled and non-disabled people – known as the disability employment gap between 2017 and 2027. Its goal is to see one million more disabled people in work by 2027.
1 in 5 of the working-age British population are classed as disabled
Currently 1 in 5 of the working-age population are classed as disabled and more people are reporting a long-term health condition or disability than they did eight years ago. Interestingly, the increasing number of people reporting a disability is being largely driven by an increase in mental health conditions.
The statistics reveal that disabled people are more likely than non-disabled people to be:
- Working in lower-skilled occupations
- Working part-time (and subsequently fewer hours)
- Working in the public sector
- Temporarily away from work
Disabled people are as likely as non-disabled people to be:
- Working for a small or medium sized employer
- In ‘quality work’
However, disabled people are more likely to be working in health, retail, and education than other industries.
The importance of having well-trained line managers
The CIPD’s Health and Wellbeing at Work survey report found the most common challenge organisations experience in managing people with a disability or long-term health condition is the knowledge and confidence of line managers. It’s therefore essential that line managers are knowledgeable about the organisation’s framework for managing people with a disability or health condition and understand their role within that.
The type of relationship that a manager builds with team members is key. A management style based on trust is essential if someone with a disability is going to feel comfortable and empowered to discuss their condition and receive the support they need.
This approach will also help to develop an open and inclusive culture based on respect. It’s important that managers have regular one-to-ones with staff and feel comfortable having sensitive conversations and asking how people are on a regular basis.
If people in your team (or those joining you) know you have a positive approach to equality and inclusiveness, they will be much more likely to tell you about their disability or health condition. It’s essential that employees feel comfortable asking for adjustments to be made, rather than staying silent and suffering at work or leaving altogether. Remember, it might be far costlier to replace an employee than it is to adapt the workplace.
Support line managers with reasonable adjustments
Organisations are required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ when an employee has a disability. Therefore, a line manager may need to modify the employee’s working conditions to accommodate a disabled employee.
It’s also important to remember that not all conditions are physical. Indeed, the Department for Work & Pensions research suggests that the number of disabled people is increasing due to the prevalence of mental ill health conditions.
Examples of reasonable adjustments
If for example you’re considering reasonable adjustments for a neuro-divergent condition such as ADHD, dyslexia and autism you may find the employee finds bright lights, loud noise and heavy patterns on the walls difficult. In terms of reasonable adjustments, a line manager might consider providing natural lighting, noise cancelling headphones and a quiet room that the employee can retreat to. Alternatively, you might also consider allowing them to work from home if this is possible in their role. Assistive technologies might also be implemented such as screen readers to magnify the screen, voice recognition technology, hearing loop systems or amplified phones.
The government’s Access to Work grant scheme
Some employers worry that employing disabled people and making adjustments will result in significant additional costs, but most adjustments cost nothing or very little. Where there are costs, financial support may be available for individuals through, for example, the Government’s Access to Work scheme.
Access to Work can provide practical and financial support for people with a disability or long-term physical or mental health condition. It can pay for adaptations to the workplace both on recruitment and during employment. This includes specialist equipment, premises alterations, assistance with travelling to and from work, and some personal support. Applications must be made by the employee (although managers should ensure that an application has been made if funding is needed).
Provide unconscious bias training for all employees
Employees without disabilities may often be unaware of the needs and support required for colleagues who may have a disability. By training employees on the difficulties people with disabilities might face at work, you can open their eyes to things they should be considering. Training can be ongoing and doesn’t always have to formal, it could be peer-led.
Training should include encouraging staff to refrain from saying and doing things that people without disabilities seem to have adopted in a misguided bid to be helpful. Examples include telling a colleague with disabilities that they are being brave, talking in ‘baby talk’, or helping someone without being asked to.
How Strictly Come Dancing shone a spotlight on deafness and diversity and helped people feel more comfortable about disability
Martin McLean, Senior Policy Advisor at the National Deaf Children’s Society, said the Strictly win “helped put paid to lots of misconceptions about deaf people”. He urged people to take on board tips for communicating with deaf people, such as asking how they communicate, facing them when talking and never saying things such as “It doesn’t matter” or “I’ll tell you later”. He said: “It really will make a big difference next time they speak to a deaf person. A little deaf awareness goes a very long way.”
If you would like more information and guidance, Scope’s ‘End the awkward’ initiative provides more practical tips on what to do and what not to do in a variety of situations and provides tips on preferred language. Remploy have also produced some hints and tips on ‘disability etiquette’.