As CEO of a diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) charity, my primary responsibility is to support organisations on their journey to becoming more inclusive workplaces, says Sandi Wassmer.
But as a blind person with ADHD, I also feel it is my responsibility to advocate for other disabled individuals and create opportunities for them to achieve similar career success. I am passionate about doing everything in my power to ensure their working lives are as rich and fulfilling as mine is.
With the disability employment and pay gaps stagnating, and little representation in senior roles amongst disabled people, it’s time for a new approach.
Government, industry and the third sector must collaborate effectively to unlock the untapped talent pool of the 4.79 million disabled people of working age in the UK.
The disability employment gap currently stands at 30 percent and the disability pay gap at 14.6 percentand neither have budged in over a decade.
Across all FTSE 100 companies, not a single senior executive or manager has disclosed a disability. Attitudes towards disabled people are at the heart of this issue, not the abilities of disabled people themselves.
Disability discrimination exists at all stages
Structural discrimination exists in all aspects of a disabled person’s life — from education, healthcare and social services through to the workplace, and in their social, cultural and political lives. As with all protected characteristics under the Equality Act, disabled people experience four main types of discrimination—direct, indirect, harassment and victimisation. They also face two additional forms of discrimination: failure to make reasonable adjustments and adverse treatment based on disability-related factors rather than the disability itself, such as a blind person’s use of a guide dog.
Disability discrimination permeates the workplace, manifesting in both direct and indirect forms. Direct discrimination occurs when an individual is treated less favourably due to their disability, while indirect discrimination arises from seemingly neutral policies or practices that disproportionately disadvantage disabled individuals. Examples include withdrawing a job offer upon learning of a candidate’s disability or enforcing a mandatory office presence that unfairly burdens an employee with an anxiety disorder.
It’s true because I’ve lived it
Discrimination of all types can be covert or overt, and I’ve certainly experienced both. In a job where I was a senior manager, I was told that it was not suitable for me to manage HR investigations because I was blind, which all of my sighted peers did. More covertly, when invited to a lunch meeting, lunch was ordered for me, as I later discovered it was assumed I couldn’t read the menu. In both situations, the intention was to be kind, but both made me feel disabled, which is not how I would ever describe myself. Even though I am blind and have ADHD, it’s not the entirety of my identity.
In the absence of a joined-up approach to tackling the disability employment gap and the disability pay gap, employers have it within their gift to play their part in bridging these disparities and, in doing so, gain a competitive and productivity edge.
It’s not a one-size-fits-all all approach
For employers wishing to understand how to attract, retain and progress disabled people, it’s important to remember that all disabilities sit across spectrums This is because the way different people experience disability will be different, depending on when they acquired their disability and the nature of the disability itself. From a workplace perspective, those who were born with a disability or acquired a disability during childhood will have a very different experience to someone who acquired a disability during their working lives. Alongside this, people who have degenerative conditions will have different needs to those whose conditions are stable.
So many employers get into a quandary about how to support disabled people during the recruitment process or when in work, particularly around making reasonable adjustments. They mistakenly think that reasonable adjustments are complicated or expensive. According to UN Enable, 80% of disabled people do not require any adaptations to accommodate them in the workplace. Where adjustments are required, the average cost of doing so is only £80. Employers also assume that a disabled person knows what reasonable adjustments they need. Although this may be the case, many disabled people do not know what is available to them at work, particularly if they’ve only recently acquired their disability. It is therefore important to offer advice and support, whether this be from internal or external DEI practitioners, disability organisations or the Access to Work program.
Collaborating with organisations supporting disabled individuals is important
Employers seeking to tap into the broadest talent pool should collaborate with organisations supporting disabled individuals’ employment and establish pathways, such as apprenticeships and internships, for those who have not had the same educational. They need to ensure that every aspect of the recruitment process is inclusive, from job descriptions to recruitment platforms, and provide options for reasonable adjustments throughout.
Getting to understand the person behind the disability is also vital. Employers should not take a cookie-cutter approach to attracting, retaining and progressing disabled talent. Checking in with disabled employees regularly to ensure that they have everything they need to thrive is key. This includes having the right policies, procedures and systems, along with the culture, leadership and strategy in place to facilitate inclusion.
There are, of course, strong links between the disability employment gap and the disability pay gap and employers need to be mindful of providing disabled people with equal opportunities for development and progression. They should also collect disability data across all levels and disciplines within the organisation, as well as by disability. Doing so supports organisations to identify where the greatest pay gaps exist. Then, companies can ensure that disabled people’s pay is on par with their non-disabled peers at all points of the employee life cycle, including recruitment, performance/salary review and promotion/progression.
Through all of this, the one thing that employers should never forget is that they should see each person as an individual, with all of their wonderful skills, talents, knowledge, expertise and experience, exactly as they do for any other employee.
And that competitive advantage we talked about?
The UK has a wonderfully diverse population, and organisations need to ensure that their workforce reflects the customers and communities that they serve. If not, they run the risk of being out of step with their customers and providing products or services that do not meet their needs. For a diverse workforce to thrive, the culture must be inclusive, where diverse views, thinking, attitudes and approaches can flourish, leading to more creativity and innovation. In an inclusive environment, every individual can bring their whole selves to work and feel a true sense of belonging. After all, a happy and harmonious workforce is a productive workforce and that’s just good for business.
By Sandi Wassmer, Chief Executive Officer, Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion.