Closing the U.K.'s Disability Employment Gap


It’s more difficult to gain and retain employment if you’re disabled. There are increasing numbers of disabled people of working age in the U.K. and a growing awareness around issues of disability, diversity and the need for flexible working for various reasons but there is still an employment gap of 31.4 percent between disabled people in employment and non-disabled people in employment. In work, disabled people earn less, progress less and not surprisingly, experience less job satisfaction – which in turn contributes to the disability employment gap. There is also a higher prevalence of part-time employment among disabled people. This might reflect a preference for flexibility, but it’s not always a choice and it also contributes to lower pay and less opportunity for career progression.

Being more inclusive by making “reasonable adjustments” at the recruitment and appointment stage is one way to help redress this gap and enable disabled people to work on a more equal footing to their non-disabled counterparts – but there are still many barriers in practice. It can be hard to know your rights in the workplace (I didn’t for a long time) and it can be even harder to exercise them.

Many employers are less keen to recruit disabled people, believing they won’t be as productive or profitable as a non-disabled person. But even in employment, managers often still believe disabled people look a certain way or that truly disabled people won’t be working full-time jobs, and therefore may oppose requests for adjustments on a disability basis – even when they might be happy to alter hours for another purpose such as childcare or training.

There are still misconceptions that adjustments will be too costly or complicated to implement, or that they will stir feelings of envy with colleagues, causing unrest in the office. The opposite is usually true – the legal definition of disability is wide-ranging — a long-term impairment which has a substantial adverse effect on ability to carry out day to day activities. Many adjustments are small and inexpensive and there are Access to Work grants to help with costs. Reactions from colleagues are usually positive – because most sensible people know it is not “special treatment.” It is good practice therefore to ask the employee what they need and give serious consideration to providing it – even if you don’t think they are “really” disabled or deserving.

The only problem is, all of this relies on having the information in the first place. More often than not, that means a disability has to be “disclosed” by the employee. Those who do not disclose their disability will be unable to request the support they are entitled to under the Equality Act and employers will be unable to monitor and encourage diversity and inclusion in their organization. Most organizations want to do that these days.

Except for specific reasons (i.e. to help the candidate participate in an interview, for monitoring purposes, establishing the ability to undertake a function specific to the job, or for supporting positive action where there is an occupational requirement for a disabled person), it is against the law to ask about an applicant’s health or disability until a job offer has been made. And even then, the idea is for the employer to gain enough knowledge to assist their employee with reasonable adjustments, not to learn about their disability per se. Inquiries should never be intrusive – you don’t need to know the ins and outs of my day or what medication I take. If employers want to support disabled people and monitor progress to create a more diverse workforce they must build trust and confidence in this process. I have been through it twice now and it hasn’t been fun. The language doesn’t help.

As Kate Nash, who works with businesses on how they treat disabled staff, says in this BBC blog: “To disclose something suggests that you have a secret… and if you declare something that sounds like you’ve got a huge piece of news. This is language that we as disabled people might choose to use for ourselves and that’s OK, because that’s how it feels.” But she says that employers shouldn’t use it because “it perpetuates those notions.”

I also think it contributes to misunderstanding – as with a manager at my work, who seemed to think I was offering the information because I was under obligation to tell them rather than because they were under obligation to do something with it. The mind boggles.

“Disclosure” is a deeply personal choice and many people choose not to bother or have to think carefully about how to do it. Some disabled people don’t consider themselves disabled or don’t want to be pigeon-holed. In general, we are all too aware of the risks and want to avoid drama and stress. There is the fear that employers will think it will affect their ability to do the job, that it will be a distraction from their work, or that it will change working relationships. There is the worry of when to mention it (before, after or during employment), to whom (line managers, senior managers, HR, colleagues), and how much to divulge (disability is rarely straightforward or easy to talk about) – as well as anxiety about negative or unhelpful responses.

If you have a hidden disability, mental health issue, or have recently become disabled and are still getting used to the situation, it can make sharing it even harder. It is difficult because it puts you in a vulnerable position with your bosses, when there is already an imbalance of power. It can lead to breaches of trust, uncertainty about confidentiality, bullying and discrimination. Sometimes we have the added burden of having to tactfully educate managers about workplace policy and our legal rights. We may have to advocate and come up with adjustments ourselves, and we often have to repeat ourselves with different managers and fight to be heard. It can lead to having awkward and difficult conversations with managers who don’t have the right knowledge or experience to talk about or deal with disability sensitively, appropriately or quickly. And in the meantime employees are disadvantaged further by breakdowns in communication. In my case, I’ve been stuck in limbo for over a year.

Employers need to create a work environment where employees feel they can speak out, ask for the help they need, and share their experiences if they choose. They need to make policy/procedure and lines of communication clear and transparent for all staff and managers – and provide training if necessary. They can develop and promote flexible working policies that everyone can take advantage of regardless of disability, as opposed to policies that favor people who aren’t disabled. They should include disabled people in decision-making processes and in senior or leadership roles so they can have more influence on policy. Disability monitoring and statistics are useful, but there also needs to be greater scrutiny of practice internally and externally to make sure organizations that receive stamps of approval for being “positive about disabled people” or their “disability confidence” are actually deserving of those accolades.

Disclosure is supposed to be a positive action that empowers, protects and assists disabled people in the workplace. The employer only has to make adjustments when they are aware (or should reasonably be aware) that a disability exists – but when they are, the duty is proactive and they must take positive steps to remove, reduce and/or prevent disadvantage. It is more cost-effective and less disruptive in the long-term to plan adjustments than to correct mistakes. Encouraging staff to be open helps improve health and morale and can also raise general awareness, encouraging diversity and inclusion in the long-term. This helps improve working conditions for everyone – and it makes your organization look good. With the right people and procedures in place the process could be simple and effective, but when it goes wrong, it can go very wrong.

Getty image by Jane Kelly.


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