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The National Disability Strategy: A starting point for UK employers

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United Kingdom

Although the strategy has its shortcomings, it presents a welcome platform for organisations to become inclusive and supportive of disabled employees.
 
In July 2021, the UK government published its first cross-departmental National Disability Strategy (NDS).
 
On paper, the strategy sounds promising, with pledges to improve the lives of the millions of disabled people in the UK across areas such as employment, education, culture and justice.
 
However, the report has faced criticism for not going far enough or setting sufficiently ambitious goals.
 
Here, we assess the NDS' recommendations and provide guidance on what your organisation can do to become disability-inclusive and a supportive employer of choice for disabled people.

Guidance for employers

  • Speak to staff

Consultation with disabled people, employees and advisers, is crucial. The onus is on the employer to remove systemic barriers, but there is no one size fits all.

Your organisation cannot address disability inclusion without also addressing and understanding the inclusivity implications of gender, race, religion, sexuality, age and culture – aspects of diversity that often combine to exacerbate exclusion.

  • Use the strategy as a baseline

For years, the employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people has remained stubbornly at 30%.

With the NDS setting a policy framework for disability inclusion, employers have the opportunity to follow the recommendations and, even better, to build on them.
 
The NDS recommends that employers with 250 or more employees (and smaller employers seeking greater inclusivity) should publish data on the number of disabled people they employ.

This is a good start for accountability and transparency. 

  • Take advantage of new support

Collaborative responsibility between government, businesses and disabled people is the key. The promised reform of Access to Work, the UK government body that provides funding for disabled people to have their needs met at work, and the Disability Confident employer scheme, a programme for employers to highlight their commitment to disability inclusion, are welcome developments.

In particular, the focus on promoting flexible working as the norm and on implementing hybrid working support packages are anticipated to be effective approaches to take when creating job opportunities for disabled people. 

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) have joined forces to develop a new online advice hub, providing clear, accessible information on employment rights for disabled people and their employers.

BEIS is also consulting on making flexible working the default statutory right, unless employers have a good reason not to. This provision is especially important in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, when furlough, redundancy, and Covid-19 itself disproportionately affected disabled people.

  • Be inclusive by design

In the build up to the publication of the NDS, disabled people were invited to take part in a survey about their experiences.

From that survey, fewer than half of employed disabled people agreed or strongly agreed that their employer is flexible and makes sufficient reasonable adjustments.
 
Fewer than 24% of those surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that their promotion opportunities are the same as their non-disabled colleagues.
 
While many organisations struggle to make wholesale changes to the way they operate, there are many practical steps that employers can take, which are not included in the NDS but are effective examples of best practice used by employers that have taken a lead in this area.
 
First, you need to have frank, open conversations about disability to understand what this actually means in the context of your organisation and what you can do to remove disabling barriers.

For example, employers should ask themselves:

  • Is your office step-free?

  • Do you have subtitles or audio-description on your videos?

  • Is your website compatible with screen readers?

  • Can employees have noise cancelling headphones or dictation software?

  • Do you offer disability leave?

  • Are there any disability networks within your organisation?

If the answer to any of these questions is "no", or "I don't know", then these are barriers or potential barriers that disable people.

You should not wait for a disabled employee to request that you install a ramp or add alternative text to your images or communications. By being inclusive by design, you can help to deliver an equal workplace.

  • Get informed

As well as interrogating their disability inclusiveness, employers need to gather data and increase their knowledge of disability to ensure they remove disabling barriers in ways that do not create more obstacles for disabled people.

Steps employers can take include:

  • Collect metrics on how many disabled people you employ through HR surveys on people's identity;

  • On-board disabled people's organisations to do a full audit of your organisation, identifying barriers and removing them;

  • Learn more about disability, neurodiversity, and the social model (here) – check out Disability Rights UK and Diversity & Ability as a starting point for learning resources;

  • Get rid of discriminatory pre-interview testing when hiring such as verbal and non-verbal reasoning psychometric tests;

  • Be flexible with recruitment and progression practices – offer alternative formats for interviews, for example;

  • Remove inaccessible infrastructure, such as heavy manual doors or multiple steps without ramps, and create accessible working environments with, for example, step-free access, a changing places toilet, and assistive technology/equipment (don't use working from home as an excuse to not make your building accessible);

  • Be flexible with hybrid working – give disabled people a choice and never make assumptions about what they want when it comes to being / not being in the office;

  • Create a work culture where people feel safe talking about their disability and don't fear losing their job or promotion opportunities as a result.

Conclusion

The NDS is far from being the complete answer to delivering fair and equal workplaces for disabled people.
 
However, it can serve as a support framework to encourage businesses to start taking practical steps and having serious conversations about the wider societal adjustments that need to be made to make organisations more accessible.
 
A key component that was not addressed is the need for government to take an holistic view of barriers outside of the workplace affecting disabled people's ability to access work.
 
Taking the measures outlined in the NDS and implementing disabled employees' suggestions will only have a positive impact if looked at in conjunction with the broader factors affecting access to work.
 
The government needs to set clearer plans to deal with issues such as accessible public transport, affordable housing within commuting distance of employment opportunities and funding for disabled people to seek personal and/or technological assistance where this is required to help them contribute fully to the workforce.
 
But while the government's strategy may lack urgency in this respect, your organisation's approach doesn’t have to.
 
Employers should start open dialogue with disability activists and inclusion specialists to help them normalise talk of disability, measure disability metrics, identify barriers and remove them. Workplaces that are more inclusive benefit everyone.
 
This article was authored by Millie Hawes, corporate responsibility manager at Fieldfisher, and Ranjit Dhindsa, Head of Employment, Pensions, Immigration and Compliance at Fieldfisher.
 

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