LIVING WITH DISABILITY
One billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, live with a disability. According to the World Health Organisation, this figure is growing due to population growth, advances in medicine and longer life spans. 80% of people living with disabilities acquire them between the ages of 18-64 and most people will experience disability at some point in their lives. For example, in countries with life expectancies over 70, people spend an average of 8 years (or 11.5% of their lives) living with a disability. People with disabilities face a number of socioeconomic disadvantages and are at greater risk of poverty, due to lack of educational and employment opportunities, lower wages and increased costs of living with a disability. Other barriers include inaccessible physical environments and transportation, a lack of assistive technologies and widespread discrimination and prejudice.
DISABILITY IN WORK
According to the International Labour Organisation, 386 million people out of the world’s working age population live with a disability. In some countries, unemployment among people with disabilities is as high as 80%. A US-based survey found that only 35% of working age people with disabilities were in work, compared to 78% of people without disabilities. Two thirds of those who were unemployed and had disabilities said they wanted to work, but couldn’t get a job.
As well as facing higher levels of unemployment, people with disabilities are more likely to be in low-paid work. They are often given less responsibility and are less likely to be promoted. In the UK, the disability pay gap is 15% and workers with disabilities earn on average £2,730 less each year than workers without disabilities. Though people living with disabilities are less likely to have higher levels of education, making it more difficult to obtain jobs in higher pay brackets, there is still a pay gap between people with the same level of education. Disabled women face a bigger pay gap than disabled men, demonstrating how different facets of identity can intersect, to multiply-burden certain individuals.
As Guardian columnist Frances Ryan states, ‘longstanding prejudice around disability - that we are pitiable, stupid or a burden - create a climate that permits keeping disabled people in low-waged, junior roles […] the message is often, “forget equal pay - if you’re disabled, you should be grateful for having a job at all”’.
DISABILITY IN DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION
Businesses are now realising the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace and are increasingly investing in diversity initiatives. However, conversations about diversity and inclusion often focus on gender, race and sexuality and too often neglect disability. Though 77% of UK employers say ensuring workforce diversity is a priority for them, only 44% record data on whether their staff are disabled and just 3% measure their disability pay gaps.
THE BENEFITS OF INCLUSIVITY
Making your workplace accessible and inclusive is not only the right thing to do, it is also good for business. Research has demonstrated how diverse workforces increase job satisfaction, productivity, innovation and contribute to better products and services and that companies embracing disability inclusion are seeing significant results in profitability, value creation and shareholder returns. Though many employers think that creating more accessible workplace environments is costly, a study by the Job Accommodation Network revealed that 59% of workplace accommodations cost nothing to make, while other accommodations had a typical cost of only $500. Furthermore, the financial gains of being inclusive more than offset the costs of accommodating people with disabilities.
People living with disabilities are often used to challenging themselves and being creative in order to adapt to the world around them. They therefore often have strong problem solving skills and high levels of determination and persistence. As David Casey, Chief Diversity Officer at CVS Health states, ‘people with disabilities tend to be some of the most creative, innovative and, quite frankly, most loyal employees. A person with a disability wakes up every day thinking about being innovative - that is a skill set. That ability to problem solve is innate to them’.
HOW TO MAKE YOUR WORKPLACE MORE INCLUSIVE
So what can your workplace do to become more inclusive and accessible? Here are some key recommendations:
MONITOR YOUR DISABILITY PAY GAP
New rules that make employers monitor and publish their gender pay gaps have raised awareness about the issue and motivated employers to address it. The same should be done with disability pay gaps, as understanding the nature and scale of the problem is the crucial first step in tackling it effectively.
REVIEW YOUR HIRING PRACTICES
Ensure your hiring practices reflect your commitment to inclusivity. Do they discourage applicants with disabilities from applying, or limit their ability to demonstrate their skills? Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft found that candidates with autism were not getting jobs, despite doing well on several stages of the application process. She explained ‘in the case of people with autism, the knowledge base and technical aptitude of individuals can be very high, so we had to figure out why we weren’t placing them. We discovered the problem - the interview process. So we changed our approach to what the process should look like’. Application processes should be adapted to be inclusive and give everyone equal opportunity to showcase their strengths.
MAKE BOTH OFFLINE AND ONLINE SPACES ACCESSIBLE
Many workplaces are not accessible to people living with disabilities. For example, in the UK, 75% of FTSE 100 companies fail to meet basic levels of accessibility. You should ensure that your offices are equipped with ramps, handrails and accessible desks. You should also make sure that your online spaces are accessible. According to a 2018 study, only 47% of businesses conducted usability studies to verify that their websites work effectively with screen reading and other assistive technologies.
FACILITATE A SUPPORTIVE WORKPLACE ENVIRONMENT
Supportive workplace environments are essential for inclusivity. You should facilitate the creation of an Employee Resource Group (ERG) for employees with disabilities. You should also ensure that training sessions are available for employees without disabilities to learn more about living with disability and how they can be better workplace allies.
OFFER MORE OPPORTUNITIES FOR FLEXIBLE WORKING
Flexible working is too often frowned upon by employers and part time work is often paid less per hour than full time work. More jobs should be advertised, at all levels, on a flexible and part-time basis, to improve accessibility for workers with disabilities. Further, research on the gender pay gap has highlighted the impact of career breaks in reducing pay following return to work. It’s not clear to what extent career breaks due to disability are affecting people’s pay on return to work, but it’s likely that it’s having similarly negative effects. Companies should do more to allow for time off due to disability and facilitate employees returning to work.
DEVELOP MENTORING AND REVERSE MENTORING PROGRAMMES FOR EMPLOYEES WITH DISABILITIES
Mentors are crucial for career development, as they give junior employees the opportunity to make contacts and gain access to the expertise and advice of someone more experienced. Reverse mentoring is also extremely useful for fostering inclusive workplaces. People with disabilities are severely underrepresented at senior management level and therefore the specific barriers faced by employees with disabilities are often not prioritised or completely overlooked. In a reverse mentoring scheme, junior members of staff with disabilities could mentor members of senior management. This benefits both parties, giving junior staff with disabilities career development opportunities, but also giving senior staff the opportunity to learn about the specific barriers employees with disabilities face and what decisions could be taken by senior management to facilitate accessibility and inclusivity.