Disabled people in the UK are twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people. Often this is because recruitment processes, workplace policy and culture are not inclusive.

The way you think about disability has a direct impact on the lives of disabled people. Especially in employment. But how do you change this and remove the barriers disabled people experience at work?

Source: Disability facts and figures

The legal view of disability

The Equality Act 2010 protects disabled employees and candidates from discrimination. It says a disabled person is someone who has a long-term illness, disability or impairment that impacts their daily life.

The law says that organisations must make reasonable adjustments. This is so that disabled people can work in the same way as anyone else. For example, remote working or a hearing loop at an interview. But compliance doesn’t always mean inclusion.

Focusing on the legal definition can mean employees that need adjustments get overlooked. It can mean organisations fail to remove barriers for many employees.

Disability can also vary from person to person. Many impairments or conditions happen during adulthood. Some may be temporary. Not all conditions and impairments are visible. For example, autism, dyslexia, or chronic pain. Some people may have a range of conditions.

Just because someone doesn’t ‘look disabled’, doesn’t mean they don’t face barriers. So never make assumptions about disability.

It’s important to change the way we think about disability at work. If we expand our understanding, we can make it easier for disabled people to thrive in the workplace.

Understanding barriers

Employment is one of the most important aspects of independent living. But getting employment and thriving at work can involve many barriers. Some barriers are obvious. Like offices not having accessible toilets. But there are also digital barriers that often get overlooked. For example:

  • HR systems that don’t work with assistive technology
  • inaccessible documents and emails
  • training videos without captions

And then there are barriers caused by people’s attitudes. This might be assuming that a disabled person cannot do a particular job. Or that disabled people are less productive than non-disabled people.

To remove these barriers, we need to change how we view disability.

The social model of disability

One of the biggest challenges disabled people face is the way society views disability. There are two main ways of viewing disability: the social model and the medical model.

The medical model of disability looks at it as a problem with the body. It says an impairment or condition is a disability. It considers disability as something that is ‘wrong’ with the person.

Disabled people created the social model of disability as an answer to this. The social model says that society creates barriers for disabled people. It is societal barriers that make it hard for disabled people to live and work independently.

For example, a blind or partially sighted person may need to use assistive technology to do their job. The medical model would still treat them as disabled even if they’re given the technology.

The social model says if an employer gives them this technology, they’re no longer disabled. They can do their job without barriers. The social model shows us that the situation and external barriers are disabling. They would be disabled by not having the right equipment.

By using the social model of disability, it is easier to see where the barriers are. This helps businesses to start to remove them.

How to remove barriers in the workplace

Following the Equality Act is a good start. Scope recommends a different approach. People with the same or a similar condition might have completely different needs. Knowing who is disabled does not tell you everything you need to know to remove barriers.

Instead, focus on the barriers that stop disabled people from succeeding in work. For example you could:

  • get feedback from disabled colleagues about your office space and ways of working. Find out the barriers they have.
  • look at your policies and processes. Like flexible working, disability leave and remote working.
  • review the software and equipment you give employees, like office chairs and screens.
  • make sure you have an adjustments process in place. Make it easy for employees to assistive technology and software.

You should also remove barriers created by attitudes. Our research showed that disabled people experienced negative attitudes from:

  • colleagues (41%)
  • managers (42%)

Make sure to give staff disability awareness training. Help them to understand the social model of disability and access barriers. There are also workplace habits that can exclude disabled people unintentionally. Encourage honest conversation. Ask disabled employees for their opinion.

Prioritise diversity in your workplace behaviours and values. Celebrate differences and embrace the value that disabled people bring to the workplace. Currently 41% working age disabled people do not feel valued by society. This needs to change.

By removing barriers, you can recruit more diverse professionals. You can create better, more inclusive workplaces. This will make it easier for disabled people to succeed and build a more inclusive society.

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