In an increasingly digital and remote working environment, it’s important to focus on inclusivity. This guide explores the key aspects of disability in the workplace in depth, providing insight into how inclusive company policies and working styles tend to be (or tend not to be), as well as showcasing key data. We’ll also look at what methods companies can use to ensure a more inclusive culture. By making disability inclusion a priority, businesses can help drive motivation, engagement, and talent retention at work.
In short, disability inclusion provides people with disabilities the same opportunities to participate in society as others. This goes beyond encouraging people – ideally, inclusion should be a key part of policies and practices in the workplace.
Disability inclusion allows everyone to have equal rights in society – including in the workplace. Having a job or career is a standard part of life for many people, but there can be barriers that make it difficult for a person with disabilities to find and retain employment. Taking an inclusive stance can increase workplace opportunities.
To further understand the topic, it can be helpful to define disability and inclusion as separate terms.
What is a disability?
According to the Oxford dictionary, a disability is “a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses or activities.” A disability can be visible or invisible.
Under the law, specifically the Equality Act 2010, you are considered disabled if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial, long-term negative effect on your ability to do everyday activities.
A condition is classed as long-term if it’s lasted for 12 months or more. You can also be automatically classed as disabled under the Equality Act if you have a progressive condition (one that gets worse over time), or are diagnosed with HIV, cancer, multiple sclerosis, a visual impairment, or a severe, long-term disfigurement.
The government’s most recent Family Resources Survey found that:
of working age adults in the UK are disabled
of State Pension Age adults in the UK are disabled
of children in the UK are disabled
What is inclusion?
The definition of inclusion most relevant to the topic of disability in the workplace is as follows:
The practice or policy of providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those who have physical or intellectual disabilities and members of other minority groups.
The legislation explained
Under the Equality Act 2010, employers and employees must not make decisions about applicants or employees based on a protected characteristic, except when allowed in law*, or they could be found guilty of discrimination.
The following are protected characteristics under this law:
- Gender reassignment
- Marriage and civil partnership
- Pregnancy and maternity
- Religion or belief
- Sexual orientation
*Discrimination is allowed in law when it it’s needed because of the way an organisation works. For example, a centre for women escaping domestic abuse might only employ women.
According to the most recent report from the Office of National Statistics (ONS):
8.4 million people aged 16-64 (i.e. of working age) reported they were disabled
Of these people, 4.4 million were in employment
In total, 52.3% of disabled people were in employment, an increase of 25,000 from the previous year
The employment rate for disabled people is 28.8 percentage points lower than that of the people who are not disabled. This is known as the disability employment gap.
While it’s clear that the number of disabled people in employment has increased, the disability employment gap suggests there’s still inequality in the workplace. Let’s explore this gap further to find out why.
The disability employment gap
Encouragingly, the latest government research shows that the disability employment gap reduced between 2013 and 2019. It showed that 53.2% of disabled people were in employment, compared to 81.8% of non-disabled people.
However, there’s still progress to be made. The disability employment gap was greater for disabled men than disabled women. Interestingly, this is the opposite of the trend for non-disabled people, amongst whom men are more likely to be in work.
There was a 31.7% difference between disabled and non-disabled men, whereas the difference between disabled and non-disabled women was 25%. This could be because the employment rate for disabled women has been increasing faster than the employment rate for disabled men.
The same report noted that the disability employment gap increases for disabled people aged between 50 and 59 years (33.4% for the 50-54 group, and 33.8% for the 55-59 group). One reason for this is that a higher percentage of all people across this age group have disabilities. Increased health risks, such as disease, injury and chronic illness, all contribute towards higher disability rates in the older population.
The gap begins to close again (to 28.8%) as people reach 60 years of age, when non-disabled people are less likely to be employed due to factors such as retirement.
Research by TUC found that race is also a factor in the disability employment gap. The employment rate for non-white disabled people was 49.2%, compared to 54.3% for white disabled people. Across the board, ethnic minorities are less likely to be employed than their white counterparts, but it’s not clear how much of this is because of employer discrimination. LSE points out that people with protected characteristics may shape their search for work to minimise the possibility of discrimination. For example, they may apply for less-skilled jobs, use social networks instead of responding to job ads, or apply in a sector where the risk of discrimination is lower.
The disability employment gap increases for disabled people aged between 50 and 59 years
Supporting disabled employees
The good news is that the majority of employers are open to creating a more supportive environment for disabled candidates and employees.
believed disabled people make a valuable contribution to the workplace.
welcomed disability training being provided for all employees.
were willing to make adjustments such as buying or altering equipment, or changing working hours.
Source: Disability Rights UK
However, in the same survey, lack of resources was cited as a significant reason why it was difficult to employ people with disabilities. 19% said that the cost of modifying equipment made employing disabled people more expensive, while 49% agreed that having more funding for adjustments would help businesses retain disabled employees. 9% were unable to support employees with disabilities.
47% of respondents to Disability Rights UK’s survey noted that it would be helpful if candidates were more open about their disability. However, as we’ve noted, it is illegal to make decisions about someone based on a protected characteristic (which includes disability).
Having policies and procedures in place to ensure inclusivity, even before you’ve employed anyone who has a disability, will benefit you and future candidates in the long-run, as you’ll have a better idea of how you can accommodate them. We’ll explore what you can do in the next chapter.
49% agreed that having more funding for adjustments would help businesses retain disabled employees.
Full-time vs. part-time work
34.1% of disabled people work part-time, compared to 23.1% of non-disabled people. Some people may be able to work, but not be able to work full-time hours because of their disability, so a part-time job is a great solution.
There is no set number of hours that constitutes part-time work – it just needs to be fewer hours than a full-time worker. The government suggests that full-time employees work for 35 hours or more per week.
Part-time employees shoulder get the same treatment as full-time workers for the following:
- Career breaks
- Maternity, paternity and adoption leave and pay
- Pay rates
- Promotion, transfer and redundancy
- Sick pay
- Training and career development
Some of these benefits can be applied pro rata, which refers to the proportion of hours worked. For example, if a full-time employee is given a bonus at the end of the year, a part-time employee may receive half of that amount.
A report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that between July and November 2020, 21.1 per 1,000 disabled employees were made redundant, compared to 13 per 1,000 non-disabled employees.
Redundancies were more common during this time due to global events. In fact, the rate at which UK redundancies increased was faster between September and November 2020 than it was during the recession.
However, these figures still raise the question: why were disabled employees more likely to be made redundant?
Perception of disability in society
The charity Scope compiled a Disability Perception Gap report as part of their campaign against the misunderstanding of disabled people. As part of it, they found that:
A third of disabled people think there’s a lot of prejudice against people with disabilities.
A third of people believe disabled people are less productive than non-disabled people.
The gap between what disabled people and non-disabled people believe about prejudice has widened since the turn of the century:
- In 2000, 37% of disabled people and 34% of non-disabled people thought there was a lot of prejudice around disability.
- In 2017, 32% of disabled people and 22% of non-disabled people thought there was a lot of prejudice around disability.
Clearly there is some dissonance between what non-disabled people believe and the realities disabled people are experiencing. This could be because of a lack of awareness or education, or exposure to misinformation.
One way to support people with disabilities and increase others’ understanding is to create a more inclusive culture in your workplace.
It takes time and commitment to create a more inclusive workplace culture, but it’s worth it in order to ensure all employees are comfortable, confident, and happy at work.
It will also benefit your company in the long-run. Employee retention is likely to be higher if your team is happy and supported.
Identify existing unconscious bias
Unconscious bias refers to stereotypes or “prejudice in favour of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another” that someone can form outside of their own awareness.
We all have unconscious bias. Humans like to organise the world by placing everything into categories and this can lead to bias, even if it differs completely from your actual beliefs. However, if you become more aware of it, you can stop it from having an influence over your behaviour.
How to avoid unconscious bias at work
It would be wrong to become a financial crux to lean on, but finding a middle ground as a helping hand in a crisis is something totally different. Make sure to let your team know that the company will do whatever they can to help if unforeseen circumstances leave them with major money troubles. The specifics of this help can be discussed on an individual basis if such a reality ever presents itself.
Question assumptions, talk about unconscious bias with your employees and co-workers, and make sure they understand what it is and why they need to avoid it.
Arrange unconscious bias training for your employees.
Advertise job roles in multiple places, so they’re more likely to be seen by a diverse group of candidates.
Omit some personal details off of applications, such as names, which can reveal characteristics such as gender and ethnicity.
Have more than one person assess CVs, so you have a range of opinions
Carry out initial interviews on the phone, so the interviewer(s) cannot make decisions based on physical appearance.
Keep a written record of why decisions are made.
Humans like to organise the world by placing everything into categories and this can lead to bias
Change the language you use
Language evolves over time. Previous terminology may not be considered inclusive now, so it’s worth understanding why it’s fallen out of favour, as well as checking what is acceptable today.
It’s also important to note that there’s never going to be a universal agreement on what’s right and what’s not. The disabled community may have differing views on some terms. Always ask a disabled employee what they prefer, and be willing to update your vocabulary as language shifts. Doing so will help to create a more welcoming working environment.
Disabled person / person with a disability
There is some debate regarding which term is better: disabled person, or person with a disability. There are arguments for and against both terms.
Some people would prefer to refer to themselves as “disabled”, as they are disabled by the world when accessibility has not been thoroughly considered. Others would prefer “person with a disability”, as this implies they are an individual who happens to have a medical condition.
You may also have come across the term “differently abled”, but some people find this patronising as it’s a euphemism.
The most important thing is to ask someone what terminology they’d prefer, and then respect that choice and educate the rest of the company to do the same.
“Disabled people” or “people with disabilities” are the preferred terms for a group of disabled people, rather than referring to them as a collective (“the disabled”). This is because the word “disabled” is an adjective, not a word for a group.
Wheelchair user (s)
“Wheelchair user(s)” is preferred over “wheelchair-bound”, which implies that the person can’t leave their wheelchair. This is inaccurate, as anyone who uses a wheelchair will leave it to do things like use the toilet or go to bed. Some wheelchair users may only need to use it some of the time, and may choose to walk if they are able to. The word “bound” also has negative connotations of being trapped, when in fact a wheelchair is valuable and allows the user to live their life.
Positive vs. negative language
Avoid patronising comments (“You’re doing so well”, “You’re a hero”, “You’re an inspiration”), or negative language (“What’s wrong with you?” “They suffer from XYZ”). Both could be considered rude and unnecessary, and they may suggest victimhood.
The government has some additional guidelines about which language to avoid.
The most important thing is to ask someone what terminology they’d prefer, and then respect that choice and educate the rest of the company to do the same.
Consider using other methods in addition to your usual recruitment sites or agencies. Reach out to non-profit organisations, employment programs for people with disabilities, and local universities or colleges, or hire a recruitment agency that supports people with disabilities. This will widen the net when you’re looking for new employees.
Information in your job advertisement should include benefits that appeal to marginalised groups. For example, flexible working hours and being able to work from home will appeal to individuals with disabilities, as well as people with young families or caring responsibilities.
You could also add a statement encouraging individuals with disabilities to apply, and note that reasonable adjustments can be made. As defined by Acas, reasonable adjustments are changes to remove or reduce the effect of an employee or candidate’s disability so they can carry out or apply for a job.
Keep language simple, clear, and gender-neutral, and avoid using jargon wherever possible. Jargon can exclude people who have the skills needed for the job, but aren’t aware of any industry-specific language yet.
Accessibility considerations should exist before you’ve even hired someone. Make sure job ads and application methods are available in accessible formats. Interview and testing locations should be accessible too.
Every candidate will need to know about the interview process well in advance. This gives people with disabilities time to ask for reasonable adjustments, such as extra time to complete a task, or a sign language interpreter. It’s also important to remember that not all disabilities can be seen. Give every applicant and new hire the opportunity to inform you of their needs.
Treat candidates the same as you would anyone else during the interview. Ask about their knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm for the job role they’re applying for. Avoid asking questions about their disability – these can be asked once an offer has been made and you need to adapt according to their needs.
Jargon can exclude people who have the skills needed for the job, but aren’t aware of any industry-specific language yet.
Supporting disabled employees
It’s not enough to broaden your recruitment strategy in order to attract disabled employees. You also need to provide support for them after they’ve been hired. Inclusion isn’t a box-ticking exercise.
Once you’ve congratulated your newest employee on getting the role, talk should turn to how you can make the transition to working for your company as simple and stress-free as possible.
Ask them which reasonable adjustments will need to be made. A disabled employee may need additional technology to do their job, such as a screen reader or specific type of keyboard, and they may need to work flexible hours, or from home.
Improve workplace design and accessibility
Some straightforward changes can make a considerable difference to the working environment for a person with disabilities.
- Widening doorways and other entrances
- Providing ramps for wheelchair users
- Providing larger computer screens
- Making sure plug sockets are safely in reach
- Providing assistive technology, such as screen readers, magnifiers, and keyboards
- Clearing trip hazards out of the way
Don’t be afraid to ask existing disabled employees or new starters which changes would make their working day more seamless. They may raise an issue you hadn’t thought of.
As defined by the charity Scope, flexible working is “a way of working that suits an employee’s needs.” This could be flexible start and finish times, the option to work from home, condensing work days, taking more breaks, or not having to travel during peak commuter hours.
Flexible working has become more commonplace in the last few years in industries where it is possible. There are a number of benefits, which we’ll explore below.
It allows employees to look after health conditions (including disabilities).
Whether that’s through being able to attend weekday doctors appointments or manage pain safely at home, flexible working means healthcare isn’t restricted.
It increases productivity
Employees are able to work when they are at their most alert and motivated, improving both quality and volume of work.
It can reduce stress by providing a better work-life balance
Employees don’t have to stick to a rigid 9-to-5 schedule and, as noted above, are more likely to be able to deal with their workloads effectively.
“It’s in no one’s interests to have overstretched workforces,” confirms TUC secretary general Frances Grady. “People who experience high anxiety are less productive and are more likely to take time off.”
It is easier to hire and retain employees
More and more people expect some form of flexible working as standard when searching for jobs. Lack of flexibility has even been cited as one of the triggers of what’s being referred to as The Great Resignation. The Great Resignation, also known as The Big Quit, is a trend whereby employees voluntarily leave their jobs because they are dissatisfied. The pandemic showed them working from home and other flexibility measures are possible, and they are now more likely to seek employment elsewhere if this is not an option in the post-pandemic world.
Legally, all employees have the right to request flexible working (referred to as ‘making a statutory application’), if they have worked for their employer for 26 weeks or more. The employer should discuss this request in more depth with the employee privately soon after receiving it, in order to better understand their proposal and address any concerns. You must then consider the request and make a decision without discriminating against the employee.
Acceptable reasons for turning down a flexible working request include:
- Additional costs
- Being unable to meet customer demand
- Being unable to recruit additional employees
- Being unable to reorganise work amongst other employees
- Impact on performance and/or quality
- A planned change to the business structure
Ask them which reasonable adjustments will need to be made. A disabled employee may need additional technology to do their job.
Training and communication
Your non-disabled employees should be aware of the steps you’re taking towards disability inclusion, why they’re important, and what they can do to accommodate disabled members of the team. Clear communication needs to come from the top down, setting the tone for all employees. This will help everyone feel enthusiastic and lend their support.
It is also worth getting feedback, as the responses may draw your attention to issues you weren’t aware of and help you plan accordingly.
Additionally, training can go a long way in helping employees – with or without disabilities – understand the challenges faced by their disabled co-workers. It can also equip them with the knowledge and tools to solve any issues related to disability in the workplace, which means the responsibility won’t only fall on the disabled person.
There’s a lot that employers can do to be more inclusive in the workplace, from providing unconscious bias training to improving office accessibility. It will require some additional work and a willingness to change some policies and practices, but results in more employment opportunities for disabled people and overall a more happy, supported and loyal team in the long-run.
The quality of being easy to reach, obtain, or understand
A physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses or activities
A way of working that suits an employee’s needs
The practice or policy of providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalised
Characteristics that are protected from discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. These characteristics are age; disability; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; sexual orientation
Changes to remove or reduce the effect of an employee or candidate’s disability so they can carry out or apply for a job.
Stereotypes or “prejudice in favour of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another” that someone can form outside of their own awareness