Employers must do more to remove workplace barriers for people with disabilities, argues Iqbal Wahhab in this month’s Director column…
“The best thing that ever happened to me was to lose my right arm.” I was staggered when Dan, a driver with chauffeur service Capstar, which employs former servicemen and women, said this as he drove me to visit the Help for Heroes charity. It made me realise for the second time my ignorance of the issues facing people with disabilities. The first time was when I embarrassed myself by asking the guys at Walking with the Wounded whether the people they helped could cope with working restaurant hours. “Well, a group managed 1,000 miles for a sponsored walk recently, so I think they could,” came the reply. Sometimes we really do over-estimate how difficult our own lives are.
Out of the nine million adults in the UK with disabilities less than half are employed. Moreover, most of those in work have acquired a disability while in a job rather than having been taken on with one. This suggests that employers are pandering to latent biases in recruitment in a way that is no longer acceptable when it comes to employing women.
Our views on hiring people with disabilities have been shaped by the able-bodied – it was a person’s impairment that meant they were unable to take part in things. Campaign groups have started to dismantle this flawed approach with what they call a “social model for disability”, where the problem of under-representation is more accurately assessed if viewed from the people we are talking about. What we call our processes and practices are barriers to others. These hurdles are not necessarily physical – they could take the form of wrong or bad attitudes. Often it could amount to companies failing to put parking spaces for the disabled close to a workplace entrance. According to lobby group Breakthrough UK: “It is these barriers that exclude disabled people, not their impairment or health condition. Once they are removed, everyone can participate on the same basis as others.”
Breakthrough UK says employers must recognise their restrictive practices by making workplaces equally accessible for all. We should be ashamed about having ignored such problems – at a time when so many of us are short of the people capable of growing our businesses.
Companies that don’t make adequate provision for people with disabilities risk facing litigation under the Disability Discrimination Act. More positively, 12 years ago Marks and Spencer launched a great initiative by asking customers which disadvantaged groups they would like to see the company engage with more. With the feedback M&S received it linked up with Remploy, which through the Marks & Start scheme helped the retail giant recruit more than 1,000 disabled people.
Using a specialist agency such as Remploy is vital in helping businesses not just understand their obligations and remove barriers to disabled people but, crucially, to give enterprises a previously unconsidered competitive edge.
So why did my driver Dan think that losing his arm (in Afghanistan) was the best thing that had happened to him? When he returned home he felt useless and became morbidly depressed. His mother referred him to Help for Heroes, which took Dan into its amazing centre at Tedworth House in Wiltshire, where it empowers those who have lost limbs to cope better with their newly acquired physical challenges. He was able to create stronger mental frameworks – similar to those he had obtained in service – and apply them to civilian life.
Equal access not just to work but all the other privileges that the able-bodied take for granted can make people like Dan more determined to succeed. Think back to the Invictus Games. Now imagine the courage, determination and strength of the contestants. Like me, you’re probably thinking: Why aren’t they on my team?
Iqbal Wahhab OBE is the founder of Roast. You can tweet him @IqbalWahhab