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Jane Hatton FRSA is Founder & Director of Evenbreak, a social enterprise which works with inclusive employers and disabled job seekers. Here, she reflects on a project exploring the disability employment gap, run by a group of Fellows.

A small group of RSA Fellows recently conducted an online survey to discover what participants felt their organisations’ approach to disability equality was. This was part of a project that hoped to identify barriers which can prevent disabled people from gaining access to meaningful, paid work in order to explore how those barriers could be reduced or eliminated altogether. The survey was live for four weeks in the summer of 2018. Whilst the response rate was quite small (25 respondents), some themes emerged.

Only 63% of respondents felt that diversity in its broadest sense was a priority for their organisation, and few thought that disability was the highest priority within diversity.

This resonates with my own experience of working with employers. Whilst diversity is increasingly mentioned as an important issue, the focus seems mostly to be on issues around race and gender (28% of those surveyed felt that race or gender was the highest priority, compared with 8% who felt that disability was the highest).

More positively, 64% of respondents could identify disabled people who had influenced them or supported their development, professionally or personally. However, some respondents were unaware of ever working alongside disabled people.

When asked about how organisations might benefit from employing disabled people, the three top reasons were more creativity (24%), better reflection/better understanding of customers (24%) and greater access to talent (13%).

Examples given by respondents of where an inclusive working environment had a positive effect included an overall acknowledgement that working in a diverse team creates a better culture and improved performance. A culture which embraces difference can be more understanding and empathetic to all. Flexible working was seen to enable teams to work well together, and benefits everyone.

A variety of barriers disabled people might face if they wanted to work for the respondents' organisations were suggested. The most common were to do with an inaccessible application process, physical barriers in the workplace and a lack of understanding amongst colleagues, as well as a fear of being excluded.

When asked what their organisations would need to do in order to employ more disabled people, the two most popular suggestions given were to create a more inclusive culture (20%) and to use targeted advertising (also 20%). Some organisations (24%) had been involved with programmes including Disability Confident, the Disability Standard and Disability Rights UK’s disability awareness training.

In addition to the low number of participants who responded to this survey (perhaps an indication that disability is low on people’s radar?), the demography of respondents was not representative. Over half describe themselves as disabled or having a long-term health condition (compared to approximately 19% in the population). Fewer than half of those had accessed workplace adjustments from their employer, citing a lack of trust in their employer, or their employer simply not being aware of their obligations to provide workplace adjustments.

Other observations made by participants were that for many disabled people, self-employment offers a preferable alternative to being employed as employers can find fluctuating conditions hard to deal with. Another point raised was that focusing on retention is just as important as on recruitment. Valuing disabled employees and ensuring support, training and opportunities to progress is available is crucial, in addition to removing barriers in the recruitment process.

There was an acknowledgement that disabled people should be valued for the skills and talents we bring with us rather than focusing on the impairment.

Clearly it is impossible to draw any clear conclusions from such a small sample size, but even with a small group of people willing to be involved with research on this topic, and from a group well-represented by disabled people, the outlook is still fairly poor.

I hope that more research can be done on this subject to raise it higher on the agenda within the world of work – particularly this kind of qualitative research which aims to shine a light on good practice.

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