There remains a view that those trying to equalise chances for disabled people to work and progress are willing to compromise on standards. Andy Rickell FRSA explores the issue and suggests a way forward.
As a disabled person, I have a vested interest in ensuring that whenever a disabled person is recruited, they are indeed the best person for the job. For it to be otherwise would be unfair on the candidate and unfair on all other disabled people generally, let alone on other candidates, the employer and their co-workers.
So, I am always wary when someone says ‘but we must recruit the best person for the job’ in response to a challenge about equality legislation or the employment of under-represented groups in the workforce. At best, it makes it sound like the recruiter sees equality in work as something antipathetic to good recruitment. At worst, it suggests better representation inevitably means a drop in quality. In countering this, some ideas come to mind.
First, we should focus on the word ‘best’ to ensure we really achieve it. ‘Best’ in terms of recruitment is a subjective word however much attempt is made to objectivise it; ultimately it depends on what you think is best. A problem for disabled candidates is that the embedded traditional way of thinking about disability inevitably means that disabled people are always assumed to be second best, unless they can clearly demonstrate superlative competence over rivals, and this influences recruiters too.
Second, we need to question the belief that ‘equal ops’ recruitment processes will address any individual recruiter bias. Setting out a job description and person spec is definitely a step forwards, but it is only as good as the assumptions behind it. For instance to require as essential a qualification which is not, and rarely is a qualification an absolute necessity for most posts, creates a barrier to all those who have faced barriers in the educational system, a major issue for many disabled candidates. There are other ways of addressing intellectual competence; they may just require a little more effort in the recruitment process. But the outcome can be a really effective candidate rather than one who has all the paper qualifications but no ability to deliver. Some intelligent re-design of the recruitment process could deliver better outcomes.
Third, we need to more thought to identifying those roles for which being a disabled person actually offers the candidate a competitive advantage over others, when it would be good to pro-actively seek and recruit disabled candidates. Traditional ways of thinking about disability tend to assume a disabled person might at the very best be regarded as an honorary non-disabled person – I get a sense that women sometimes experience similar issues vis-à-vis men – never an occasion when disabled people might actually be better than non-disabled candidates. And weirdly, if you allow yourself to think about when disabled people might be the best workers in particular roles, you soon remind yourself of the ‘equal ops’ of everyone else, and stop!
But if your customers are more likely to be disabled or older people (and about half of all older people are disabled too though they usually won’t identify as such), a customer-facing member of staff who is disabled may well be a better salesperson and representative of your organisation to those customers, because of the empathy and expertise arising from their personal experience of disability.
Similarly every role in the 70 percent of the NHS and health services that relate to long-term conditions would benefit from personal experience of disability, if that can be matched with the professional competences. Also, any form of giving advice or practical support to people in need – for example, housing, welfare, social services, social care – will encounter above average numbers of clients who are also disabled because of the predominance of disabled people in poverty. And in view of the ageing population, which because of the relationship with impairment also means an increasing representation of disabled people as customers and clients, the benefits of employing disabled candidates will grow in the future. This is if you are truly committed to employing the ‘best person for the job”.
This of course brings you to a practical problem of attracting quality disabled candidates in the first place. Recruiters who are already actively trying to do this report difficulties in getting disabled candidates at all. There are lots of reasons why, all of which can be addressed with some thought. For instance, disabled people as a group apparently have a preference for online recruitment, though equally there are also some for whom an online method is totally inaccessible, so generally you need a wider suite of advertising methods as well as be knowledgeable of disability-specific channels.
Disabled people will probably have had bad experiences of previous job applications so adverts need to be very positive about their candidacy. A pro-active invite to disabled candidates needs to appear in the main part of the advert; disabled people are quite sceptical of the two ticks symbol, or similar wording, on its own.
Anything in the recruitment pack that looks like the recruiter has not thought of the issues disabled people face, like the formats for both the information provided and the routes by which an application can be made, or which does not point out how disabled candidates have something particular to bring, may put off the discerning disabled candidate.
Where you are confident that only a disabled candidate can do the job needed, you could use the asymmetry of Section 6 of the Equality Act 2010, which allows you to discriminate against non-disabled people, and say the job is only open to disabled people. The experience of those recruiters who choose to take this step is very positive in terms of attracting disabled talent.
It is important to emphasise to all candidates, including the disabled ones, that everything you do to encourage the applications of disabled people is about getting the best person for the job. And having thought carefully about how to properly design your recruitment process, and challenge your recruiters about what best really is, you will do.
Andy Rickell is CEO of Action on Disability and Work UK. Andy has previously been an Executive Director for diversity at Scope (where the employment of disabled people rose from under 4 percent to over 20 percent in under three years), and CEO of the British Council of Disabled People. He was appointed as a government adviser on disability issues as a member of Equality 2025.