Xenia Taliotis 4 May 2018 03:32pm

Breaking the barriers of exclusive employment

The barriers to employment for those with disabilities are many and sometimes unbreakable. Xenia Taliotis looks at what companies are doing to lower them in order to incorporate an often undervalued section of the population into the workforce, and how much more needs to be done

Caption: Illustration by Sam Chivers

Every now again, reality TV produces a gem, one that (almost) makes up for the endlessly dreary succession of celebridashians. The BBC’s Employable Me was one of these, giving us an insight into the lives of people who challenge our perceptions. Focusing on “Britain’s most extraordinary job seekers”, it set out to find meaningful, suitable work for people with disabilities who had had the door closed on them sometimes thousands of times.

There was 52-year-old Andy, a journalist, coach for moto Grand Prix and director of a motorbike business who was left partially paralysed and with aphasia when he had a stroke six years ago. He’d applied for more than 3,000 jobs, but had only one interview. And 21-year-old Ryan, who has one of the most severe cases of Tourette’s in the UK, and 26-year-old Nicole, with a first-class honours degree in journalism – and cerebral palsy: she’d not been offered one single permanent position despite hundreds of applications.

We cheered when they found work, but their success did not detract from the shameful reality that the odds of finding employment – any job, never mind one that reflects skills and ability – are stacked against those with disabilities.

A damning 2009 study of 21 countries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) showed that disabled people were twice as likely to be unemployed as those without disability and that those in jobs were more likely to work part time and/or be low-waged unless highly educated.

The outlook is particularly grim for those who are mentally or intellectually impaired: they are three to four times more likely to be out of work, to have longer and more frequent periods of unemployment and to work in segregated settings.

You’d hope that those stats would be out of date but, nearly a decade on, the disability dial in the UK remains firmly stuck at that same twice-as-likely-to-be-unemployed point, as confirmed by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Labour Force survey from June 2017.

Other countries, too, are struggling to achieve inclusion: France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, India, Japan and China enforce quotas, but in practice many companies opt out, choosing penalties over compliance. In Austria, for example, just 23% of businesses meet the 4% quota set for organisations employing 24 or more people.

Nancy Doyle, CEO of Genius Within, a social enterprise that helps people with neurological conditions find employment, is the occupational psychologist and neurodiversity specialist who helped create Employable Me. She says that employers are still seeing the dis-ability, rather than the ability, and that fundamental flaws exist in the way the neurotypical world assesses and recruits talent. “GCSE maths and English remain a requisite of getting onto any kind of course, be it hairdressing or plumbing, and that’s an insurmountable barrier for people whose brains aren’t equipped to process that information.

They may have terrific spatial awareness and fine-motor skills; they may be empathetic, creative and brilliant problem-solvers, but those talents are often never discovered. Instead people who could achieve so much are marginalised and dispossessed of opportunities and a fair chance: it’s no coincidence that 51% of our prison population is dyslexic.”

In the US, the disability employment gap is 45% according to 2016’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (28% of disabled 16- to 64-year-olds work, against 72% of non-disabled) and 31% in the UK (49% versus 80% according to 2017’s Labour Force report). Given that that figure has barely budged in 10 years, Theresa May’s pledge to bring the UK figure down to 16% by 2027 by placing one million disabled people in employment seems fanciful.

Richard Lane, head of communications at disability charity Scope, says the government will need to take drastic action – of the carrot not the stick variety. Punitive and arbitrary withdrawal of benefits is not the way to bring people into the workplace; addressing labour market imperfections and providing training, both for potential employers and employees, is.

“Progress has been slow because disability remains stigmatised and problematic for employers,” says Lane. “Practically, they may have to make certain adaptations, which, though often cheap and easy to implement, are perceived as inconvenient. And they may also be anxious about productivity and fairness issues – that is, will they need to treat disabled people differently, expect less from them than they would from their non-disabled employees.

We’re currently working with Virgin Media to implement better practice within business and to get the message across that employers who hire staff with disabilities are doing themselves a favour, not the other way round.”

Stephen Frost, former head of diversity and inclusion (D&I) for both the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) and for KPMG, and author of The Inclusion Imperative: How Real Inclusion Creates Better Business and Builds Better Societies and Inclusive Talent Management: How Business can Thrive in an Age of Diversity, is a global expert on creating fully inclusive enterprises. Now running his own company, Frost Included, he works at the coalface, advising organisations including the White House, the British government and multinationals such as Shell, Novartis and McDonald’s on how to embed inclusion into their foundations.

“Companies often treat diversity as an ideological add-on rather than something that must be integrated into their corporate identity and processes,” he says. “Huge changes have happened relatively quickly. Even 100 years ago, Britain’s workforce was largely male, white, heterosexual and non-disabled. There’s been great progress in how well women, ethnic minorities and LGBT people are represented – although there is still a disparity in certain sectors – but disability lags way behind.”

Frost says that leaders have to choose inclusion, just as they choose sustainability, if they want to achieve true integration. “There are three paradigms: compliance-based change (obeying the law); marketing-led change (doing what looks good); and systemic change (real inclusion) – which is where we need to be for highest performance. Compliance-based diversity still dominates: many North American organisations are stuck there. Northern Europe is largely at the marketing paradigm, and almost no one is at systemic change. Having said that, some companies are doing exceptional work and moving towards real inclusion.”

Dr Caroline Casey, founder of business inclusion company Binc, and of #valuable, a global campaign that calls for corporates “to recognise the value of the one billion people living with a disability”, is hopeful that progress will gather momentum.

She says the penny is beginning to drop, albeit very slowly. While it’s true that organisations are moving towards D&I, not because they want to hit a legal requirement or target, but because they want to recruit the best people for the job regardless of whether they have a disability, she believes “that progress will remain slow until the focus switches to leadership, supply chain and the ROI to brand”.

Change, says Casey, has to happen from the top down. “Without business leaders we cannot resolve this – we need several Sheryl Sandbergs championing the cause of disabled people within the workplace and supply chain. Disability is not just a D&I issue, but one that also concerns brand, culture, market and leadership. We need to see diversity at every level, including the boardroom.

Inclusive design has knocked down walls and made the workplace accessible; assistive technology – including zoom magnifiers, eye-movement detectors that operate keyboards, and text-to-speech and voice recognition programmes – has crushed other barriers and enabled people to work. Now we need to remove the final obstacles, which are bias, perception and preconception.”

Examples of excellent practice are beginning to stack up, although high-functioning people on the spectrum are generally pulling ahead of those with other disabilities. Casey singles out Channel 4; Shell; Intel, which is building a fully inclusive supply chain; Delta, named best place to work for disability inclusion and receiving 100% on the Disability Equality Index; and Barclays, which aside from launching campaigns including This is Me for those with mental health issues and Able to Enable, an internship in partnership with D&I specialists Remploy, has pledged to be the most accessible, inclusive FTSE 100 company.

KPMG and EY are also establishing themselves as leaders, with cohesive strategies that are making a difference [see our diversity in the profession feature on page 54]. KPMG’s D&I activity is focused on its Workability and Be Mindful networks, for those with physical and mental challenges, respectively. Tony Cates, vice chair, KPMG and partner sponsor for the firm’s Disability Network, says the firm is promoting open debate between its disabled and non-disabled staff. “There is a legacy of reticence, of people not feeling confident to talk about their health issues – and this is particularly true where mental heath is concerned – but it is changing. We want to put our disabled employees at the heart
of our D&I policy because they can guide us to do better. We’re rolling out mental health training for our partners, and also provide unconscious bias courses to prevent our staff making quick judgements on, albeit involuntary, bias.”

KPMG’s initiatives are seeing results: the firm set a target to double its number of employees with disabilities, from 1.4% in 2014 to 2.8% this year, but, says Cates, there is more to achieve. “We’re not going to sit back and wait for things to happen. We’re constantly looking for ways to recruit the best people and to help them be the best they can be. Disability is a fact of life, and will become a reality for most of us sooner or later, and the workplace has to adapt to accommodate that.”

Lori Golden leads EY’s abilities initiatives in the US. “It’s a primary concern for us. Our leadership’s key commitments are that EY provides environments that are comfortable and enabling and for all our people no matter where they sit on the cognitive, physical and psychosocial spectrum.”

Three years ago, EY launched its Neurodiversity Programme in its Philadelphia office, but is now rolling it out in other offices too. Those who join the programme go through a different recruitment and training process and are then supported by what Golden describes as “an ecosystem” of specially trained managers and coaches.

“Ultimately it’s a question of responding to people’s needs, of listening and of not making assumptions. Our highly skilled neurodiverse individuals are doing important work for us in analytics, AI, robotics and cybersecurity. They’re driving efficiency, innovation and productivity.

“Diversity benefits everyone – it benefits business, individuals and society.”

It might be fitting to end with a quote from Stephen Hawking, who had a form of motor neurone disease: “We have a moral duty to remove the barriers to participation, and to invest sufficient funding and expertise to unlock the vast potential of people with disabilities. Governments throughout the world can no longer overlook the hundreds of millions of people with disabilities who are denied access to health, rehabilitation, support, education and employment, and never get the chance to shine.”

Case study

Mark Russell, Inclusion and Diversity at KPMG and co-chair of the Disability Network

“I was anxious when KPMG took over the company I worked for because I wondered how they would react to my disability – I’m registered blind – but it’s been fantastic. I had stayed in my previous job partly through fear, through thinking that no one else would employ me, but KPMG has opened new doors for me and taken my career in new directions. I have moved away from the desktop publishing team to a role on our Inclusion & Diversity team. I’d got involved with our disability network after joining the firm and took on the position of chair of our Disability Network. The skills and networks I have developed since have helped me move into an area I am passionate about, and to flourish.

“KPMG is a value-led organisation – it’s open and honest and we encourage our staff to be the same. There is the support here, both for people who are disabled and for those who become so, either temporarily or permanently, but we’re not complacent. We know there is much more we can do, and we are working towards that. Our leadership team is committed to making KPMG a truly inclusive place to work, a place where everyone can reach their potential. People are only as disabled as their environment makes them. If you provide the right technology and modifications so that people can work then their disability ceases to be an obstacle.”

Hidden talents

Paul Modley, client partner at global talent acquisition specialists Alexander Mann Solutions, on the skills people with disabilities can bring to a business

“As talent shortages affect business’s ability to attract and retain the right people, organisations are recognising the benefits of hiring neurodiverse talent. While every person is different, there are specific strengths that are commonly associated with certain conditions. Some individuals on the spectrum have superior spatial-reasoning skills and can view things from multiple perspectives. They often have an intuitive recognition of hidden patterns in mass data and above-average attention to detail and concentration. People with disabilities are often resilient and resourceful – they have to be given the challenges they face – all of which make them an asset to any company, and inclusive workplaces drive more effective communication and bring in new perspectives.”