1 May 2018 11:31am

Embracing disability in the workplace

Thanks to the efforts of some inspirational individuals who are challenging stereotypes about working with people with disabilities, notable successes are now being achieved

When swimmer Siobhan-Marie O’Connor stood on the podium last month at the Commonwealth Games and held up the gold medal she had just won in the Women’s 200m Individual Medley, you would never have guessed that she was anything but the superb athlete she is. Yet this young woman, one of Great Britain’s most successful female swimmers, suffers from ulcerative colitis, a chronic bowel disease that undermines the immune system and leaves sufferers feeling exhausted. It is a disease that can flare up without warning – it forced O’Connor to pull out of the European Championships in 2014 – and often leads to hospitalisation.

You might wonder why I am sharing her story with you, but there is a reason. This edition of economia is dedicated to diversity, whether it be gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, social mobility or disability – all equally important factors in the global campaign for inclusion. As you know, it’s a campaign that we support wholeheartedly and we are keen to help the profession develop its diversity policies and profit from the undoubted social and economic benefits that a truly inclusive workforce brings.

Of all the different aspects of diversity, perhaps the most difficult to tackle is disability and, even more so, disabilities that are invisible. To a certain extent, if someone is in a wheelchair or has some outwardly visible disability, it is easier to make allowances and adjustments for them. But three-quarters of disabled people, like O’Connor, suffer from disabilities – physical, mental or emotional – that go largely unnoticed. As a result, workplace colleagues may not appreciate the challenges they face; they may misinterpret their difficulties as malingering and fail to understand that they genuinely need help. These challenges are compounded by the fact that many people feel they are unable to tell their employer and their colleagues about their disability for fear of receiving a negative response.

Fortunately, in recent years a number of campaigns have been established that aim to disrupt this invisibility and bring the issue to public attention. The Invisible Disability Project, for example, has as its goal “a world where people with unseen disabilities no longer encounter barriers to personal relationships, healthcare, community, education, employment, technology, media representation, laws and policy”. In doing so, it “aims to reveal how ‘bodily diversity’ and ‘neuro diversity’ more aptly describe every human experience as opposed to the ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ binaries”.

Another inspirational campaigner for disabled people is social entrepreneur Caroline Casey, who was the keynote speaker at this year’s ICAEW annual dinner. At the age of 28, she left global management consultancy Accenture and a job she loved after finally accepting that she had lost her sight, and challenged herself to cross India on the back of an elephant. When she returned, she set up Binc, an organisation dedicated to motivating inclusive business leadership to build “universally inclusive cultures” that embrace the one billion people globally who live with a disability. She argues that disabled people are marginalised because “the world is not looking beyond their disability to see their potential, their value”.

I believe that the social and economic case for employing disabled people is incontrovertible. As the UK charity for the disabled, Scope, points out, a 10 percentage point rise in the employment rate among the UK’s disabled adults would contribute an extra £12bn to the Treasury’s coffers, while the UK disabled community’s spending power is thought to be well over £200bn a year. If you add the purchasing power of friends and family to that of the one billion disabled people Casey mentioned worldwide, you have a potential market of upwards of $8trn (£5.6trn).

But it shouldn’t all be about commercial imperatives. I feel that embracing disability is something that is important for the culture of our organisations and society as a whole. As employers we should be sensitive to the needs of all our employees so that they feel able to be themselves at all times. As Casey says: “Being absolutely truly yourself is freedom... We need change because every single one of us – man, woman, gay, straight, disabled, perfect, normal, whatever – every one of us must be the very best of ourselves. I don’t want anyone to be invisible.”

Michael lzza is chief executive of ICAEW