Four ways to boost your organisation’s disability strategy

Written by Mark Rowland Tuesday 28 September 2021
People with disabilities are held back by two main misconceptions among employers. Flipping these takes a few straightforward changes
A woman in a wheelchair operates an office printer

David Dent CMgr FCMI is a leader with a disability. A life-changing injury while serving in the military resulted in him using a wheelchair. David is senior director of business development at biotech company Parexel, a vocal diversity equity and inclusion champion – and a rare visible leader in a group that is severely underrepresented in senior positions across all sectors.

But David feels that companies in general are not sending the right signals when it comes to hiring, developing and promoting people with disabilities. “There’s a nervousness of senior people in businesses to hire people with a disability because they have these preconceived ideas that are not valid. They don’t want to talk about it because they’re too embarrassed or concerned about their biases.”

Those misconceptions tend to centre around two assumptions: that disabled people will take a lot of sick days, and that adapting to them will cost the business money. Both of these are not necessarily correct, Dent explains; most disabled people are no more likely to go off sick than other members of staff; and adapting the workplace often requires a few very simple steps. Refusing to have the conversation is making the problem worse.

This attitude results in people keeping ‘hidden’ disabilities to themselves, for fear of stigma. These people are working in organisations at various levels, including senior management, but they’re hard to track. And because they haven’t declared their disability, no measures have been taken to make their working lives easier. “With a couple of minor adaptations, they could be even better, but they're too worried to bring it up,” says David. “Disabilities are only disabilities because of the environment that people are in. We need to think of it in that way.”

Diverse workforce, diverse skill sets

It’s clear that disabled talent, a disability-friendly development policy and a more diverse workforce has positive effects on your whole business. For instance:

  • It can boost morale and increase productivity, not just among those whose needs have been met, but also the wider organisation, who are more likely to feel supported by the leadership.
  • A more diverse workforce creates diversity of thought and brings in valuable skills and traits into the organisation. For example, most disabled people have had to learn to be resilient and adaptable, as the world is not designed with them in mind, and also tend to be excellent problem-solvers.
  • Neurodiversity encourages innovation and allows issues to be approached from new angles. Large, forward-thinking organisations are actively trying to hire neurodiverse people to get that diversity of thought into the business and capitalise on the value add to their business.
  • It presents to outside stakeholders such as suppliers and customers that the organisation is inclusive and has a purpose and culture that they can get behind.

Where to start?

Covid-19 has proved that organisations can adapt to people’s needs – so the time is right to start building that pipeline to encourage more disabled leaders. David says organisations should think about the following:

Conduct an assessment

Organisations should start by assessing every aspect of the business, from the roles people do to the office environment and the facilities in place. It’s worth considering bringing in outside assessors to help with this. One approach will not work for every disability. Many charities will come in and help businesses adapt for people with certain conditions. There are also plenty of resources on the internet to help with your assessment, including on for those in the UK.

Culture and attitude

This assessment should also include culture and attitude. This should be backed explicitly by the senior leadership. “Be a listening culture, because there will be people with hidden disabilities in just about every organisation. If they start to feel comfortable coming forward, you can start making adaptations for them. That’s the way to start the process,” says David.


Get started with your culture assessment: Log in to access CMI’s Corporate Values Checklist to explore ways to analyse, develop and implement values as part of an overall organisational strategy.

Hiring and recruitment

Make sure that your new development strategy doesn’t feel like you’re just filling a quota; most minority groups are not in favour of this, David explains. It should be based on merit. Review where you advertise job roles to ensure that they’re particularly visible on platforms that speak to the disabled community.

Once you have looked at your hiring process, look at your internal promotions. How adaptable is your internal recruitment process, and does it take into account an individual’s needs?

Training and development

Mentorship and sponsorship is also valuable, says David. A lot of organisations have some form of mentorship programme in place. Assess whether there’s more you can do in that space to enable more people to develop themselves.

Also, every hiring manager in the organisation, right up to the chief executive, should do annual training around the latest thinking in diversity, equity and inclusion; potential hiring blind spots; and common unconscious biases. This will help to maintain a truly diverse and inclusive organisation and remove the inequality that exists with clear paths for anyone into management roles, no matter their background. “It doesn’t require extensive training; you need maybe ten minutes to cover these things,” says David. “But there should be a process in place to help hiring managers grow.”

Image: Shutterstock/Pressmaster

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