Can flexible work close the disability employment gap?

Written by Liz Johnson Wednesday 02 September 2020
At the start of 2020, flexible working was something you had to ask permission for. But overnight, it became a necessity rather than personal preference
Two colleagues, one in a wheelchair, talking at work

Flexible work is sometimes mistaken for being a millennial trend; demanded by those wanting ultimate freedom. But since the pandemic, free will has been taken out of the equation. But for disabled workers, this idea was nothing new. Working from home has never been about ‘perks’, it’s often about whether or not we can work at all. Will an upside of the pandemic-induced home working revolution be an improvement in disability employment?

People with disabilities in the UK are twice as likely to be unemployed. This is not for lack of talent or skills, but because of barriers put up throughout the world of work and prejudices about what we’re capable of. Traditional workplaces are built around hours, commutes, spaces and mindsets which, in the majority of cases, are simply not equipped to support or optimise the performance of workers with impairments. This, rather than disability itself, is what creates a disabled worker.

Whether it’s an office building without step-free access for wheelchair users, or an employer who’s inflexible towards time out for medical appointments or flexi-hours; barriers physical and mental amount. This leads to people with disabilities having to expend more time and money, and endure mental and physical stresses to work around these issues, if even possible at all within constraints of the organisation.

The simple solution for employers who want to access this untapped pool of employee talent is to make remote work and flexi-time possible. These are not luxuries, but reasonable solutions to remedy ableist work cultures and ultimately close the disability employment gap. Everybody deserves the freedom of choice to enable them to thrive in their roles.

When suddenly it was not only disabled people, but the wider population whose health and jobs were at risk, employers bent over backwards to enable completely remote working practices in a matter of weeks. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that it’s more than possible for companies to adapt to different needs.

So it’s time that this is translated to long term change for workers with disabilities; it’s time that employers accommodate their needs, rather than the other way round. If cemented as a permanent option, the adoption of working from home is a good start. But there is always more that can be done.

Already far less likely to be employed, people with disabilities are now also twice as likely to be made redundant. This is because, despite everything, employers are continuing to see differences as problematic. The thing is, they’ll be the ones who miss out in the end.

The disabled community is a wealth of overlooked talent, skills and expertise. The very fact that we have different needs and have had different experiences means that we’re able to offer fresh perspectives and creative solutions to business challenges.

As companies look to recover from the crisis, they’ll need to start looking at workers with disabilities for the very real talent that they represent. Then, so they and their teams can properly benefit, they’ll need to be flexible and inclusive in their approach. As offices are downsized and teams restructured, staff or freelancers with disabilities will prove to be valuable assets.

It’s also important that we see more diversity at a managerial level. Management which is representative of different backgrounds will naturally be guided by a greater understanding of different needs, and foster policies which reflect them.

Managers with disabilities create a trickle-down effect. But it’s not their cross to bear alone. All those higher up must recognise their responsibility to create more opportunities for diversity, and actively commit to doing so if we are to close the disability employment gap.

And, not only close the gap, but create equal opportunities for career progression. Although freelancing suits the needs of many disabled people, we don’t all want to have to rely on it for the rest of our lives – nor should we have to.

Workers across all backgrounds, disabled people included, should have opportunities to achieve meaningful work which meets their needs; as managers, as freelancers and as employees with full access to flexible working options.

Ultimately, it’s about choice. And when we empower a truly diverse workforce, everyone benefits. It is important to note that people are disabled by the barriers which are placed on or around them by society, not by their disabilities or individual circumstances.

CMI has conducted in-depth research into the business benefits of flexible working – see our findings in full here.

Liz Johnson is a Paralympic gold medallist turned disability campaigner and businesswoman. She is the founder of two organisations which aim to close the disability employment gap. The Ability People is the first disability-led employment consultancy, which works with companies to change their outlook on disability and transform their operations to be authentically inclusive. Liz has recently launched Podium, the first jobs marketplace for disabled freelancers.

Don’t miss out - get notified of new content

Sign-up to become a Friend of CMI to recieve our free newsletter for a regular round-up of our latest insight and guidance.

CMI members always see more. For the widest selection of content, including CPD tools and multimedia resources, check out how to get involved with CMI membership.