The government’s achievement in reaching its target of 1 million disabled people in work five years early should be celebrated, but we also need to acknowledge how much progress still needs to be made. Latest figures show that around 52% of disabled people are employed, compared with 81% of non-disabled people – and as evidenced in CMI’s discussion paper, Disability in the workplace, a vast array of barriers persist once in work too.
As more workers join the so-called Great Rethink, people’s need for psychological safety at work is moving fast up the list of expectations. It makes sense: we should all be able to trust that we can be our whole selves at work and be treated with fairness and respect.
But what does that look like in practice? Acas’s new guidance sets out the steps leaders and managers can take to support their disabled workforce.
Shaping workplace culture for the better
A growing body of evidence tells the same story: many disabled people feel unable to talk openly about their condition at work, and many feel undermined when they do speak openly about their disability. Research by Samsung UK, for example, found that almost half have tried to conceal their challenges from colleagues for fear of being judged, or of the negative impact on their careers, and 40% felt their colleagues valued them less after realising they had a disability.
As often the first point of contact, people managers play an intrinsic role in influencing workplace culture: championing the values, beliefs and ethos of an organisation, and indeed, setting the tone for what can and cannot safely be shared at work.
Of course, it’s always up to an individual to decide whether to tell their current or prospective employer that they’re disabled. Not everyone who is considered by law as having a disability will consider themselves to be disabled either – but there are a myriad of ways in which managers can help create a safe space to facilitate conversations and empower people to open up if they wish to.
Acas’s advice includes the following:
- Understand legal obligations, including protections from disability discrimination, harassment and victimisation set out in the Equality Act 2010. Acas has additional advice on what disability means by law.
- Make reasonable adjustments - CMI finds that poor attitudes are getting in the way of adjustments, with evidence consistently showing that requests are frequently being denied. Yet as it also rightly points out, many adjustments are simple and cost little to implement. They can range from making changes to working hours, to allowing extra breaks, to providing specialist software and equipment (and making sure these are available across different working locations).
- Have regular, meaningful conversations with individuals to understand their specific situation and how their disability affects them. Not all disabilities are visible or obvious to others, and conditions may fluctuate or progress over time. The same disability can also affect people in very different ways, so never make assumptions about what someone can and cannot do, or what support might be needed.
- Use appropriate language and terminology, recognising that this can evolve over time and that people may have different preferences. Any offensive or ableist language could be deemed to be discriminatory and should be addressed immediately.
- Respect confidentiality and appreciate that it is the disabled person's choice who they tell, how much they share and when, so information should not be disclosed without their prior agreement.
It can be especially difficult talking about a disability for the first time at work. Some conditions may be new or developing, so individuals themselves might still be coming to terms with their diagnosis and the impacts. Respect and compassion are absolutely core to any strong, trusting relationship.
Turning words into action
CMI’s 75th anniversary report, The Everyone Economy, warns that “we’re too much say and not enough do.” And I agree. Expressing our commitment to fairer and inclusive workplaces is not enough.
Narrowing the disability inclusion gap requires people to feel able to be open and honest in the workplace about their disabilities. There needs to be authenticity, transparency and a genuine intention to listen and act. We need more than words. We need tangible action.
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