Why managers are vital to supporting disabled people back into the workforce

Written by Jermaine Haughton Wednesday 09 June 2021
We need to foster the understanding that living with a disability actually gives people a leadership advantage
Person with prosthetic leg working in a warehouse

Unemployment is high for disabled people – but vocational rehabilitation services and flexible managers will help change that. Employers are missing out on millions of talented and qualified people with a disability, who offer skills that would add to their team’s productivity and performance. Worsened by the pandemic, many disabled individuals find it increasingly challenging to find work that suits their skills and needs. Whereas people living with disabilities have a significant range of viewpoints, skills and competencies that are a result of living every day with the experience of the barriers and challenge.

Vocational rehabilitation is crucial to bridging the gap. In CMI’s webinar Supporting Disabled Colleagues in the Workplace, Vicky Betts and Martin Hiller, from the vocational rehabilitation team at Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust revealed how ‘voc rehab’ plays a crucial role in helping companies to attract and retain people with mental or physical conditions.

Demand for vocational rehabilitation services is growing

Although the Equality Act makes it illegal to discriminate against disabled people at work, the widening employment gap between those with and without disabilities is stark. Only 52.3% of disabled people are in employment, compared to 81.1% for people without a condition, the House of Commons research briefing in April 2021 reported.

Vocational rehabilitation services seek to solve the problem by providing job counselling, training, and other forms of support to help people with mental and physical disabilities successfully return to the workforce.

Vicky Betts, who is an occupational therapist, expects the demand for vocational rehabilitation to grow soon. “It is estimated that by 2030, one in three people of working age will have a long-term health condition that they are managing whilst they work,” she said. “Previously, if you had a long-term health condition you may be looking at stepping away from work. Now, I think the focus is very much that you will remain in work, if you're able to, and you will manage that condition as you progress.” You also need to understand the differences between illness leading to a disability, if permanent or short-term, and understanding not all disability relates to a long-term health condition.

This will require employers to hire and train more skilled managers, who are flexible, empathetic and strong communicators, and can successfully manage diverse teams including disabled staff.

The quality of managers is the biggest factor for retaining disabled staff, according to Betts.  “It's not the size of the company or the policies they have in place, it's the manager that makes the difference,” said Betts. “I've worked with some enormous companies with lots of policies and systems but [they] have a poor outcome for supporting people with disabilities. But I've [worked for] some tiny employers that have had fantastic results.”

Build a positive working culture for disabled people

The first step to building an inclusive workplace is to create a positive culture around disability. This enables people to feel comfortable disclosing their disability and be confident in their ability to thrive in their role without discrimination.

“It is about having those positive conversations about disability that can gradually start to move things forward,” said Hiller. “There is still a stigma about disability. Lots of people are really scared to speak about their disability, especially if it is not easily noticeable.”

This can be achieved in numerous ways. During the recruitment stage, the most inclusive companies make it clear to potential applicants in adverts and interviews that they want people with disabilities to join their team.

Furthermore, employers can use the Guaranteed Interview scheme, introduced by Jobcentre Plus, which guarantees an interview to anyone with a disability whose application meets a minimum set of criteria for the post. This helps remove barriers and ensure disabled candidates can compete on a more level playing field.

Get educated

Within the organisation, staff at all levels should take disability awareness training and be encouraged to educate themselves on the subject. The best employers offer the opportunity for disabled people to share their experiences through mentorship schemes, informal chats and staff networks.

Hiller added: “I think a lot of the focus is on the ‘dis’ and not the ‘ability.’ Lots of people focus on what you can't do rather than what you can do and I think there's different ways that we can try to build a positive culture in teams and organizations [to change that].”

Make adjustments to support people with disabilities

The next step is to tailor the working experience of disabled colleagues based on their needs. To make sure the right adjustments are made for employees and the job role, it is important for business leaders to work closely with vocational rehabilitation teams. Often these adjustments are cost-effective and relatively easy to implement, such as flexible working hours or providing adaptable chairs.

Using reasonable adjustments, the vocational rehabilitation team at the Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust helped a disabled lawyer build a new career that she now loves.  After sustaining a brain injury when she fell from her loft, the 48-year old corporate solicitor was forced to give up her dream career. Her injuries left her with bad fatigue, a low attention span and visual memory, and difficulty processing information quickly.

The vocational rehabilitation team provided job application and interview training for more than 6 months, and she secured a part-time admin role at the Ministry of Defence – in which she has since been promoted.

The vocational rehabilitation team proposed a series of reasonable adjustments to her managers to ensure she could work at her best. They advised that she receive flexible breaks to adjust to the demands of her role, not be interrupted during tasks to maintain her concentration and given the leeway to carry out her most complex tasks in the morning, when she is less tired. Remote working during the lockdown period has saved her from experiencing a tiring commute. The Ministry of Defence has also supplied her with an adapted chair to support her body effectively.

“She's now really enjoying her new job,” remarked Hiller. “She has a sense of pride that [she’s able] to give back to the community. She's got a real sense of worth and is incredibly proud that she works for the Ministry of Defence as well.”

Final thoughts

David Dent CMgr FCMI, an honorary professor and entrepreneur in residence in management and leadership, comments as a senior leader in an multinational organisation and wheelchair user himself: “Businesses cannot be truly inclusive if disability is continuingly ignored on leadership agendas and in leadership roles. In the same way as many communities – are my issues addressed if people like me are not represented? Organisations would stop making decisions they think would benefit and start to realise what would really help.

“Social constructs and ways of thinking have framed the views of society and therefore how people with disabilities were treated. These constructs and ideas of what disability is still frame our society and thinking today. This has been that disabled people have something wrong or missing, rather than their lived experience can be additive and bring another diverse perspective.” We’ll soon be speaking to David for another article on the topic - reach out to us with any questions here.

You can watch this discussion in full here.

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