The graceful, sweeping ramps around the entrance to the UK’s Treasury building on Horse Guards Road in central London are testimony to the progress that has been made in removing obstacles to disabled people joining the workforce.
The ramps, installed when the building was refurbished in 2002, are solidly built, slope gradually to allow wheelchair users easy access to the building and are in keeping with the century-old grandeur of the wider building.
Yet the actual use of the ramps illustrates the scale of the continuing challenge of helping people with disabilities into the workplace. The facilities are not mainly used by disabled employees or visitors but by smokers, who find them a convenient place to grab a cigarette.
The scene illustrates how, although many employers are convinced of the virtues of recruiting people with disabilities and regulations have removed many barriers to their doing so, actual practice often lags behind.
David Bonnett, an architect and polio survivor who worked on the Treasury’s refurbishment, says he is unsure if such efforts to encourage disabled people have shown through in the statistics for the number of disabled people working.
“For disabled employees, you need to get the recruitment right,” Mr Bonnett says. “And then, an awful lot of it is to do with how they’re managed.”
Some of the gravest continuing problems involve people with “invisible” disabilities such as blindness, deafness, mental illnesses or learning disabilities.
Susan Scott-Parker, chief executive of Business Disability International, an organisation dedicated to unlocking the potential of disabled people, says that modern online recruitment systems are making matters worse. Partially-sighted people and people with learning disabilities, dyslexia and autism struggle to use one of the most popular online recruitment programs.
“It’s knocking out really good people who could bring a lot of talent to companies because they simply don’t understand what an obstacle that online recruitment is creating,” she says.
Yet it is clear that there has been a transformation in at least the theoretical stance of many big employers to recruiting and managing people with disabilities.
Ms Scott-Parker points to the example of the UK’s Lloyds Banking Group, whose chief executive has set a target of making requested changes to lights or other parts of employees’ environment within 14 days to ensure disabled employees face the minimum possible barriers to productivity. It could previously take six months or longer to help an employee suffering migraines because of the wrong kind of light.
The policy change reflects how the banking group and many other employers recognise needs that extend widely beyond staff who are the most clearly disabled. Just 3 per cent of workers who identify as disabled are wheelchair users, for example. Employers may be slow to realise that their employees suffer some disabilities, particularly hidden ones. Employees are more likely to become disabled during their working lives than to have a congenital condition.
Given that at least 3m people with disabilities in the UK work, between 10 and 15 per cent of staff at many employers will have a disability, according to Ms Scott-Parker. “As more and more companies understand they already employ people with disabilities, they need to learn how to do a better job enabling them to fulfil their potential,” she says.
James Lee, who runs the “Bridge to Work” programme for the City Bridge Trust, the City of London Corporation’s charitable giving arm, says more employers are recognising that having a diverse workforce is “a critical element for their survival into the future”.
Employees are more likely to become disabled during their working lives than to have a congenital condition
“Disability certainly forms part of that,” says Mr Lee, who himself uses a wheelchair. “Disabled people are becoming more visible in the workplace. Lots of FTSE 100 companies will have well-developed networks for disabled members of staff.”
Diane Lightfoot, chief executive of the Business Disability Forum, a charity helping companies to employ disabled people, says studies have shown a more diverse workforce is more productive. “One of the things that we see around that [research] is diversity of thinking and creative thinking and also bringing in a different skill set,” she says.
As an example of improved understanding of the value of employing disabled people, Ms Lightfoot points out that some companies — including Microsoft — now seek to take on some autistic people. Some autistic people’s strong interest in detail — which can be a barrier to their social interactions — can be very useful in tasks such as checking computer code.
“They have the attention to detail their needs demand,” Ms Lightfoot says of Microsoft.
The current position is very different from the one Mr Bonnett faced when he contracted polio in the years after the second world war. Then disabled people were sent to special schools and equipped only for non-academic trades.
“Only if you’re very fortunate do you break free of that,” Mr Bonnet says of the situation then.
Yet, with very small proportions of disabled people in full-time employment in most industrialised countries, there is little doubt that far more action is required. Most people involved say companies need to understand better how to manage recruiting and retaining staff with disabilities.
Mr Lee says that part of the problem is that there has been far less rigour over employers’ behaviour in making management or recruitment changes to suit disabled employees than over ensuring they meet obligations in the adaptation of buildings. The UK’s Equality Act demands that employers make any requested “reasonable adjustment” to suit the needs of a disabled employee, while the Americans With Disabilities Act in the US also demands they make “reasonable accommodation”.
“Reasonable adjustment is so open to interpretation,” Mr Lee says. “That’s one of the great challenges.”
Ms Scott-Parker is scathing about the quality of government agencies meant to help disabled people find work. She is also fiercely critical of some companies’ failure to understand that not everyone can use computer systems equally.
“The assumption is that, somehow, technology is different from stairs,” Ms Scott-Parker says. “If you invited a jobseeker in a wheelchair to an interview and required him to walk up two flights of stairs, people would say that’s wrong.” It is equally wrong, Ms Scott-Parker says, to ask someone with a visual impairment or dyslexia to grapple with a website that for them is inaccessible.
Such concerns emphasise how, while some battles to improve working life for the disabled have been won, the struggle looks set to continue. “There’s still a long way to go,” Mr Lee says.