On its launch night in 1982, Channel 4 broadcast Walter, a film starring Ian McKellen as a man with a learning disability. This display of inclusivity helped establish the channel as a diversity champion, a reputation cemented more recently by its vaunted coverage of the Paralympic Games in London and Rio.
Channel 4 is one of the country’s most celebrated employers of disabled people. Yet according to their chief marketing and communications officer, Dan Brooke, this commitment goes way beyond moral duty or brand building. Because Brooke believes there is a compelling business case for inclusion – and that many organisations are missing out on a wellspring of untapped talent.
‘Disability makes us more innovative, more creative and ultimately more commercially successful,’ says Brooke. ‘Bringing together people who are different in order to solve problems is a messier business than with people who are broadly similar, but the outcomes are much better.
‘As humans we have a natural tendency to gravitate towards people like ourselves, but you wonder just how much talent is going wasted in the world because of this.’
In Brooke’s experience as the channel’s diversity lead, people with different perspectives generate fresh ideas. And the benefits are not restricted to creative industries. ‘Employing people who are different will make any organisation more innovative and successful,’ he says. ‘All organisations face challenges that require creative thinking. Creativity doesn’t mean being artistic; it means you’re able to respond to problems imaginatively and laterally. If you always recruit the same types of people you’re likely to generate the same types of solutions time and again.’
Unique skill sets
Brooke believes anxieties around employing disabled people are holding organisations back. Firms are missing out on the unique sets of skills that people with different life experiences can bring to the table.
'Non-disabled employees worry about doing or saying the wrong thing. Our experience is that disabled people don’t worry so much about that; they just want to see a positive attitude that allows them to get stuck in.
‘There are no silver bullets here, but people’s natural instinct to ask questions and learn – that’s the solution. Once you gain knowledge of a disability, these are things you know forever. You want to know more and you go and tell other people. We’re part of an ongoing cycle of national change.’
According to Brooke, it’s breathing new life into the workplace. ‘Everyone’s story of how their disability affects them is unique,’ he explains. ‘But in general we find disabled people to be more resilient, as they deal every day with something that makes the business of living life more challenging.’
Seismic culture change
Recent research by Channel 4 produced startling findings for firms considering workplace diversity. It points towards a new spirit of openness and a culture change in the way disability is viewed.
The broadcaster routinely collects employee data as part of its Diversity Charter, the channel’s five-year vision for inclusivity. As well as details like ethnicity and social class, employees are given the opportunity to declare a disability – something referred to as ‘disclosure’.
‘When we started this project two years ago, just 2% were disclosing as disabled,’ explains Brooke. ‘This increased to 3% last year as we made a concerted effort to seek out more disabled talent.’
This was encouraging but still some way short of the 7-8% disclosure rates coming from the banking sector, a renowned disability employer, suggesting a significant number of employees were not declaring. Indeed Department for Work and Pensions data suggests around seven million people of working age, or 17.5%, are disabled or have a health condition.
Channel 4 engaged in another big staff disclosure drive in 2016. Called ‘This Is Me’, it encouraged staff to disclose their diversity data. At the heart of the campaign was a collection of films featuring staff members with disabilities openly sharing their stories and experiences. And this led to a game-changing discovery, says Brooke. ‘We now have 11% of staff disclosing as disabled. So it turns out we have many, many more disabled people in the company than we ever imagined.’
This gave Channel 4 the opportunity to better understand how disabled people view their workplace, and to begin important conversations around how they can offer more relevant, tailored support. According to Brooke, the outcomes have been overwhelmingly positive.
‘Our disabled employees faced a twin challenge. They were managing their life with impairments, and also managing the business of trying to keep that a secret. We’ve created a culture where people feel comfortable disclosing their disability. Now they are receiving support. Managers are able to manage them in a different way, to talk to them openly about their impairment and make necessary adjustments.
‘Many were hugely productive members of staff to begin with, and guess what? They’re even more effective now because they benefit from the adjustments we’ve made and there’s this sense of relief. This is a seismic culture change.’
The biggest impact has been on retention – of both disabled and non-disabled employees. ‘There’s an amazing sense of fulfillment among non-disabled staff that they’re able to help people now their disability is in the open, and there’s evidence that staff satisfaction has been boosted as a result. Disclosing a disability is brave and inspiring, and we think it demands a positive response from the employer.’
Throughout the process Channel 4 has benefited from the Disability Confident employer scheme, a DWP initiative offering guidance and resources about employing disabled people.
‘The scheme has been very helpful,’ says Brooke. ‘It’s a tried-and-tested framework that encourages you to think in much more depth about employing and retaining disabled people. It’s great for those that have a feeling they’re missing out but don’t know where to start.’
‘I believe Britain is at the arrowhead of awareness and education here, and although there’s a long way to go, this is something we should be enormously proud of.’