It’s hardly necessary to explain how acquiring a disability could be a traumatic experience. A less obvious problem is the effect it can have on a person’s career. Only 47% of disabled working age adults are in employment, compared to 77% for the rest of the population.
Among those disabled people who are in work, there’s a notable lack of visible career high achievers (can you name a self-declared, disabled FTSE 100 boss?), a symptom of what the DWP once called the ‘disability glass ceiling’.
To give you an idea of the extent of the issue, a recent survey by the Recruitment Industry Disability Initiative found that 67% of recruiters believed employers were 'fearful' of hiring disabled people.
That may sound like a terrible problem, but is it your problem? The answer, if you’re an employer, is yes. This isn’t just because of moral and legal obligations, important though they are. There’s also a rather significant business reason to pay attention to disability: there are around 5.7 million working age disabled people in the UK, or about 14% - and five sixths of those acquired their disability as adults.
‘You will have people working for you who are disabled. They may not have told you, they may be trying to get by without telling you, and won’t until they need to, but take it as a given that you have them,’ says Graeme Whippy, business disability consultant and former senior manager of the disability programme at Lloyds.
This means not being a disability friendly employer can have a real, if perhaps hidden, impact on your bottom line. Aside from restricting your talent pool, it can also increase employee churn. ‘If you happen to lose a member of staff simply because you can’t make adjustments for them, you’ll lose all their intellectual assets and experience – and it will cost a shed load to replace them,’ says Whippy.
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Even if you don’t lose staff, you could have a problem with absenteeism. ‘How much sickness absence is generated as a result of not making effective adjustments? At Lloyds, 62% of the colleagues who went through workplace adjustments reported sickness absence had been significantly reduced,’ Whippy adds. ‘There’s a significant cost saving to be had there, and if you get it right for disabled people you get it right for everyone.’
Let’s say you’re convinced. You do want to be disability smart, but it’s totally new to you both as an employer and in your personal life – where do you start?
It’s good to talk
If someone has acquired a disability, it’s very important to maintain the relationship with them, particularly if they require substantial time off. ‘It can be simple things like sending a card, having channels of communication open, so that the employee doesn’t feel like they’re not going to be able to come back or be useful anymore,’ says Yasmin Sheikh, a disability consultant, coach and trainer.
Sheikh was a fit and active City lawyer –‘a normal 29 year-old’ – when she suffered a spinal cord stroke in 2008. She went to bed with a pain in her back, and within two hours couldn’t get out again. It was 18 months before she was able to return to work, which made the fact that her office kept in touch all the more important.
‘You can take a big knock to your confidence having a disability anyway. It changes the way that you look at yourself,’ she says. ‘If [employers] let time slip and haven’t kept in communication and let them know they’re valuable, then they’re going to have a lot of work to do to rebuild that trust when the employee comes back.'
Get over the awkwardness
Line managers need to talk to the employee then, but what do they say? The key, Whippy says, is to keep the conversation practical and grown up. ‘Thank you for sharing, what do you need us to do to support you so you can continue to do your job, and then we can work out together how to put things in place to help you.’
Aside from being the professional thing to do, avoiding the personal medical details and focusing on workplace solutions helps steer the conversation away from the dreaded p-word – pity. ‘That’s the worst thing,’ says Sheikh. ‘No one needs pity or sympathy or to be treated differently in that respect.’
Don’t make assumptions
Don’t assume – ask. There are a lot of preconceptions about disability, which can include thinking it’s just wheelchairs and white sticks. Many impairments aren’t visible, and even those that are can have significant non-physical effects. Even with the same disability, each individual should be treated on a case by case basis. ‘It’s not one size fits all. Oh, we had another blind person and they found this helpful – well my eyesight might be better than theirs. You have to find out what works for you,’ says Sheikh.
Perhaps the most insidious assumption of all is that a disabled person isn’t up to something, what Sheikh calls the ‘soft bigotry' of low expectations. ‘It’s important for everyone, not just disabled people, to have aspirations... you need to have belief in people and ask them what they want,’ Sheikh says.
Grasp the nettle
Knowing how to talk with your employee is essential to fostering a culture of openness, where anyone would feel comfortable coming forward. But what about the actual nitty gritty of reasonable or workplace adjustments?
‘People initially focus on the scary physical stuff. The first thing they’ll think is that it’s ramps – it’s not!’ Whippy says. ‘The big stuff so often isn’t needed or isn’t as much of a high priority as the small things. For dyslexic people it could be something as simple as a coloured overlay to help them read documents. It doesn’t really cost anything.’
In the end, Whippy says, line managers just have to be good line managers, even if that means having to say no to a disproportionate request. ‘Be aware of your responsibilities around health and wellbeing, performance and talent management – just also be aware how disability influences those things,’ he says. ‘An analogous situation is women going on maternity leave. It’s just part and parcel of life. That’s where we need to get to with disability.’
This article was updated on June 28 2016.