Last reviewed 13 July 2017

People with disabilities have always faced barriers in joining, or re-joining, the workforce. However, firms who fail to recruit disabled workers are missing out on a huge talent pool, argues Jon Herbert.

Worldwide, an estimated one billion people with disabilities have the potential to bring unique experiences, skills and talents to many different, diverse and challenging workplaces.

In December this year, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities 2017 will help to break down the many barriers they — and employing companies — face in playing their distinct part and giving and taking freely in modern society.

Meanwhile, the annual Disability Awareness Day (DAD 2017) held annually since 1992 in a tented village within the grounds of Walton Hall Gardens in Warrington, Cheshire, will help to highlight many powerful roles that disabled people can take up in routine life and work.

This year’s event on 16 July 2017 will emphasise practical routes open to businesses to embed skills from people with disabilities into the UK workforce.

The day will focus on three interest areas.

  1. The statutory, private and volunteer services available to help disabled people stay independent.

  2. The equipment and aids available to support independence, including the latest designs on the market.

  3. Showcase examples of what people with disabilities can achieve in not only work, but also sports, art and entertainment.

Bringing benefits to work

It is estimated that about 7 million UK people of working age are either disabled, or have an adverse health condition.

Historically, people with disabilities have not fared well in employment opportunities when compared to non-disabled people. Businesses can now help to change that for, among other motivations, sound commercial reasons.

It is broadly recognised that proactively encouraging and including applications from disabled people can:

  • increase the number of highly-qualified applicants available for specific posts

  • create a workforce that reflects the diversity of customers served and the local community

  • introduce additional, often scarce, skills into a business.

For employers worried about the cost of making reasonable adjustments to accommodate disabled employees into the workplace, the reassurance is that these are often low.

Where experienced and skilled employees have acquired an impairment, the costs of retaining their expertise can be far lower than the costs of recruiting and training new and inexperienced workers.

Guidance for employees

The Government provides recently updated online information to help employers increase their understanding of disability and recruit and support disabled people, as well as those with long-term health conditions in work.

This Government website has links to other resources designed to help employers become more confident in attracting, recruiting and retaining disabled people.

It begins with the definition of a disabled person as someone with a physical or mental impairment that has a “substantial” and “long-term” effect on their ability to do normal daily activities.

The Department for Work and Pensions is working actively with employers to help them:

  • become confident in employing people who are disabled, or have long-term health conditions

  • understand disability and the benefits of employing disabled people

  • give disabled people opportunities to fulfil their potential and realise their aspirations

  • contribute to halving the disability employment gap.

Reasonable adjustments

Employers do have an obligation to make reasonable adjustments to support disabled job applicants and employees. This means ensuring they can overcome any substantial disadvantages faced in doing their jobs and progressing their work, or careers, under the Equality Act 2010.

Individual employees have the right to take an employer to an employment tribunal if they think reasonable adjustments have not been made.

Many reasonable adjustments involve little or no cost. Examples of reasonable adjustments include:

  • making changes to a disabled person’s working pattern

  • providing training or mentoring

  • making alterations to premises

  • ensuring that information is provided in accessible formats

  • modifying or acquiring equipment

  • allowing extra time during selection tests.

Again, more information and guidance is available online, including contributions towards the costs of making reasonable adjustments.

Help with any extra costs

It may be possible for businesses to secure help from the Government’s Access to Work scheme towards costs where an employee needs support or adaptations.

This is usually in the form of grants that pay for the cost of support, eg providing funds for:

  • special aids and equipment

  • adaptations to equipment

  • travel to and from work

  • communication support at interview

  • a variety of support workers.

Access to Work also has a Mental Health Support Service offering support for individuals with a mental health condition who are absent from work, or finding work difficult.

Support for older workers

Older workers often have extensive experience, knowledge and skills, which are worth retaining.

The Government’s Age Positive page provides information on employing older workers, including case studies from specific business sectors.

Supporting disabled people to remain in work

Help is also available from the following.

  • The Employer Adviser and Work Psychology Service at Jobcentre Plus if an employee becomes disabled or has an impairment or health condition change that could create barriers to remaining in work.

  • Work Choice can help disabled people to find and keep a job; the support type depends on the help needed and can include training and developing skills, building confidence, and interview coaching.

Disability law

Discrimination

It is unlawful to treat one person less favourably than another because of a personal characteristic such as being disabled. Direct discrimination may include:

  • not hiring the best person for the job because of their disability

  • selecting a particular person for redundancy because of their disability

  • paying a disabled employee less than another worker without good reason.

Discrimination does not have to be direct to be illegal. Firms can discriminate indirectly through working conditions, or rules, that disadvantage a specific group, eg a job advert stating all applicants must show a valid driving licence puts people with epilepsy, who cannot get a licence, at a disadvantage.

Accessible job adverts

Firms must not discriminate against disabled people at any stage of the recruitment process. Job adverts must be accessible to everyone who can do the job, disabled or not.

Guidelines for writing job adverts include:

  • using a font that is easy and large enough to read

  • making sure no section of the community is excluded

  • stating clearly that applications from all sections of the community are welcome and an equal opportunities policy is in place

  • person specifications must only include skills and experience essential to the job

  • criteria automatically excluding certain groups are illegal, eg that only online applications will be accepted, when the job does not require you to use a computer (photosensitive epilepsy)

  • contact details for a person able to provide further information and discuss any reasonable adjustments should be included

  • alternative application formats should be available, eg both online and paper-based.

Conducting interviews

Under the Equality Act 2010, no questions can be asked about a job applicant’s health until a job is offered, except to find out if:

  • they need any reasonable adjustments during the recruitment process

  • they can carry out an essential function of the job

  • disabled candidates are being considered by anonymous monitoring.

It is permissible to ask applicants if they need an adjustment to the interview process. Reasonable examples include:

  • using fully-accessible premises

  • changing lighting or room layout

  • showing a visually impaired applicant to their seat

  • offering alternatives to a standard interview, eg a working interview, or extra time

  • allowing applicants to complete a written test using a computer.

When interviewing a disabled applicant, helping candidates to perform to their best can be boosted by:

  • speaking to them directly, not their support workers

  • explaining flexible working patterns that may be offered

  • ensuring each applicant is asked the same questions.

Dealing with performance issues

The performance levels of all employees, disabled or not, change and are often exhibited as altered attendance, behaviour or conduct.

Before dealing with poor performance, employers should make reasonable adjustments that allow a disabled employee to improve their performance. Otherwise, employees can appeal to an employment tribunal.

Disability confident symbol

Businesses can sign up to the Disability Confident scheme. They can then use the Disability Confident symbol on adverts to show that they encourage applications from disabled people.

The Disability Confident symbol replaced the Two Ticks (positive about disabled people) symbol in 2016.