Remember Musharaf – Mushy – from Educating Yorkshire? International Stammer Awareness Day, on October 22nd, has put him in our minds. His story of trying to overcome his stammer to give a speech for his GCSE English Exam routinely makes the rounds as an inspirational story of overcoming an extreme hardship, but what’s incredible is how he’s developed since them. Musharaf is now a public speaker and gives speeches now where he brings awareness for those suffering from stammers and how to support them, hoping to be the Mr. Burton to a new generation of stammerers.
What Musharaf needed was a little support and accommodation – to take him from someone who couldn’t speak, to someone who speaks regularly in front of thousands.
Musharaf is hardly alone. One in eight people in the world lives with a disability of some kind, and one fifth of the working-age population in the UK. Whether that be a more visible disability like a physical disability requiring aids such as a wheelchair, or a speech impediment like Musharaf’s stammer, or a mental disability like autism, or deafness, blindness, or invisible disabilities like chronic fatigue, disabled people make up a massive proportion of our population – but the workplace isn’t always built to support disabled employees, or knowledge of how to support them isn’t obvious.
And if you’re starting out as a new business, then you might be a little overwhelmed by the idea of supporting a disabled employee to begin with. The Equalities Act lists disabilities as a protected characteristic that employers must make all efforts to accommodate, so we wanted to go over a few ways to support employees with disabilities – we especially wanted to cover ways to do that weren’t immediately obvious. Moreover, we’ll do it without ever mentioning the words ‘install a ramp’. The many, many ways you can support disabled employees extend beyond making basic alterations to a building.
Embrace the Social Model of Disability
The social model of disability is an alternative the medical model of disability proposed by disabled people to combat the stigma and misunderstandings about disability. For example, the medical model states that the impairment to disabled people comes from their disabilities. Someone who has a leg amputation is impaired by their lack of a leg – someone who is autistic is impaired by their inability to handle loud noises.
The medical model is typically rejected by disabled people because it places the blame on the disabled person for how they are and claims something is inherently wrong with them. It also entrenches people within poverty and encourages people to think of disabled people as inherently unworthy or unemployable. This concerns the disabled community because this attitude has historically led down dark paths, such as the eugenics movement, forced sterilisations, and genocide. For that reason, many disabled people would rather society to move away from the medical model of disability.
The social model of disability, on the other hand, claims that disabled people aren’t impaired by their disabilities, but a society that hasn’t thought about them. Returning to our amputee, if he was a wheelchair user, then the only thing that might prevent him from working would be a set of steps up to his office. The autistic person might be able to function perfectly normally within an office if they could wear noise-cancelling headphones or listen to music as they work.
Embracing the social model of disability makes you a more attractive employer to a disabled employee because it shows you recognise their disability and are willing to make accommodations to get the work done. You might also find that the person who’s best for the job is someone you might have previously overlooked due to their disability – so get used to asking not if someone can do the job, but what small accommodations you can make to ensure they can.
Fight the employment gap
Despite the above statistics about one fifth of the working-age population being disabled, the wage gap and employment gap is still startlingly high between non-disabled and disabled employees. Disabled people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as the non-disabled, and nearly a third of disabled people are in poverty whether they work or not – this is in contrast to the non-disabled population, where poverty rates are closer to a fifth.
To some extent, the employment gap is expected. Some disabled people may never be able to work – for instance, someone with chronic migraines might not be able to do physical or intellectual labour. But this isn’t the case for all disabilities. Someone with a wheelchair can still function in an office environment – someone with autism might function well doing lone working jobs or night jobs where things are quieter and darker and less social. Not all disabilities are unemployable – but the popular perception is that disabled people should feel lucky to be employed at all.
For example, in a 2014 study by Scope found that the majority of people feel awkward about disability and most people think they don’t know any disabled people whatsoever. This has a knock-on effect on wages. Disabled people make, on average, 15% less than their non-disabled colleagues. For someone working 35 hours a week, that adds up to a pay cut of nearly £2.8k a year.
Fighting this issue is a simple matter of taking extra steps to ensure employees are being fairly compensated for their time and efforts, and not overlooking disabled candidates at the hiring stage, even if you think they might be incapable. If you are concerned about making adjustments, you could also look into Access to Work grants and encourage your employees to apply.
Dispel myths and bias about disability
Do you think disabled employees are more likely to be absent from work, or less?
Your reply to that question might be more revealing about your weaknesses as an inclusive employer than you’d think. If you answered, ‘more likely’, even with caveats, then it’s possible you still have some biases to work through. The answer is actually the opposite; disabled employees are, on average, less likely to take time off work to care for ill health than their abled employees. There’s multitudes of reasons for this, including that disabled people often have higher tolerances for pain and illness, and the fact disabled people are aware of the myth and overcompensate. The point, however, is that many people still need to work through myths about disabilities.
You could provide your employees with unconscious bias training. However, it’s important to be incredibly picky about your provider; the UK Government found evidence its unconscious bias training amongst civil servants actually may have backfired in the long run.
There’s also the risk of encouraging the opposite, inspiration porn. Inspiration porn is material that glorifies disabled people’s lives and struggles to be inspirational for non-disabled people but does not actually help disabled people. At worst, it can foster a mentality that disabled people who can’t achieve just aren’t trying hard enough. In work, this can cause a manager to put unrealistic expectations upon their disabled employees, causing excessive and unnecessary pain or even cause them further bodily damage.
This is the kind of mentality that has led to government cuts of disability benefits, and the subsequent deaths of thousands of disabled people. Though disabled people are often capable of more than they’re allowed to achieve, they are still disabled, and there are limits even they cannot push.
Scope, the charity focused on ending discrimination against the disabled, has many resources and articles on tackling disablism. For example, this article’s copywriting was cross-referenced with Scope’s End the Awkward campaign to double-check its language and remove any stigmatising language that crept in – the entire site is an incredibly invaluable resource that has a whole section on employment services on their website fully worth the look.
Don’t neglect all aspects of accessibility
Accessibility goes beyond installing ramps and handrails – and we promised we wouldn’t mention those, so we won’t. Instead, we’ll look at places your workplace might be inaccessible beyond the physical.
A surprising number of employers might not offer materials that are accessible to those who have any kind of sight or reading difficulty. After all, blindness is not the only accessibility difficulty – there’s disabilities like dyslexia, and even more obscure conditions like Irlen’s syndrome.
Typically, in standard print materials, you should aim to have font sizes no lower than 12pt, and it’s also important there’s enough visual contrast between the background and text (there are tools online like WebAim’s contrast checker to make your font is distinct enough from the background). However, this is just the start. Standards change between print, web, and PDFs, ensuring software and documents are compatible with screen readers, and it would take up multiple more articles to describe all the ways you can make things accessible.
The UK Association for Accessible Formats has all kinds of standards for everything from braille to epub documents, which can help with producing documents but that just covers documents for people with sight difficulties. What about deafness or hearing difficulties like tinnitus? Do you have a hearing loop system to help people with hearing aids? What about the kinds of adaptations to working environments suitable for autistic employees? Mental health resources for those with depression and anxiety? What about resources for employees with therapy animals, like guide dogs, diabetes companions, ect.
You don’t need to solve all of these issues now, and like we previously mentioned, employees can apply for Access to Work grants to help with the financial cost of solving these problems. But keep it in mind that accessibility goes beyond ramps and handrails. True accessibility takes into account many different types of disabilities. We’ll put a list of resources on how to make those changes at the end of this post.
There are lots of ways you can support disabled employees, and it’s vital that you do so. For one, despite legislation against disability discrimination, there is still a massive gap between the employment rates, wages, and living conditions of disabled people. This comes from a deeply entrenched cultural idea about disabled people’s worth and ability, and it only serves to make the lives of disabled people even worse. It also leaves out vast swathes of perfectly capable and talented people who simply – like Musharaf – need a little support and assistance to meet their potential.
As we discussed, here is a list of resources to get you started. We can also help you build policies and procedures which support your disabled members of staff and prepare for more to come on board in the future.
- GOV.uk Advice
- ACAS Disability at Work guide
- NHS Work and Disability
- Disability Rights Building for Success HR guide
- UK Association for Accessible Formats
- Scope UK Advice and Support
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HR and You can advise you about your responsibilities towards your employees in regards to disability, and can advise you about making accomodations. If you need help implementing disability and mental health policies into your workplace, feel free to give us a call to ask about the services we could offer.
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