Disability Confident: can we turn a corner?

By Beth Lazzarato, CIPD Public Affairs Assistant, @BethLazzarato

This week the Department for Work and Pensions will be celebrating the two year anniversary of the launch of Disability Confident, its campaign which aims to improve employer attitudes towards hiring disabled people. Marking this anniversary will provide a great opportunity to applaud many promising signs of progress, the most significant of which is surely that the employment rate for disabled people in the UK rose by 2.5% in 2014.  Other achievements include that the support the campaign has received from 225 employers, and widespread media coverage.

However, the anniversary is also a chance for reflection and planning for the future.  In my last blog, I discussed the plans that the DWP has for Disability Confident to mature.  As the campaign develops, it seems appropriate to examine the significant challenges it need to overcome in order to grow.

The problem that Disability Confident is trying to solve is not a new one. Even while the country was at war, back in 1944 the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act required employers with 20 or more staff to ensure that 3% of employees were registered disabled.  Although a widespread unwillingness to “register” made this legislation ineffective in practice, its existence proves that government has long identified a need for action on disability employment.

Efforts to increase employer confidence around disabled employees are also not new.  Nearly fifteen years ago, for instance, the CIPD released a report which explained that compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) was not as difficult as many had feared.  Yet here we still are, in 2015, trying to reduce a disability employment gap of 30%.

Changing deep-seated attitudes is an extremely tricky process. A 2014 survey by the Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion (ENEI) showed that over one in three people have an unconscious bias against those with a disability.  Perhaps even more worryingly, one of its findings showed that levels of unconscious bias rose following the Paralympic Games.  It almost seems as if events which ought to dispel prejudice simply push it into the subconscious instead.

This is one of the reasons why, though it may seem mercenary at times, it is important that Disability Confident continues to make the business case for hiring disabled people.  As Justin Tomlinson MP, the Government Minister for Disabled People, stated at a Disability Confident event back in June, nobody is trying to persuade employers to “do disabled people a favour.”  Such an initiative would be patronising to disabled people and be likely to create the kind of hidden resentment which, in turn, becomes unconscious bias.  As Tricia Riley from Transport for London highlighted during the same meeting, by making what are actually very small changes, an organisation can benefit from a pool of untapped talent.  The aim is not for a “work experience” scenario, in which disabled employees represent a burden on supervising staff, instead to make the small adaptations to a workplace that allows disabled employees to contribute fully.  A disabled employee can then be seen as just another member of the team.

It is also important that the messages of Disability Confident do not simply marinade in the minds of the company directors and spokespeople that attend campaign events.  The campaign must highlight the need for honest discussion of the issues throughout organisations, so that staff at all levels feel involved in the creation and implementation of any new policies.  A sure-fire way for resentment to be created is for a tide of “worthy” initiatives to be imposed on stressed line-managers from above.

Which leads me to, perhaps, one of the key messages of Disability Confident and other organisations promoting equality and the workplace: the importance of training and supporting line-managers.  Research by the Business Disability Forum, published this summer, found that for more than half of all private and public employers, the biggest barrier to retaining disabled staff was a lack of skilled and confident line managers.  The ENEI’s report, referred to earlier, highlighted the training of line managers as a key step in tackling unconscious bias in the workplace.  The DWP have stated that the next stage of the campaign will be to ask that those employers that have already signed up “do just one thing” to make their organisations more accessible.  Perhaps a training day for line managers could be the “one thing” that makes a huge difference.

Disability Confident has made great progress in spreading its broad messages.  But now it needs to go deeper; almost into the unconscious, if you will.  It needs to persuade employers not simply to sign up to some positive principles, but to implement conversations and training with all staff that can change deep-seated anxieties and attitudes.  The “do one thing” initiative could have a huge role to play in this.

Perhaps, then, we can turn a corner in this long journey.

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