Converted warehouse. Beanbags everywhere. Kooky office in a cellar just crammed with sleep-pods, dogs and foosball machines. Start-ups are many things, but one thing they sometimes aren’t is disability-friendly. In many start-ups there’s a culture of work til’ you drop which might not suit those who experience learning disabilities, while the precarious and sometimes odd premises might be challenging for those with mobility issues.
Starting a business can be difficult – sorting out various red tape, paying employees for the first time, and hiring premises. But it’s no excuse to overlook disabled needs. For a start, think how much talent you’re missing out on by not engaging with the disabled population.
The disability employment gap, or, the difference between the disabled who are in work and the non-disabled in work is huge. It is static, and sits around 54 per cent, with approximately 46 per cent of disabled people in work compared to 80 per cent non-disabled.
Some small business owners may think that providing extra support for disabled people could be a demand on their time, but actually it’s a huge investment.
Catelyn Jacobs, who has MS and uses a wheelchair says she is no less ambitious than everyone else. “I’m in this [wheelchair] but I still want to work. I still want to work late and give my job my all, but when I have to ask at interviews what the accessibility is like and you see the interviewer’s face freeze, it just shows they haven’t even thought about it. Being disabled in a non-disabled person’s world is the worst thing about it!”
Let’s start with the physical problems. 91 per cent of UK SMEs say their building doesn’t have a lift. How will somebody using a wheelchair get to work? Sure, improvements in technology mean Skype and other forms of communications could be utilised, but at the exclusion of teamwork and team-bonding. Nothing screams alienation like not being able to physically access the office.
Kate Headley, chair of the Recruitment Industry Disability Index, says: “From an HR perspective, disabled talent is a highly-skilled under-represented talent group. Tapping into this pool doesn’t just have a positive impact on your company’s bottom line – it also genuinely changes lives.”
She points out that it’s not that employers don’t want to employ disabled people, but they just don’t know where to start or are “afraid of getting it wrong.” She says certain myths persist in the workplace about employing disabled people, which include they will eat into a manager’s time, it’s expensive to accommodate them, and disabled people might even present a health and safety risk. Headley says research suggests building a workforce which is representative of a company’s customer base has a positive impact on brand perception and profitability – and a recent survey by the Academic Network of European Disability experts (ANED) found that the general public would like to see a greater presence of disabled individuals in the ‘work place and day-to-day life’.
SMEs should bear in mind that disability doesn’t mean the employee will constant monitoring. People with long-term conditions often have to acclimatise to new surroundings quicker than others. “People with long-term or limiting conditions often have a knack of bedding into a new job quickly and finding their own solutions to challenges thanks to a wealth of experience in problem solving coupled with an innate drive to succeed. In fact, according to data from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), HR leaders find that disabled employees outperform all other groups in terms of ‘innovation’ and ‘professional ambition’,” explains Headley.
So what can SMEs do to break down barriers and start employing disabled employees?
Firstly, checking and modifying the recruitment procedure can really help. This is crucial to weedout subconscious bias. Kate Headley explains: “A job specification, for example, may ask for a full UK Driving Licence, even if it is not necessary for the role – but that may automatically eliminate candidates with epilepsy, or those who are registered blind. A candidate who may be the best person for the role may never make it to the first stage of the recruitment process.”
Adjustments in the workplace don’t have to be huge either. “Many disabled people may need nothing more than a little understanding. For example, an employee with a bowel condition may need slightly longer comfort breaks. Similarly, a person with diabetes could need privacy several times a day to administer their insulin. There are an infinite number of small adjustments you may need to make to attract and retain your best people – it’s just up to you to ask the question,” says Headley.
Fiona Jarvis, founder of SME Blue Badge Style, a directory which details disabled-friendly businesses says technology has really increased employee flexibility, which is important when it comes to disability. “Working from home and being flexible reduces many problems. Video conferencing and Skype is also another useful tool. Often the disabled person can solve a problem themselves e.g. providing a simple ramp using baking trays!”
She thinks there are plenty of ways SMEs can become more inclusionary. “They need to look past a disability and assess a person’s ability to do a job. They need to remember that anyone can be disabled at any time even if it’s only a broken leg. Disabled people want to be valued and not treated as ‘the right thing to do’.”
Jacobs says there are days when she can’t come into the office because she doesn’t feel well enough to commute. “But frankly when I load my laptop up at home I power through work faster than many colleagues in the office. I don’t declare my disability when I apply for jobs and I’ve definitely seen panic on people’s faces as they see me roll in with my wheelchair, but I’m just like everyone else, and they see I’m good at my job, and love hanging out at the pub afterwards. Sure it can take me a bit longer to navigate the bus system than others, but once I’m at work, I’ll do the job as well as anyone else. Probably better!”