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Disability needs to be on the agenda now

Diane Lightfoot

By Diane Lightfoot, Chief Executive Officer

On Wednesday 18 April, we were proud to hold our flagship annual conference, hosted at the Royal College of Nursing in central London and generously sponsored by Business Disability Forum Partner HSBC.

Our theme this year was “Disability in the modern workplace” – and we wanted to look at how we can seize the opportunities provided by technology and new ways of working to bring us closer to a world where disabled people, businesses and governments can work together without barriers.

So why did we pick this theme? We’re living – and working – in a world that is changing rapidly. While many of these changes are very welcome, businesses must meet them thoughtfully if they are to continue to work with disabled employees and customers in a productive way.

We hear a great deal about the ageing population and how this means there will be more people with disabilities and long-term conditions working and generally living longer. We know that 18% of the UK population has a disability or long-term condition and this rises to 44% of adults at pension age or over. Linked to this, we also know that 83% of disabilities and long-term conditions are acquired during someone’s life rather than being present at birth.

So, why does disability consistently struggle for airtime in comparison to other protected characteristics? Much is being made (quite rightly) of the gender pay gap, but let’s not forget: there’s also not just a disability pay gap, but a disability employment gap. We know that still, in 2018, half of disabled people do not have the opportunity to work. Based on figures from the Labour Force Survey by ONS, we worked out at what point in the year, if compared with the rest of the workforce, the opportunities for disabled workers would dry up – and this year we estimate that “Disability Unemployment Day” would be 11 August.

And yet, despite all this, time and time again we hear of the struggle to get disability on the board agenda in a meaningful way and of the frustrations when reports about other aspects of diversity make no mention of disability. Far too often, it seems to be the poor relation. This puzzles me, because disability is the only protected characteristic that you can literally acquire overnight. It is not respectful of status, or wealth or class or education – it affects all of us. Far too often, the discussion is all about “them”, those disabled people over there. But actually, it is not about them, it is about all of us.

So we wanted to ask: What does it mean to be disabled in today’s workforce?

Disability in the modern workplace means a modern approach to what we mean by disabilities which are often non-visible long-term conditions. This is important, because one of the major challenges for employers is that they may well not know that their employees are disabled.

Either way, it’s likely that in your professional life – and your personal life – you know many more disabled people than you think you do! Around 96% of disabilities are not visible and our recent study found that 60% of people who had a non-visible disability chose not to tell their employer either at application or once in employment. I often reflect on the fact that if you have a physical disability you don’t have the luxury of choice of whether you tell someone about it – but equally, you don’t have to keep effectively “coming out” over and over again!

At this point you may be asking, why do I need to know? And indeed does it matter if you know if your employees are disabled or have a long-term condition?

I’d respond to that by asking, where is people’s energy going? Is it focused on doing the job or on hiding or working around a condition? One of the increasingly hot topics for our Advice Service – and beyond – is mental health. One of my colleagues remarked to me recently that employers perceive mental health as a problem as they generally don’t find out that someone has a mental health condition until they are not coping or are in crisis. So employers need to create an environment where it is ok to tell and know support will be there; such an environment where we talk about “us” and acknowledge that disability can and does affect every one of us in some way is really important in enabling people to bring their “whole selves” to work.

And going back to the fact that most disabilities are acquired – and the average age of acquiring a disability is apparently 53 – does it make a difference whether someone has a lifelong disability or a newly acquired disability? We know, in particular, that people who experience say sight or hearing loss later in life can feel very vulnerable and isolated and go to great lengths to conceal their acquired disability, rather than asking for the support they need, and the often readily available tools that could make such a difference.

At Business Disability Forum our ultimate goal – and the reason we exist – is to transform the life chances of disabled people as employees and consumers. We want to work with our Members and Partners to put disability front and centre on the agenda at board level, both in the UK and globally. I want to issue a call to arms to business to join together with us to meet the challenges.

This is a time of change. We need to stay alert to ensure that our hard won rights are not diminished, for example by the Trade Bill and the Withdrawal Bill allowing Ministers to make changes to primary legislation like the Equality Act without recourse to Parliament and this is something we are currently lobbying on in partnership with Liberty and Disability Rights UK. If this is a time to explore new horizons we should ensure that everyone benefits and that we take the opportunity to lead the way, enhance the rights of disabled people and increase everyone’s ability to contribute to the success of our country.

Let’s make sure we work together to do that; by joining forces we really can make a difference.

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