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Call to action, Post-event round up

Looking to what’s new and what’s next in disability: annual conference round-up

Diane Lightfoot, CEO, reflects on our Annual Conference

Now, if you are thinking it surely isn’t a year since our last annual conference, you are right! We had planned to have our 2020 conference in the spring of last year but postponed it until October. Those of you who joined us then will remember that we called it “Living in a post pandemic world”. That proved to be a bit optimistic! It’s still a little optimistic as I think we realise that COVID is something that we need to learn to live with, rather than wait to be over (though we can hope). So, earlier this week (30 June) we took a look at what that means – or might mean – for disability inclusion at our ‘Disability: What’s New, What’s Next’ conference, sponsored by Business Disability Forum Partner, HSBC.

Certainly, 15 months ago none of us could have imagined the ongoing impact that COVID-19 would have on our lives and how we work. But nor could we have imagined how diversity and inclusion – and disability with it – would surge up the agenda as businesses across the globe realise that they can – and must – think differently about how they work, how they recruit, how they nurture talent and how they serve customers.

Business Disability Forum Virtual Conference Disability: What's New, What's Next, 30 June 2021 (online), Sponsored by HSBC - representation of a house and sign


Intersectionality is increasingly and rightly the topic when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion. Too often we consider disability (and other strands of diversity) in isolation, rather than exploring the richness and diversity of the different lived experiences of disabled people – of different genders, ethnicities, sexualities, ages, faiths or privilege. Intersectionality after all, is just a fancy term for being human – none of us sit in just one box and whether that is our own lived experience or that of being a carer for example, we can only truly be included and belong if we share our whole selves. So, we were pleased to be joined by Sandra Kerr, Race Director at Business in the Community, who joined me to discuss inclusion, ethnicity and Mental Health in the workplace.

She shared the shocking statistic that 29 per cent of Black women will report a mental health condition in one week – and made the point that just those who actually present. There is a dearth of research in this important area and that’s why BITC has chosen to focus on it with its current survey on Black, Asian and minority ethnic women’s experience of mental health and wellbeing. We also discussed the importance of language in this space and the role of employers in ensuring that all their workforce has the mental health support they need.

Diversity and inclusion in the 2020s

We were also be joined at the end of the day by speakers from HSBC, Amazon, Coutts and Billion Strong to look at what’s next for diversity and inclusion in the 2020s. Fifteen months ago, none of us could have imagined what COVID 19 would do to our lives and whilst it wreaked havoc and heartbreak, it also brought a welcome focus on the physical and mental wellbeing of employees, their families and society as a whole.

It also shone an important light on the inequalities in society with its unequal impact on people with underlying health conditions, from Black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds and those who could not afford to self-isolate or who were unable to work from home. The effect on women who were disproportionately likely to have to home school, care for family members and work were highlighted, and these are just some of the themes I explored with our panel.

Perception versus reality

Another theme for our day was “perception vs reality”. In 2019, thanks to the support of our Partner Microlink, we carried out a large piece of research – our “Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey”. One of the rather shocking statistics from that was that only 33 per cent of managers felt that supporting disabled staff was a priority to their senior leaders. We also looked at other perception gaps in the survey, which showed disabled employees and their managers perceive the effectiveness of adjustments very differently:

  • 75 per cent of managers said their disabled staff would be able to keep the adjustments they have now if they were promoted, whereas only 54 per cent of disabled staff themselves felt this was the case.
  • 53 per cent of managers said they felt adjustments had helped their disabled staff progress their careers – but only 29 per cent of disabled staff felt this was the case.
  • And – one stat I quote very often – 34% of disabled staff who would have benefited from adjustments had not asked them, for fear they would be treated differently by their manager.

The survey found that there were multiple perception gaps in organisations – and that if perceptions are not addressed, it stops disabled staff from pursuing opportunities and also from trusting the wider inclusion agenda.

So, we were very pleased to welcome Dominic King of Accenture to our conference. Dominic shared findings from ‘Enabling Change’ which looked at the gap between the perceived culture that senior leaders believe exists in their organisation and the actual employee experience. Specifically, we discussed the perception gap between how senior executives imagine it feels to share a disability or a difference – and how it really feels. Put another way, is your organization as “psychologically safe” as you think it is? The research showed that creating an inclusive culture isn’t just the right thing to do but also measurably good for business too – and that to be engaged at work is to thrive.

Everything we discussed was of course is in the context of COVID-19 and continuing to adjust to an ever-changing reality of what work looks like now. When we carried out our Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey, flexible and home working were top of the list of most requested workplace adjustments for disabled people. Two years on and we find ourselves increasingly talking about a new style of working, which is expected to offer greater flexibility over how and where we work. But will hybrid working live up to the hype? What are the pitfalls of a new way of working and how can we guard against them? There are lots of practicalities involved in making sure that a blended model is the best of both worlds, not the worst.

Ultimately, this is an opportunity to refresh our organisational cultures and as we do so, to engage with disabled people in our workforces and ensure their voices are heard at leadership level. The issues we are facing now are new for all of us – and alas there probably isn’t a perfect, solution, and certainly not one size that fits all. But listening to and engaging well with disabled people, communicating well and really considering what we want the future of our organisations to be is key to getting the best solutions that we can.

Making diversity inclusive

The twenty twenties have just started. It might not have been the best of starts (understatement) but the future looks hopeful if we make it the decade of disability, diversity and inclusion and a wider, kinder world. It could be the decade when diversity itself became inclusive – and when D&I became part of our DNA.

Together we are an influential community of businesses and business leaders, committed to advancing inclusion. It is in how each of us choose to lead our organisations, decide to make better experiences for our customers, and create an inclusive working culture for every single employee. And we are here to work with all our members and partners to deliver that.

You can find out more about building inclusive organisations on the ‘Policy and Research’ section of our website. All briefings and resources in this section are free to download and share.

If you are already on your disability smart journey, then I would encourage to showcase and share your learnings by entering our Disability Smart Awards.

Together we have a strong, influential voice that can mobilise and bring about change.

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