Universal accessibility needs a universal approach

Business Disability Forum. Marketing photos

A group of employees at their workstations

By Diane Lightfoot, CEO, BDF

Speaking at an event hosted by our Partner Atos today to mark Global Accessibility Awareness Day, I couldn’t help but be impressed when hearing from people who have led change and championed accessibility at their organisations. Very often, they have identified a way of doing something not only because it is the right thing to do – ensuring a business treats all people fairly – but also something that makes real business sense.

Equally striking, though, was how the event showed that organisations like Atos, Microsoft, Barclays and Channel 4 had worked together to put accessibility at the heart of their work – and this is the key thing that businesses should have in mind when approaching accessibility.

Our hosts Atos are a brilliant case in point. Atos took a whole-organisation approach to the way they made IT accessible, standardizing the way IT was delivered across their many offices to ensure it worked well for all staff. Atos have since gone even further, bringing digital accessibility to their training in the form of accessible online courses called MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses). Making their approach to IT universal has ensured that their systems are accessible on an international scale, too, with single processes and designs in all of their offices.

However, Atos’ approach goes far beyond good practice in IT – it’s about making accessibility business-as-usual, and Atos are even going as far as training apprentices in accessibility, meaning it is part of working from day one.

This kind of working was the topic of a webinar we ran on the same day, again to coincide with Global Accessibility Awareness Day. It served to show yet more examples of organisations getting it right on a global scale by taking this whole-organisation approach, like Shell, as well as showing how our own methods like the Disability Standard can be applied on a global level, as they already have been in Spain and Saudi Arabia.

As Business Disability Forum one of the key messages we have to give to businesses is that being disability-smart always takes more than just one team or one function. A good approach in one department will be cancelled out by poor practice in another unless the whole organisation is committed to being disability-smart. Likewise the people leading change know that they will need key people from across the organisation to work with them if they are to make progress.

This is the drive behind our Disability Standard. This is about pushing accessibility by assessing and improving everything within and around an organisation that affects disabled people, from communications, to adjustments, right down to the way offices and public areas are administered.

It is this whole-organisation, universal way of looking at accessibility that ensure it works. This is more important to accessibility, in many ways, than resources – on the contrary, such an approach works regardless of how large or small an organisation is. A key illustration of this is the range of different organisations that excel under the standard, ranging from large multi-nationals, to SMEs, to government departments, to universities and more. Often the first step organisations take is simply to get a few key people around a table to discuss what needs to be done – each person can then drive progress in their own areas.

Coming back to the event at Atos – it was great to see such a wide range of organisations coming together to share their successes, and to see examples where committed individuals or teams had driven change across organisations by getting that buy-in and securing that collaboration.

This is about more than just doing the right thing. There is a real business case behind making accessibility happen. After all, we know the financial stakes involved: a Purple Pound worth £212 billion, a Click-away Pound worth £11.75 billion, and employee turnover, often linked to a lack of workplace accessibility, worth £4 billion. All of these potential challenges can be turned into great opportunities if whole organisations approach them together.

Recruitment: how do we break down the barriers for disabled people?

By Jane Hatton, Founder/Director, Evenbreak

Picture of Jane Hatton

Jane Hatton, Founder/Director of Evenbreak

I was lucky enough to speak at the recent Business Disability Forum event on the topic of “impairment-specific recruitment” – which, in short, means aiming to hire people with disabilities.

It was fascinating listening to the other speakers and members of the audience. It seemed that there was a general consensus around specifically targeting disabled candidates, as organisations were traditionally missing out on this particular pool of talent. However, opinions on impairment-specific recruitment were divided.

It is a conflict. On the one hand, the idea of stereotyping people with a particular impairment as having a specific set of skills only suited for one specific type of job role seems to go against the whole idea of inclusion. However, the traditional recruitment process – CV or application form followed by interviews or assessment centres – clearly discriminates against some people more than others.

When we speak of impairment-specific recruitment, by and large we think of people on the autism spectrum. There is an assumption that people with autism all make good computer programmers or coders. Whilst there is a disproportionately large amount of people with autism or Asperger’s who are brilliant coders, every autistic person is, of course, different.

The interview barrier

Business Disability Forum. Marketing photosThe main barrier that autistic people face when trying to find work is the interview. At the BDF event, one of the speakers was Will, an Evenbreak candidate who is highly talented in many areas, but who is unable to “sell himself” at interview.

He explained that a common trait for autistic people is a difficulty in playing interpersonal games – making small talk, ingratiating themselves with strangers.

They see the interview as what it should be – an opportunity for the would-be employer to assess if the candidate could do the job in question well enough. Whereas, actually there would be much more accurate ways of establishing this. Thus the interview becomes more of a “beauty parade” – which candidate do we like the most? Which one will “fit in” with the rest of the team? This requires the candidate to focus on being liked rather than how good they would be in carrying out the role required. A concept which is alien to many people on the spectrum, and which they don’t understand.

For me, the question isn’t so much as whether we should change the recruitment process (to, for example, a practical demonstration of competence through a relevant test, or maybe a work trial) for some particular jobs, it’s about whether our traditional recruitment processes are actually effective in trying to predict the future performance of any candidate.

Interviews can be very flawed for a number of reasons. They are wholly dependent on the interviewers’ ability to ask the “right” questions and the interviewee’s ability to answer them in what that interviewer would consider to be the “right” way. Unconscious bias will come into play (no matter how any unconscious bias training sessions the panel have been on!), and much relies on whether the interviews saw something they liked or found comfortingly familiar in the candidate.

The solution

My personal view, having worked with thousands of candidates for whom traditional recruitment processes have successfully prevented them from gaining employment, is that having a more open, relevant recruitment process means that talented candidates with any or no impairments are able to compete at an equal level.

This means ensuring the assessment process is relevant to the role. A customer service role will clearly require the candidate to show they have good interpersonal skills. A coder may not need interpersonal skills, but will need attention to detail and relevant knowledge. These will need to be demonstrated, but I venture to suggest that an interview will never be the best way to ascertain how good a coder is at coding.

Maybe, rather than looking at the assumed “impairment” of the candidate, we should be looking at fixing the impairments of our recruitment processes to make them more accessible, inclusive – and most importantly, relevant – to all candidates.

Find out about Evenbreak and how they break down hiring barriers on their website.

Speech-to-text: how it works and how it helps

In our latest guest blog Alistair Robbie, Nuance Communications, discusses the benefits of speech-to-text technology for disabled employees.

There’s no doubt that the digital economy has accelerated the pace at which business is conducted. For many companies, this has caused them to change many of their backend processes and applications, in order to both perform effectively and to meet changing customer expectations over speed and service delivery, nationally and internationally.

Business Disability Forum. Marketing photos

One way some companies are meeting these new expectations is through the use of desktop speech recognition solutions like Nuance Communications’ Dragon software for the PC and Mac.

Its appeal lies in the fact that it is easier to talk to your computer than to type, especially given that few of us are trained typists. We tend to talk up to three times faster than we type and that, combined with recognition accuracy rates of 99%, means that users of Dragon, for instance, can see a tangible boost in their productivity levels.

For service companies in particular – or any business that prides itself on customer service and prompt responses to enquiries – users can respond to a greater number of enquiries during the course of the day.

Business Disability Forum. Marketing photos

The productivity boost can be appreciated by users with accessibility requirements. Whether they have an upper body mobility issue, RSI or they find using the keyboard and mouse physically uncomfortable, with a piece of software like Dragon they can simply sit back and dictate, knowing that it gives them not only full access to the power and communication features of a computer, but a dramatic increase in productivity, too.

Employees with conditions like dyspraxia and dyslexia will also come to value speech recognition technology like Dragon. Their thoughts and knowledge are no longer restrained by the keyboard and mouse, with its text-to-speech functionality enabling it to read back what has been dictated, making it easier to spot any mistakes or errors and correct them.

It is rare a technology can have such a profound effect on both personal productivity as well as benefitting users with accessibility requirements. But, as some forward thinking companies have already discovered, speech recognition technology fulfils its promise to cater for both. And, given the relentless pace of the digital economy, this technology could be instrumental in maintaining a competitive edge both now and in the future.

Why a disability-smart supplier makes all the difference

By Sir Ian Cheshire, Honorary President of Business Disability Forum

Businesses who excel in every area of Disability-smart practice are often let down by their relationship with suppliers and partners. It tends to be the area of the Disability Standard where companies under-perform and isn’t always part of conversations about becoming more inclusive as a business.

But having a disability-smart supplier is crucial to good practice, as Business Disability Forum’s research paper ‘Disability-smart approaches to working with suppliers and partners’ revealed in 2016. The paper showed a majority of companies using outside suppliers for key functions like recruitment, facilities and training. The deals that underline these relationships need to build in disability and access, then, or businesses will find that their approaches to inclusion are left wanting.

This in turn leaves organisations limited in their ability to recruit, retain and do business with disabled people, putting them at risk of missing out on the £212 billion spending power of disabled people. Inaccessible websites alone could be costing businesses £11.75 billion a year in lost revenue.

Very often, when we’re talking about accessibility, we’re talking about good customer service and working practices full stop. It isn’t a ‘nice to have’ in this sense but a key ingredient of a successful, healthy organisation. And this applies with suppliers and partners as much as any other business area: due to their importance to service delivery.

Keeping these agreements healthy in this way is as much about how a business approaches suppliers as it is about the suppliers themselves. Yet in more than half of cases, access and inclusion outcomes don’t make it into service specifications. Procurement leads report a lack of know-how around managing supplier contracts to secure accessibility, and once contracts with outside suppliers are signed, disabled people are not involved in feeding back on whether the deal provides a good outcome for them.

This is why disability-smart approaches to working with suppliers and partners is the focus of our annual conference this year, on 11 April at the Royal College of Nursing.

We want the practical focus of the conference to encourage companies and suppliers alike to make disability a key topic of conversation when they arrange contracts and partnerships.

We’ll hear from speakers who excel in this field, both from businesses who procure services and from suppliers themselves. We will hear from Paul Smyth, Head of IT Accessibility at Barclays. We’re also welcoming Jane Hatton, Founder of Evenbreak, Dr Nasser Siabi OBE, CEO of Microlink, and Peter Holliday, Managing Director of Sopra Steria Recruitment. A series of sessions over the course of the day will drill down into the individual practices of organisations who lead the way on accessibility.

We will also be launching a definitive guide for businesses, ‘Achieving disability-smart outcomes with suppliers and partners – a step by step approach,’ prepared in collaboration with the generous assistance and insight of BDF Partners American Express and BT.

By the end, we hope every delegate will come away equipped with the tools and language to meet the challenge of putting accessibility at the centre of deals between businesses, suppliers and partners. As we’ve seen, there’s a very real and urgent incentive to do so. As George Selvanera, author of ‘Disability-smart approaches to working with suppliers and partners’ put it in a recent blog post, “the future is now.”

You can find out more about the event on the conference pages of our website, where you are also able to book a place.

Rethinking disability at work

Colleagues having serious discussion

By Diane Lightfoot

Business Disability Forum today welcomes the publication of the new report “Rethinking disability at work” published by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ). We were pleased to contribute to this report to help inform the debate around closing the disability employment gap, a stated ambition of this government.

We welcome the recognition that engaging employers is fundamental to achieving this. Many of our members and partners are truly leading the way when it comes to recruitment and retention of disabled employees.

However, there is much more to be done. Almost two thirds of employers surveyed for this report perceive barriers to employing someone with a disability. One of the largest of those perceived barriers concerns work place adjustments. Yet, we know from our experience that most adjustments are tiny (for example, being flexible in someone’s working hours to make travelling easier, providing a piece of equipment or communicating in an alternative format). Furthermore, Access to Work can meet the costs of adjustments that would be unreasonable for an employer to pay and far more needs to be done if this remarkably effective benefit is to move from being the government’s “best kept secret” – known of by only 25% of employers – to become a significant enabler towards work.

A shot of a wheelchair from a low angle with a train in the background.There is more too that needs to be done if Access to Work is able to deliver effectively for employers and employees. The application system is onerous and likely to represent a significant barrier, particularly for people with learning disabilities or mental health needs who remain woefully-underrepresented in the labour market. There is a further built-in barrier in that a job seeker must wait until they have secured an offer of employment before they can apply for Access to Work funding. We strongly recommend that flexibility is introduced to the system so that applicants can both present potential employers with an agreement in principle for Access to Work, and have the ability to “passport” support between jobs and organisations, thus supporting career progression – a major obstacle for many disabled people.

Getting it right for disabled people needs to be a “whole organisation” approach that runs through everything that business does, and so we welcome the report’s recognition of the important role that procurement has to play. The 2012 Social Value Act provides a means for authorities to include disability inclusion criteria in purchasing goods and services, yet only 33 per cent of local councils routinely consider social value when they procure contracts. So, we welcome the recommendations to increase opportunities for disabled people in all local and national best practice guidelines for public procurement and would urge for transparency in reporting how this translates into practice.

The right job can transform lives. And so it is vital that the findings in this report are translated into practical action to make work a reality for many more disabled people.

Business Disability Forum’s annual conference “Disability Smart Suppliers and Partners” takes place on Tuesday 11 April at the Royal College of Nursing in London. To sign up or find out more visit our events pages. 

The inclusive workplace: why we should make it happen and how we can do it

By Diane Lightfoot

I’ve just finished my second week at Business Disability Forum, and fittingly one of my first opportunities for representing the organisation as Chief Executive Officer was at a session this Wednesday on Disability Confident hosted by Ingeus and Pluss.


Diane Lightfoot

I join the Forum after 13 years at disability charity United Response, where I was Director of Policy & Communications and Employment, so I have for a long time been passionate about employment for disabled people.

At its heart, realising this passion in the business world is all about being Disability Confident – or as we call it, Disability-smart – and skilling up whole organisations as to support disabled employees. Disability Confident is a great start for sparking conversations and getting organisations to demonstrate their commitment to employing disabled people and then, from there, increase their confidence and build good practice.

Of course, for organisations who really want to lead the way in disability and accessibility, Disability Confident is part of a continuing journey. Our own Disability Standard goes beyond Disability Confident in supporting organisations to build on this foundation and to progress through good practice to best practice and leadership.

Business Disability Forum Conference

Business Disability Forum Conference at Royal College Of Nursing: Disability-smart suppliers and partners. Photography by Paul Demuth, Corporate Photography London Ltd

So why be Disability smart?

Firstly, it makes good business sense. Disabled people make great employees and it’s great to see many organisations we work with recognising this. For example, the Civil Service has explicitly recognised the skills which people with autism have to offer and are actively working to attract and recruit them as employees. They are also running an autism exchange project where, working with charity Ambitious About Autism, they run work experience programme for students with autism.

In a similar vein, United Response ran a project with a large fulfilment company that worked in financial services and needed a very high level of compliance in how packs were compiled or they would be fined. Temps had never cut it but by “carving” the job, a team of adults with moderate learning disabilities were able to achieve the best ever compliance levels – and reap the benefits of paid employment for the first time in their lives.

There are strong arguments when it comes to customers, too. The 2015 Walk away pound research estimated that £1.8 billion per month was being lost to businesses as disabled customers and their families and friends walked away from service providers who were not disability smart. Indeed over three quarters of disabled people and their families and friends had done this. The figure is even higher for specific groups – c.80% or more for people with a memory impairment, behaviour impairment, autism or learning disability. That’s a lot of customers!


71 per cent of disabled customers will ‘click away’ from inaccessible websites

It’s a similar story online. The Click away pound research published in December 2016 showed that 71% of disabled customers will click away from a website they find difficult to use. And those customers have an estimated spending power of £11.75million in the UK alone – 10% of the total UK online spend in 2016. 82% of customers with access needs would spend more if websites were accessible. 80% of these customers will spend their money not necessarily on the website which offers the cheapest products but where fewest barriers are in their way.

Secondly, it’s much easier than many employers think. It only takes thinking creatively and being open to doing things slightly differently.

That could mean changing what criteria you ask for in person specifications and being open to applicants with different experience and in options for how to apply. For example, lots of people find online portals a barrier so offering the ability to email or post an application could really help. Similarly, some people may not have a traditional CV so being open to receiving these in different formats – e.g. video – can also make a difference.

It could be changing how you interview. Many people find panel interviews intimidating but for some disabled people they can be a complete barrier. A couple of years ago whilst I was at United Response, we employed a young man called David as our political correspondent, in a role which involved interviewing and filming senior politicians (including Boris Johnson) in the run up to the last general election. David has a politics degree and can do pieces to camera in one take (he has a photographic memory) but had never had a job because, due to his Asperger’s, he found it extremely difficult to cope with a panel interview (though I’m very happy to say that as a result of working with us he built his confidence and now has not only secured a full time job but been promoted too). Moreover of course, panel interviews may test the wrong skills. Someone for example who will be working with numbers or data entry may well never need to present again! So, offering options such as “working interviews”, placements and traineeships can enable people to show that they can do the job rather than just having to say that they can.

It’s also worth remembering that most reasonable adjustments made once disabled people are in post are tiny: different travel times because of anxiety around travelling in rush hour, for example. And when it comes equipment or a support worker, Access to Work (sometimes referred to as the government’s best kept secret!) can often pay for it.

Most importantly, employing disabled people transforms lives – even aside from the income and skills that employment brings, our jobs are how most of us define ourselves. It’s our one of our main gateways to support networks and social circles and is often crucial to our wellbeing—even if it’s only a few hours a week.

A key aspect of building this inclusive culture is drawing up business deals in the right way, so this will be the focus of our annual conference on 11 April 2017. This is an feature often overlooked by businesses but it is crucial to becoming disability-smart: so I look forward to seeing many of you there.

For more information on our conference or to book your place please visit: businessdisabilityforum.org.uk/networking-and-events/bdf-conference/.

What we learned from applying the ‘Square holes’ model

By Sam Buckley

2016 saw the release one of our most exciting and pertinent pieces of research in the form of Disability Consultant Daniel Wiles’ ‘Square holes for square pegs: current practice in employment and autism’ report. Setting out key principles for employing people with autism and properly harnessing their strengths, the report is based on research and first-hand testimonials from various organisations across the UK and abroad.


The panel, L-R: Helen Macfarlane, facilitating; Daniel Wiles, Jonathan Andrews, David Perkins, Michael Vermeersch and Christine Clacey

It was only right that when it came to sharing the research with our Members and Partners, at our event held at Microsoft in November 2016, that we applied the model to our own event.

Bringing together a panel from across various sectors, including Helen Macfarlane and Daniel Wiles of BDF, Jonathan Andrews of Reed Smith, Michael Vermeersch and Christine Clacey of Microsoft and David Perkins of AS Mentoring, the event saw us discuss the ‘Square holes’ model and the employment of people with autism in an open, relaxed environment.

Michael Vermeersch shared his own story of how he was embraced by Microsoft, and particularly how he worked together with colleagues to remove any barriers in communication.

For Michael, the importance of making adjustments in communication to accommodate all employees was encapsulated by the statement “if I can be myself, I can be at my best.”


Michael Vermeersch talked about the benefits of an inclusive culture at Microsoft

Jonathan Andrews of Reed Smith talked about how workplace environments could be adjusted to be more accessible.

David Perkins of AS Mentoring discussed how workplace structures could present barriers through presenting a range of unspoken rules around hierarchy and communication that may land employees with autism in trouble.

The focus on these particular areas within the broader area of employment and autism was reflected in our approach to planning the event.

We specifically applied pointers from ‘Square holes’ to make the event as accessible as possible for people with autism, using a series of discussions to understand how we could use the venue, structure of the event, written and verbal communication to create the best experience for all attendees.

This is in essence the same principle that we would use in making any BDF event inclusive and accessible, but this time we specifically used the findings of our research to inform the way we approached the task.

When it came to the venue, this meant avoiding the problems of over- or under-stimulation, distraction or anxiety that can come from many environments. Specifically, we ensured:

  • That the lighting was appropriate,
  • That a quiet area be designated for delegates to use if they needed a safe space,
  • That the environment was not affected by excessive noise: in particular we introduced hand waving rather than clapping to demonstrate applause

In our communications to promote the event and provide instructions for delegates we were also careful to ensure these were clear and precise, and flexible in terms of offering varying mediums for delegates to contact us about possible barriers and what adjustments they required.

All of this meant a key message for us was that making such adjustments when preparing an event like this yields real rewards for all. These preparations ensured that delegates were able to contribute in the fullest way to the event, which in turn led to fruitful discussion and a lot of learning points for attendees to take back to their organisations.

Recommended reading

One of the requests we had from delegates was for a list of further reading material around the neurodiverse conditions. The panel recommended:

S. Silberman, Neurotribes (2015):

“A great book for people who aren’t autism experts”. Jonathan Andrews

“Neurotribes is excellent. The author was originally a journalist for Wired magazine and became interested in autism when he recognised its prevalence in Silicon Valley. The book is a really good read, and presents a view of autism and Asperger’s that is simultaneously positive and realistic. It’s a book I cheerfully recommend to anybody who’s even take interested in the subject”. David Perkins

R. Simone, Asperger’s on the Job (2010):

“In terms of employment, a book that quite a few people have found helpful is Asperger’s on the Job, by Rudy Simone. Its must-have advice for people with Asperger’s or HFA and their employers, educators and advocates”. David Perkins

V.L. Gaus, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Adult Asperger Syndrome (2007):

“A lot of the books I can recommend tend to be for people with autism, rather than about them. Cognitive-behavioural therapy for Adult Asperger Syndrome, by Valerie L Gaus, is superb – not just for the CBT, but for giving a really realistic picture of adult AS”. David Perkins

 J. Andrews, ed., Autism in the Workplace (2016):

“I edited a booklet for Ambitious about Autism which is the first piece to profile autistic people in employment via only case studies”. Jonathan Andrews

N. Higashida, The Reason I Jump (2014):

“It is not a book I would recommend as a first read… what it does phenomenally well is that it describes “features” of autism really well. As one might not have all or any of this, it would not be a good start I think. Plus starting from a FAQ on features/symptoms would probably also not be a brilliant start. Having said that, there were things in there that I said, “Yes, spot on”.” Michael Vermeersch

“That is a book I have also had recommended to me, have read and found useful”. Christine Clacey

T. Attwood, The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome (2015):

“Tony Atwood’s books are quite old now and controversial (he believed autistic people couldn’t have creativity), they did lots to expand knowledge of autism at the time”.Jonathan Andrews