In the latter half of last month, I was delighted to open our annual conference 2019: ‘Disability leading the way’.
It was wonderful to see so many friends old and new – including those who travelled from as far afield as Paris, Amsterdam and Singapore to join us!
This year we were at a new venue – the British Library Knowledge Centre – thanks to the generous sponsorship of HSBC, a long-standing Partner and friend of Business Disability Forum.
Business Disability Forum is a not for profit membership organisation that helps businesses recruit and retain disabled employees and serve disabled customers. We exist to help organisations – of all shapes, sizes and sectors – to become disability-smart in how they recruit and retain disabled employees and serve disabled customers. Ultimately our purpose is all about transforming the life chances of disabled people as employees and consumers and enabling them to access the same opportunities that their non-disabled peers take for granted.
We have more than 28 years’ experience of working with public and private sector organisations since way back in 1991 when we were set up to be instrumental in the creation of the Disability Discrimination Act to now, when our 300 members collectively employ around 15% of the UK workforce and 8 million people worldwide.
And, nearly three decades later, the “thought leadership” side of our work remains incredibly important.
Our policy activity is informed by the views and experiences of our members and in the past year alone has included an invited submission to NICE on Workplace Adjustments Passports, a response to the Joint Human Rights Committee on human and disability rights in international agreements (which is somewhat topical!), feedback to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s draft strategy 2019-2022 and responses on Enforcement of the Equality Act. We also made a major contribution to the Lord Holmes Review of public appointments which we are continuing to support.
At our 2018 conference, I said that disability is too often the poor relation in diversity – parked in the “too difficult” or “too sensitive” box. And yet, it is the one strand of diversity that has the potential to affect each and every one of us. I said that it should be the one aspect of diversity that everyone is talking about.
So, in the past year I’ve been delighted to have seen disability finally making the headlines and rocketing up the agenda as a consumer issue, thanks in no small part to the #Valuable campaign which we are proud to support as an expert partner.
It is often said (because it is true!) that if you get it right for disabled people you are more likely to get it right for everyone – because you are thinking about individual human beings and their needs rather than designing from a policy or structure (be it a building or website) first approach. And why on earth would any business want to exclude a potential employee or customer?
And that is why we chose as our theme for this year’s conference: Disability: leading the way.
When we came up with this theme, we also wanted to reflect the importance of senior leadership in driving change. Time and time again we see that this is critical in building an inclusive culture, modelling “what matters round here”. and that’s why it’s the first point of our Disability Standard. That’s why too, the #Valuable campaign is focusing on getting disability on the agenda at board level and why the #Valuable 500 was launched at the World Economic Forum in January this year.
We also know that one of the corner stones of getting it right for disabled people – particularly in the workplace – is making adjustments – and here too senior leaders have a very important role to play.
Getting adjustments right doesn’t have to be difficult. It is often very simple. Yet too often, the adjustments that would make all the difference prove strangely difficult to put in place and adjustments are consistently one of the top topics to our advice service. So, to find out a bit more and to dig into this important topic, in March this year we launched The Great Big Workplace Adjustments survey in partnership with Microlink to find out what the picture looks like for disabled employees in 2019.
We were overwhelmed by the response with over 1200 people taking part, which really does show how incredibly important this topic is. Not surprisingly, the survey findings reveal that, when in place, adjustments can have a significant and positive impact on the workplace experiences of disabled people or people with long term conditions.
However, at the same time, far too many respondents are still worried about asking for adjustments to be put in place, despite feeling that they would benefit from such arrangements. Employees are worried, not just about how their manager would react to them having adjustments, but how other colleagues would as well. It is concerning that this includes many people who have asked for adjustments previously and this highlights the continued need to change attitudes towards disability, particularly at senior management and board level.
There is a perception, widely held by respondents with managerial responsibilities, that adjustments and support for staff with disabilities are not a priority at board or senior leadership level.
So how can senior leaders help?
Last year I spoke about disability at what on the face of it were two very different settings – Wharfability and the construction sector. Yet for both the huge issue in talking about disability was fear of stigma or low expectations or being judged for admitting a “weakness”. So, if you have a senior figure who champions the disability agenda and/or shares that they have disability, it is hugely powerful in communicating that it’s OK to talk about it.
This is also really important in the context of adjustments; we know that the more senior someone is, the less likely they are to “declare” (I use the term deliberately) a disability. And, at a senior level, someone may not need to ask for adjustments but with the autonomy that comes with their position, be able to just quietly get on with working in way that suits them, whether that is flexible working patterns, working at home, ordering some specific kit, have a specific dedicated space or office. It may not even cross a senior person’s mind that what they are doing is essentially, putting in place – self-serving – their own adjustments.
So why bother saying? Well, because at a more junior level someone would need to ask – and talk about their disability – and our survey shows that too many people are still worried about doing that. We know that – like it or not! – the actions and behaviour of senior people have a disproportionate impact on those around them. So, it’s really important that senior leaders model that behaviour and make it feel safe for everyone to ask for the adjustments that they need.
If we want to increase the number of disabled people and people with long term conditions entering into and remaining in employment, then getting it right on workplace adjustments is vital. The findings published last week are just a starting point. Over the coming months we will be looking at how we can use the findings to influence the advice we give to businesses and Government, and to demonstrate the need for additional research to be carried out on this very important topic. We would like to thank everyone who has given their time to contribute to this important piece of research so far.
You can download our key findings at www.businessdisabilityforum.org.uk/adjustments and please tweet about it using the hashtag #AdjustOurWorkPlaces
At our conference, we started a conversation about about leadership and disability, but it doesn’t end here. We want to keep the conversation – and action – going. To misquote the late, great, David Bowie: “We can be leaders. Not just for one day.”
Diane Lightfoot, CEO