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:

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

Our annual conference and the hidden barrier preventing organisations from becoming disability-smart

By George Selvanera

At Business Disability Forum (BDF) we have the pleasure of working with many businesses and public sector employers and service providers that are increasingly more innovative and creative in enabling their colleagues, candidates and customers who have needs related to disability, health conditions, caring responsibilities and age contribute at all levels and make their businesses more productive, inclusive and sustainable.

Increasingly, there is recognition that their own ambitions to manage legal and reputational risks and to deliver on corporate priorities to be more inclusive and accessible for staff and for customers depend on whether suppliers are delivering products and services that are wholly accessible. That is about suppliers to some extent, but is much more about how business interacts with that supplier too.

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.

Business Disability Forum Conference

Our latest piece of research, ‘Disability-smart approaches to suppliers and partners’ revealed the extent to which businesses use outside suppliers for functions as diverse as recruitment, HR, facilities, training and ICT but also revealed how it is extremely rare that organisations procure goods and services in ways that will achieve disability-smart outcomes[1].

For example, in more than half of cases, access and inclusion outcomes are not built into service specifications, procurement/category management departments lack the know-how to manage supplier relationships to secure good disability outcomes and disabled colleagues are not involved in feeding back that the supplier is delivering good outcomes. In just one in four cases is there review through contract and performance management processes about the progress of suppliers and partners in delivering on access and inclusion requirements.

These findings run counter to what works in securing disability-smart outcomes and leave an organisation aspiring to do better at recruiting, retaining and doing business with people with disabilities, who are ageing or have other adjustment needs, limited in their ability to do so.

Our conference will have a strongly practical focus; equipping delegates with the tools and the language for engaging business and procurement colleagues to secure more disability-smart outcomes in work with suppliers. There will be specific sessions on technology, recruitment and approaches for engaging disabled colleagues in the design, selection and review of contracts.

Sessions will be led by experts from across different businesses and include representatives from diverse organisations such as Barclays Bank, Microlink and Evenbreak.

We will also be launching a definitive guide for business about how to secure disability-smart outcomes in how we engage suppliers and partners, prepared in collaboration with the generous assistance and insight of BDF Partners American Express and BT, two businesses keen to extend the evidence base about what works and striving to do better for their staff and customers with disabilities and other adjustment needs.

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Disability reported that central government spent a massive £246 billion on goods and services in the last year. With the Government intending to secure greater disability outcomes from their own procurement processes in coming years, the future is now. We all have more to do and more to learn about how we work with suppliers to deliver on ambitions to become progressively more accessible and inclusive.

So one of the things I am really looking forward to at the conference is the exchange of ideas about what works and the sharing of best practice.

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

[1] Selvanera G., Disability Smart Approaches to Engaging Suppliers and Partners: Research report Key aids and barriers to effectively engaging suppliers and partners, October 2016 see;

Event round-up: Assistive technology webinar

By Sam Buckley

What next for assistive technology in the workplace?

That was the question put to the panel for the Technology Taskforce’s Assistive Technology webinar, co-hosted with the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) on 12 January 2017.Business Disability Forum. Marketing photos

Representatives from Atos, Barclays, Microlink and TextHelp joined 83 delegates to discuss how assistive technology (AT) can work well and how the delivery of it might change with innovations and developments.

One of the major topics for discussion was the range of challenges facing AT at present.

Neil Milliken of Atos identified the gap between AT and the office environment, pointing to incompatibility between AT and the kinds of software used by organisations, such as network computing and compact workstations. Paul Smyth of Barclays added that conventional IT tends to outpace AT as it develops, leading to further compatibility issues with modern software.

Dr. Nasser Siabi OBE of Microlink highlighted the role of workplace culture in integrating AT solutions into the business, such as the need to change attitudes among IT professionals towards integrating new hardware and software.

Lastly, Mark McCusker of Texthelp talked about the issues that are faced by the publishers of the AT software. He highlighted that 60% of issues with their software are faced at the activation and installation stage of the process. Only 9% of reported issues actually relate to the operating of the software.

The speakers all pointed to making the most of trends in technology and office working as a key way to overcome the challenges associated with AT.

They looked both to the increasing mobility and portability that went with more flexible working and also to increasing customisability and personalisation.

Neil Milliken said customisability was key to changing the image of AT from that of a specialist solution to something that was easy-to-use and universally applicable.

This could be backed up with the creation of staff support networks and by making training on AT available to all employees. This was a view echoed by Paul Smyth, who said this encouraged the whole organisation to approach AT together, as opposed to a few select staff.

Paul added that the arrival of more portable office devices allowed for a merging of AT with conventional IT, as seen in products such as smartphones and tablets, and made using AT easier for remote workers.

Mark McCusker said that the AT industry needed to seize this opportunity to move from traditional ideas of one program being installed on one machine towards AT being automatically available across multiple platforms. Mark identified a major goal as ensuring that users had the same experience on all platforms and establishing a standard policy on updates, security and installation.

The webinar concluded with BATA and BDF pledging to work together to promote closer working between corporate organisations and AT vendors and publishers, and participants identifying a need to create a best practice framework to guide organisations in buying AT from vendors.

If you are a BDF Member you can find the full audio of the webinar, along with copies of the presentations used by the speakers, on the Member Hub.

The honest truth about red, amber and green

By Hari Sundaresantraffic lights

In our latest guest blog, new BDF Board Member Hari Sundaresan talks about his experience of revealing his disability to his colleagues and helping to maintain an open culture around disability at BT.

I started out as a graduate scientist at Adastral and have enjoyed some very interesting jobs. But for years I hid the fact I had a specific vision-related condition. It hasn’t held me back but I was often worried that it would make a difference if people found out, and not in a good way.

Then, in a team meeting a few years ago, I had no choice but to share the thing I had always felt embarrassed about. Picture the scene. My team are showing me a slide as part of a project status update…

‘Hari, you don’t seem very worried about the status of these projects?’

‘Why would I be? They are mostly green aren’t they?’

‘No! They are mostly red!’

‘Ah…then there is something I need to tell you.’

It was out. I had to admit to being colour blind for the first time in my career. People knowing isn’t a big deal these days; but it used to be a big deal for me. Now I tell everyone who I am working with, to write the words ‘Red’, Amber’ and ‘Green’ and not just rely on colours to tell me the status of their project. It works fine.

I guess this was the day I was my “whole” self at work and by being so my colleagues and I both adjusted so that we get the job done. It made me feel so much better about the whole business of having a visual condition.

This is one of the reasons I became BT’s Disability Champion.

To me this means I can personally influence BT’s journey to becoming a company who is really confident with disability:

  • I want everyone to get that difference is just part of life and we are so much better for it
  • I want us all to  feel we can be our whole selves at work and that we are much more likely to succeed if we are
  • I want us all to get the adjustments we need to do our jobs well and that most of the time it’s going to be something pretty  quick and simple
  • I want to carry on talking about disability at BT, and I want everyone to hear it, so please join in and help me share the conversation.

It’s a journey I’m now keen to influence on an even larger scale as a board member of BDF. It feels like there’s a lot more work to be done and I’m looking forward to a busy and exciting 2017!

Does ‘Blue Monday’ increase mental health and wellbeing awareness?

By AJ Olaofe


Let me ask you a question. How do you feel today?

Do you feel any different from any other Monday? Has a bad weekend or the winter weather affected your mood?

I ask because the third Monday of January, today, is coined Blue Monday: ‘the most depressing day of the year’. And sure enough, this time of year often provokes thought around mental health and wellbeing.

However, as our Senior Disability Consultant Christopher Watkins has pointed out in a previous post, Blue Monday has no real connection with disability, In fact, it’s just the day on which is it easiest to sell you a summer holiday.

Created by Porter Novelli on behalf of Sky Travel about ten years ago, the idea of ‘Blue Monday’ claims to be based on a formula  including metrics including ‘travel time’, ‘delays’, ‘time spent packing’, and a number of other factors without defined units of measurement . By 2009 the formula had been reviewed to consider slightly more reasonable factors like ‘weather’, ‘debt’ and ‘time since failing new year’s resolutions’, again without any defined units of measurements but reassuringly (or miraculously) coming up with exactly the same day.

However, with recent research (from October 2016) indicating that 77 per cent of employees have experienced a mental health problem—and 62 per cent believing this was because of work[1], it is clear that poor wellbeing is not confined to ‘Blue Monday.’

A more difficult question is how to promote, or improve, wellbeing in the workplace. Indeed workplace wellbeing was subject of public debate between Christopher Watkins and fellow Senior Disability Consultant Angela Matthews at a recent event.

In many ways the dilemmas around workplace wellbeing promotional schemes mirror those of Blue Monday: whether it is valuable in promoting inclusion, or counterproductive because it promotes overly general ideas of what is meant by ‘well’ or ‘unwell’.

The solution for wellbeing schemes was found to be ensuring that they took individual employee needs into account, providing adjustments as employers would with a job – a tailored solution rather than a general one.

Similarly the best way to approach Blue Monday as an organisation might be to use the general subject of wellness and happiness to initiate and then widen the conversation about mental health, wellbeing and disability.

Although Blue Monday has no real link to disability, it can be used to start the conversation about it.

Needless to say  it needs to go beyond ‘the most depressing day of the year’. Businesses should keep mental health and disability as part of their conversations about well being all year round. This is why we encourage our Member and Partner organisations to keep in touch and make use of our Advice service and consultancy, your relationship with us can make a huge difference to the well being of your staff.

If  you are looking for guidance around mental health in the workplace take a look at our line manager guide Mental health at work.

Related news


Thirty-seven per cent more mental health referrals in January – 

Disputed ‘Blue Monday’ (16 January) date actually coincides with sudden rise in mental health referrals, research suggests (Health Insurance)

Workplace design can combat winter weather’s effects on employee wellbeing –

Features such as natural lighting, quiet areas and communal spaces could boost workers’ wellbeing during winter months (Workplace Insight)

44 per cent of workers say winter has negative impact on their mental health –

Similarly, 30 per cent say winter affects their productivity (Business Matters)


[1] Business in the Community, ‘Mental Health at Work Report 2016’, p.3 (, retrieved 19 December 2016)