Why senior sponsorship/ leadership is crucial to improving an organisation’s disability performance

By Joanna Wootten


Why does leadership matter in regards to disability? Put simply, if employees or work streams aren’t told to think about disability, or prioritise disabled employees or customers, it’s unlikely to happen consistently or systematically. Of course, there will always be individuals doing their best ‘under the radar’. It is also important to note that many people are nervous about getting it wrong, or feel unequipped to address the issue of disability correctly. Organisations should support employees in getting it right – this means ensuring the appropriate systems are in place as well as having the right attitude.

Joanna Wootten giving a presentation

The Disability Standard – Business Disability Forum’s management tool to help businesses measure and improve their performance on disability, reinforces this idea of having strong leadership at the top. Amongst the ten criteria of the Standard – which include ICT, Workplace Adjustments and Recruitment, senior sponsorship remains fundamental. Such support creates both cultural and financial permission, while also empowering employees to tackle sensitive issues with confidence.

If, however, you are struggling to get your colleagues to ‘buy-in’ to your idea, it can be effective to begin with a single issue. This should help to catch people’s attention and imagination. I have witnessed some amazing achievements when companies have offered their support to a particular charity or organisation. People can get very enthused supporting a charity which has a knock on effect on their employee engagement, as well as increasing their understanding and support for diversity initiatives.

While it can be difficult to instigate the first step to becoming disability-smart, it is very encouraging to see an increasing number of organisations that are doing exceptional work within this area and using the Disability Standard to monitor their progress.

We have all seen the Barclays advertisements showing people with visual impairments using talking ATMs. Also, from a personal viewpoint, as a deaf customer, I really value Barclays’ commitment to accessibility as I have used both their online chat function, and accessed their services via a video interpreting service.

It’s apparent that there is leadership from the top as I have seen various senior people including their Chairman, CEO and CEO of Personal & Corporate Banking all talking about the importance of disability, stating it is not just a CSR issue, but fundamental to their business model.

I asked Paul Smyth, Head of IT Accessibility at Barclays, what the company had done to make disability ‘business as usual.’ He pinpointed an event called ‘Living in our customers’ world’ as being pivotal. During this event, attendees – including senior business leaders, were able to test Barclays’ disability simulation kits in order to feel the physical effects of different disabilities. As a result, attendees left the room with a personal insight into the challenges that disabled customers face, and were motivated to ‘use their influence and resources to deliver strategic and operational change.’

Kathryn Townsend, who leads Barclays’ Strategic Transformation – Accessibility & Inclusion, said:

“Barclays has really invested in this by investing in full time resources (mine and Paul Smyth’s teams) whose sole focus is accessibility. We are also given freedom and support to identify the ‘next big thing’ we should adopt, or the key internal issues we need to fix. Without a doubt, our Chief Executive not only believes, but really understands and champions that this is core to how we do business – not an add on.”

I recently spoke with Graeme Whippy, Senior Disability Manager at Lloyds Banking Group (LBG) who said how useful it had been having Mark Fisher, former Director of Operations, championing disability at the company. Graeme discussed how senior sponsorship had helped enable him and his colleagues to talk to people across the business and get them to take disability seriously. As a result, LBG significantly improved their performance across all 10 areas of the Disability Standard. This was particularly true regarding the company’s Workplace Adjustments policy which was completely transformed in 2010 into a centrally funded, award-winning service.

Senior sponsorship has also helped to ensure longevity of commitment at LBG, proven by the implementation of Key Performance Indicators in place, and regular reports to David Oldfield, the current Director of Operations.

Sometimes, however, something has to go wrong before leadership will take disability seriously. This was exemplified at the Civil Service after the organisation’s People Survey demonstrated very low engagement levels among disabled staff, partly because the systems were not in place to support them effectively.

A Civil Service Task Group on Disability found an employee who had been put on 18 months gardening leave because they were waiting for a £15-£30 mouse to be approved, tested and placed on their computer. Having discovered such issues, a Permanent Secretaries’ Reference Group on Disability was created. Now, the Department for Work and Pensions and BDF member leads the way in relation to workplace adjustments, and has shared its best practice with other government departments.

I asked Jenny Groves at Nationwide about the topic of Executive sponsorship. Jenny said:

“In business, the most effective way to achieve success, in whatever you set out to do, is to get your people behind your goals. Ambition is infectious and when you see leaders excited about, and dedicated to, such an important subject, it inspires everyone else. Improving disability performance is about much more than tangible, physical changes. It’s also about changing culture and the way we think, both as individuals and as a company. Whether it’s a business, a school or a community, an organisation’s culture is driven from the behaviours and actions displayed by those at the very top. We know we have the right people in place to increase Nationwide’s accessibility and become a disability-smart, disability-confident business with the support of our senior leaders and Business Disability Forum.”

Discussing the importance of leadership and why it is needed to achieve real change, Stephanie Smith, Director of Operations for Allianz Retail observes:

“Disability awareness and understanding has increased exponentially in recent years, but providing for disabled customers is still seen by many organisations as optional. However, with an aging population and the advent of social media, organisations that are off the pace are increasingly becoming exposed. Having the right services and products for all customers, has always been important of course, but now the impact of getting it wrong is becoming more tangible. So why is it hard for some organisations to focus on what is so obviously the right thing to do? A mind-set and language change is critical, and can only be led from the top. The diversity agenda needs life breathed into it, it needs to be omnipresent in everything you do in your business, from the top to the bottom. And you need to prioritise and invest – not massively, but enough to ensure that in a world where budgets are cut and investments curbed, diversity isn’t the thing always squeezed off the agenda.”

Ultimately, one must allocate resources in a way that will work for the business. For example, I work closely with Sainsbury’s, and they have a board member with responsibility for disability. He chairs two working groups that report to him on a regular basis: one focusing on customers, and the other focusing on employees.

If you aren’t sure how to begin improving your company’s performance on disability, using the Disability Standard and the help available at Business Disability Forum is a very useful starting point.

But it’s important to remember that it’s not just about beautiful systems and ticking the boxes, it’s about creating and/or maintaining the right environment so that people want to work for your company, or use your services. After all, as Winston Churchill said: “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.”


For more information on using the Disability Standard, visit: https://www.disabilitystandard.com/about/

For more information on Barclays Accessibility Statement, visit: http://www.barclays.co.uk/Accessibility/Barclaysaccessibilitystatement/P1242641724754

Click the link to view the Lloyds Banking Group Workplace Adjustments case study: https://www.disabilitystandard.com/media_manager/public/86/Resources/BDF%20Lloyds%20BG%20Workplace%20adjustments%20case%20study.pdf

For more information on Nationwide, visit: http://www.nationwide.co.uk/

For more information on Allianz, visit: https://www.allianz.com/en/careers/allianz_as_an_employer/diversity.html

It might be a cold 33 degrees celsius, but BDF’s latest work in Saudi Arabia is warming indeed

By George Selvanera


Business Disability Forum (BDF) Senior Disability Consultant Brendan Roach and myself have descended, again, on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) as part of a programme we are contributing to about improving KSA’s business disability confidence.

Jeddah Light (Jeddah Port Control Tower) is an active lighthouse in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. With a height of approximately 113 metres (371 ft) it has a credible claim to be the world's tallest lighthouse

Led by the Ministry of Labor, the KSA business disability confidence programme explicitly links to efforts to increase the participation of Saudi nationals in the workforce, dominated as it is by expatriate workers. This is an urgent priority for KSA given the public sector can no longer absorb the 200,000 young people that leave university every year; with many millions more young people expected to join the labour force in the coming years. Arab News reported in October 2013 that KSA has 9.2 million expatriate workers making it the fourth most popular destination for expatriate workers worldwide with sector after sector dominated by expatriates.

Saudisation requires companies to employ a minimum quota of local workers: 7% in building, 24% in retail, 50% in insurance and 90% in banking, for example. Companies who fail to comply, risk penalties such as bans on recruiting foreign workers, while good performers are rewarded with financial and administrative support, designed to compensate for the extra cost of employing Saudis, who earn twice as much as their foreign counterparts.

To support the ‘Saudisation’ programme, a system of ‘4 to 1’ is in place which counts every 1 disabled Saudi person in employment as 4 non-disabled Saudi persons in employment. The Government recognises that many companies have created a cadre of phantom employees: disabled people who are paid to stay at home while counting towards the quota. With approximately 400,000 people accessing the Saudi equivalent of jobseekers allowance reporting they have impairments, the current system to encourage employment of disabled people is not working.

We have had the pleasure of working with a senior advisor to the Minister for Labor and a budding version of BDF – Qaderoon which is about 10 months old – who, working under the direction of the Minister for Labor, recognise that such a system is neither sustainable or appropriate. Like us, they recognise, that business needs access to the best talent and that the best companies need to be competent in how they interact with disabled people as employees, candidates and customers.

As I am sure you can appreciate, the context of work could not be more different. We have been privy to some terrible stories about the work and life situation of disabled people. I am struck by how a deaf worker at a large conglomerate attended work every day, even while sick and during annual leave, because he thought that he would not get paid when absent. He could not afford to not get paid. As no one had ever communicated with their deaf colleague, the situation persisted for several years.

I am also struck, however, by the willingness of the small group of leading KSA companies that we have interacted with having an openness to a different path. As in the UK and elsewhere, the motivations for participation in the programme to encourage disability confidence are diverse. Some view improving outcomes for disabled people through the prism of corporate social responsibility, some see the business benefits of access to the best possible talent, others see a chance to be part of a vanguard leading a different approach and others, simply enough, just want to do the right thing by all people, including disabled people.

What we have been delighted to find is that irrespective of the motivation, several of the businesses we have interacted with have recognised that disability confidence requires a whole organisation approach. Just as the leading lights of disability-smart organisations in the UK apply the Disability Standard to measure and focus improvement in their disability performance across the whole business, there is the start of an openness in Saudi Arabian companies to do similar.

Brendan and I have been helping design and test a KSA Disability Confidence Index for driving improvements in business disability confidence across the last 10 months. We have worked closely with 7 companies particularly in testing the Index and it’s been brilliant to learn that since visits we undertook in June 2014, for example:

  • An air conditioning company that had committed to engaging disabled customers in product design has developed a remote control for Braille users. They also are undertaking improvements to the facilities accessibility of at least three of their sites.
  • A pharma distribution company has increased the employment of disabled employees by nearly 50% to 73 and plans to increase by a further 100% to 150 by the end of this calendar year. There continues to be a 100% retention rate for these employees.
  • The CEO of a conglomerate with multiple brands has been meeting informally with disabled staff to signal commitment and to better understand the needs and priorities of staff.

Our current trip to KSA involves delivery of a 5-day induction training for auditors (two of which represent companies whose UK equivalents are BDF Partners). These auditors will have a role in assessing evidence that companies submit using the KSA Disability Confidence Index.

We have been really pleased at the way in which many of the auditors have actively participated in the learning and offered their own personal experiences of dyslexia, living with a cousin that is hard of hearing, living with a grandmother with Alzheimers, having work colleagues with disabilities etc. and how this has influenced their understanding about what is most fundamental to driving change in outcomes for disabled people – the power of personal contact and personal experience.

They also have seen how an accessible recruitment process relies on the know-how to offer and make appropriate adjustments, IT departments improving the accessibility of online application systems, accessible premises that permit candidates with mobility impairments being able to attend interviews and subsequent work, capable line managers that know where they can access support and guidance to confidently interact with their disabled colleague etc. They have understood that a whole organisation approach to understanding disability is essential.

These auditors have also made clear to us that they see the transformation in business practice and disability confidence as requiring many years. This realism is heartening. Just as their understanding about the power of personal contact with disabled people operating at all levels – in business, at home, as leaders, as customers, as family members – is essential to the transformation.

Between Brendan and I, we have had 10 trips to the Kingdom and worked across Jeddah, Riyadh and Dammam. At 33 degrees, this may well be the coldest weather we have experienced on our trips here, but it certainly is one of the most warming.

It’s just great to find that we are contributing to the beginnings of a different way for KSA business in how they interact with disabled people and where we are beginning to see the initial buds of positive change for business and disabled people. It won’t be easy and it won’t be quick, but it is beginning.

Business disability confidence in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

By George Selvanera

With the Government keen to enhance the UK’s export performance of professional and business services from the already net £19bn receipts per year, Business Disability Forum (BDF) has been undertaking some rather extraordinary professional services exporting to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).

BDF, a membership body that comprises some of the UK’s biggest and well-known business and public sector organisations collaborating to improve disability performance, has been contracted by the KSA Ministry of Labor to assist with the development of a KSA Disability Confidence Index to support improved disability confidence amongst the Kingdom’s private sector.

This is truly ground-breaking work in applying lessons learned from the more than 20 years of working with UK corporates and public sector organisations.

BDF’s pioneering Disability Standard provides a whole-of-organisation framework for improving disability performance recognising that a corporate approach championed by a senior sponsor is the surest way of embedding good quality accessible recruitment, retention and career development opportunities for disabled people.

However, context is critical. The Saudi starting point is totally different to the UK.

There are no enforced legal protections for disabled people and culturally, disability often remains taboo.

It was to my great sadness that I realised that deaf people would largely be non-verbal too, as they had never been taught to speak and that schooling for deaf children is wholly different and substantially simpler than the curriculum for hearing children.

Many people have told us that non-visible impairments such as mental health, autism and dyslexia are not talked about at work or in the wider society.

Indeed, for some people they find out accidentally, sometimes decades later, that close friends have another child- a disabled child who may even be in their 20s or 30s.

BDF’s work is developing and piloting a bespoke KSA Disability Confidence Index collaborating with seven of the largest corporates in the Kingdom and contributing to the wider development of a business disability confident certification system.

These cover industries including pharmaceutical and medical supplies distribution, edible oil production, steel and air conditioning manufacturing and tractor manufacture.

We have been impressed that there are some examples of good practice that should be nurtured and promoted and we would encourage here in the UK. For example, several companies have:

  • Forged links with disability non-government organisations to support active recruitment of appropriately skilled disabled candidates
  • Established cross-functional teams led by senior executive sponsors to review and improve disability confidence across all areas of the business, and
  • Implemented flexible workplace adjustment processes that are responsive to individual disabled staff needs.

There is obviously a long way to go to mirror where the UK is; and that’s even accepting UK companies have some way to go in achieving best practice for disabled employees, candidates and customers as well.

All in all, an assignment like no other.

That said, the Middle East is a rapidly growing market for business and professional services and the UK is uniquely positioned by language, trade and cultural ties and business practice to support that growth.