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.

Just how accessible is accessible?

Profile image of Geoff Adams-SpinkBy Geoff Adams-Spink

Cities are amazing, chaotic, organic entities that very often defy attempts to impose structure and organisation upon them. A city as old as London – dating back, as it does, two millennia – is more complex, more chaotic and more amazing than most – that is why it is one of the world’s great cities.

From time to time, planners, strategists, administrators have to make an attempt to impose some sort of order – whether it is classification by postcode, organisation into boroughs, imposing aesthetic criteria or laying down the infrastructure that allows people to move from one part to another.

Such attempts are often partly thwarted by the city’s inherent ability to resist: just try navigating the dank back alleys of Venice using the map application on your smartphone, and you will soon get lost.

Architects and town planners’ attempts to impose any sort of aesthetic conformity on London were – to a large extent – thwarted by the Luftwaffe.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that cities have to be poked, prodded, cajoled and enticed in order to meet the requirements of accessibility legislation and aspiration.

A platform at Oxford Circus tube station.

Particularly recalcitrant is our ageing Tube: it suffers the disadvantage of having once been at the cutting edge of public transport technology. Tunnelling deep under the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was an engineering feat, of which the UK could be justifiably proud. Some of the avant-garde architecture of the more outlying, suburban stations is in stark contrast to the street upon street of ‘cookie-cutter’ houses that surround them.

Leaving the civil engineering challenges of the Tube to one side for a moment, it is, though, still possible to conceive of London as something of an exemplar in terms of the accessibility of its public transport: which other major world city can boast a fleet of licensed taxis that is 100% accessible? Try visiting Paris or New York as a wheelchair user and you will soon see how the black cab has opened up the city to Londoners and visitors alike.

Thanks to the forward thinking of the often controversial Ken Livingstone, London also has a totally accessible bus fleet. Of course, in the early days, there were problems with ramps that didn’t work, drivers that couldn’t be bothered to use them and companies that couldn’t care less. The much-beloved RouteMaster was taken off the streets – much to the consternation of newspaper columnists and other assorted reactionaries.

A black cab and a bus at traffic lights on Regents Street in London

Now, thankfully, bus companies are fined if a vehicle leaves the garage without a working ramp. Drivers have undergone disability equality training and the only remaining obstacle to wheelchair users is the competition for space between wheelchairs and owners of large prams The owners of these prams often stubbornly refuse to vacate the spaces allocated to wheelchair users.

From a vision impairment perspective, life on the buses has also become more bearable: those with residual vision can often see the large number displayed on the front of the bus, while on-board announcements tell passengers the name of the next stop. There are apps that tell you – in real time – how soon the next bus will come along as well as its destination.

Returning to our old friend, the Tube, around 25% of the 270 stations are now accessible. Several stations now have portable ramps and staff are far more disability aware than they ever were.

There are, though, some glaring omissions: in the West End, for example, only Green Park station has been made accessible. Some stations have accessible platforms in one direction only. And, of course, ‘cost’ is the oft-cited objection to overcoming the engineering challenges of the deep underground stations.

In 2004, I visited two European cities to compare and contrast accessibility, ahead of the final implementation of the Disability Discrimination Act. Barcelona had, 12 years previously, hosted the Olympics. The vibrant disability lobby in Catalonia had pushed the regional government beyond its original ambition of making the city accessible just between Olympic venues: they insisted that a fully accessible city be made possible by 2006.

It was this social and political pressure that brought about such a sweeping change. Brussels, by contrast, is a city that hosts an annual conference to mark International and European Day of Persons with Disabilities. Disabled people from all over the European Union converge on the city in December of every year – and find it wanting.

I took my TV crew on a typical day out with Nora Bednarski, then of the European Disability Forum. We visited – among other places – her local post office, which had a massive step at its entrance – so high that she was unable to manoeuvre her wheelchair in order to get inside. Next, we went to her local cinema multiplex – there were steps everywhere.

“To be honest,” the manager told me, “we find that most disabled people aren’t interested in coming to the cinema.”

The usual arguments were trotted out about antiquity being incompatible with accessibility. That was the reason why Brussels’s magnificent town hall was not the place to get married if you had difficulty negotiating steps. Even the EU building that houses the Commission Department that deals with disabled people had an inaccessible entrance.

Part of the order of ceremonies at the annual EDPD conference is the bestowing of awards for cities that have made outstanding attempts to improve their accessibility. Unsurprisingly, Brussels is never among the contenders.

A shot of a wheelchair from a low angle with a train in the background.

More surprisingly, nor is London. From a disabled person’s perspective, the city has an awful lot to shout about – and an awful lot that could be done better: London’s black cab drivers for example could be a little less reluctant to deploy their ramps for wheelchair users and be more accommodating of assistance dog users. Customer service, more generally, could be more disability-focussed.

Perhaps what would really concentrate minds would be to pinpoint a date in the future – borrowing the example of the disability lobby in Catalonia – by which the entire city would be fully accessible to growing numbers of Londoners and visitors with reduced mobility. We all know about the ageing population – so achieving full accessibility is something of a no-brainer.

Given the complexity of the challenges, that date may well have to be a decade or two into the future. Nonetheless, it would concentrate the minds of the city’s politicians, civil engineers, architects and transport strategists.

Of course, there is more to accessibility than simply making the means of conveyance fully accessible: however, simply making this or that public space, shopping centre, workplace, housing development or whatever ‘accessible’ is meaningless unless people can get around without encountering barriers.

Cities are wonderful places – they often frustrate and delight in equal measure. More than most other cities in the world, London’s delights and frustrations deserve to be opened up to the widest possible number of people.


Join Geoff and other experts on accessibility as we discuss the Mayor of London’s future plans for making the nation’s capital more accessible. The after hours event, Accessible London: can it work?, will be held on 15 December and is free for all Business Disability Forum members to attend. 

International Summit on Accessibility announces Susan Scott-Parker Scholarship for disabled undergraduate women in Canada

By George Selvanera

SSP and Carleton Uni

Business Disability Forum (BDF) is delighted to advise that at the International Summit on Accessibility in Ottawa last month, a new Susan Scott-Parker Scholarship was announced for a disabled undergraduate student attending Carleton University.

The scholarship is named in recognition of Susan Scott-Parker, the Canadian founder and Chief Executive Officer of Business Disability Forum and a tireless campaigner for the rights of disabled people in the UK and internationally.

The new Susan Scott-Parker Scholarship will be awarded annually to a disabled undergraduate student at Carleton who has demonstrated financial need and academic achievement, with preference given to female students. This award was initiated by Fran Harding and funded through generous donations from her and other Ottawa club members of the Canadian Foundation of University Women (CFUW).

“Through the generosity of the women of Ottawa, we’re really proud that there will be a woman at Carleton who will get some help studying for a number of years and that person will have a disability,” said Harding. “We don’t care what kind of disability it is. If it gets in the way of you learning, than let’s help you get over that a little bit…It’s really nice to know that there’s a possibility that really good things can come from being thoughtful and hard-working and working together for a good cause.”

Susan Scott-Parker adds it would be brilliant to see British universities and businesses coming together to improve the opportunities for disabled women undergraduates to also achieve. “It’s wonderful that the CFUW are making possible the opportunity for a young disabled woman to move forward with her career and aspirations- to be the best she can be. I very much look forward to seeing similar great collaborations for the benefit of young disabled women here in the UK too’.

The Summit explored how the strategic use of information technologies when combined with global collaboration can improve knowledge-sharing and transfer to improve health and empowerment of those with disabilities.

Stat of the day: Ticket sales in the music industry

By Angela Matthews

A news article at the weekend showed that 285 disabled people out of 300 (95 per cent) had difficulties with trying to buy a ticket for a music performance or festival, and a further 249 out of 300 (83 per cent) were “put off” from making a purchase. Common difficulties included tickets usually needing to be bought over the phone during peak times and people often being asked to prove their disability. A disabled man quoted in the article said that he missed out on buying tickets because he was busy at work the day that the tickets became available and there was no option to buy online. This is perhaps an example of how making a service more accessible can benefit many more than just disabled people. And take a look at the business case for doing so: 2.5 million ticket sales were being missed out on, causing an annual revenue loss of £66 million!

Which is the greater financial cost of accessibility – £66 million, or creating an accessible website?