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!

Bringing your whole self to work

By Vanessa Hardy

“How can employers make it easier for disabled staff to share information about their disability and how can disabled employees be more disability confident themselves?”panel 2

This was the broad topic of discussion at our recent ‘After Hours’ event hosted by our Partners at HSBC and chaired by our Associate and authority on disability and disclosure at work, Kate Nash OBE.

Kate was joined by an expert panel of disabled people from across our membership: Andy Garrett, recently retired Chair of Disability Staff Association, Metropolitan Police Service; Zoe Davies, Enablement Network Lead, Accenture; Roland Chesters, former Diversity & Equality Policy Officer at Foreign Commonwealth Office; and Brendan Roach, Senior Disability Consultant at Business Disability Forum.

Kate kicked the evening off by outlining some of the key themes from her 2014 research on disability and disclosure at work ‘Secrets & Big News’.

  • The need to understand that acceptance of a newly diagnosed disability or health condition is a unique journey. Some people will be comfortable sharing personal information about their condition after a few months others may take decades before they feel able to bring their whole self to work.
  • The main reason people choose to share information about their disability is when they need their employer to make a practical adjustment. So for those who can develop their own work-around they will have a choice as whether to share or not share personal information
  • Of the 2,500 disabled people surveyed, 36% suggested that it’s a big personal step to actually associate yourself with the word ‘disability’.

Mind your language

The first hot topic of the evening was whether there might be a better way of referring to disability in the workplace.

The views of the panel were split on the issue with some preferring more positive enabling language and others feeling the need to say it as it is. Andy Garrett explained that when someone becomes injured in service, the police use the language of capability and capability assessments.

Brendan Roach described how Business Disability Forum uses the social model of disability when giving advice on disability at work. The social model says that ‘disability’ is caused by society, rather than by a person’s impairment and it looks at ways of removing barriers that restrict access for disabled people. For example a member of staff could be ‘disabled’ due to a physical barrier such as no lift access to a training room.

Roland Chesters shared the example of renaming the Disability Action Group at the Foreign Office to ‘Enable’ resulting in a membership increase of 80%. Yet he acknowledged there was still a need to explain what ‘Enable’ was about to non-disabled colleagues.

Members of the panel and audience felt it important to recognise that many disabled people covered by the Equality Act legislation, embrace and hold dear the term ‘disabled’ in terms of its association with the disability equality movement.

To share or not to share

Monitoring on disability was one of the key topics in Kate’s book Secrets & Big News. The study showed that people are most reluctant to share personal information when they are suspicions over how the information will be used. For example, if the individual was being asked to share information about their disability in the context of career progression, they might fear that this would have a negative impact on promotion.

The clear advice from the 2,500 disabled people who took part in the research was that employers should be upfront about why they are gathering information by providing context and advice on how the information will help the business. For example, asking an employee about their disability because the organisation is trying to improve access to a workplace adjustment process.

Creating an inclusive working culture

The discussion moved on to what employers are doing to create a culture where it’s openly acknowledged that people will acquire disabilities and need adjustments during their working lives.

Zoe Davies explained how Accenture is working to make ‘disability’ a business as usual issue. The organisation encourages people with disabilities to share their stories on a company blog and through newsletters and events. Accenture has noticed a lot of senior leaders helping to lead the trend by talking about themselves in terms of managing a medical condition or having gone through a period of stress.

Kate mentioned similar campaigns like Shell’s ‘Be Yourself’ videos, HSBC’s video profiling people like Gary Denton, and people who are part of the Ability network and Barclays’ ‘This is Me Campaign’ on mental health. Like Accenture’s campaign, all these campaigns featured disabled employees talking openly about their lives and work.

Peer to peer support

Kate Nash Associates champions the role of employee networks in helping disabled employees to become more confident at work. Accenture has over 200 members in its Mental Health Allies network where colleagues volunteer to be a first point of contact for others worried about their mental health. They recently ran a series of workshops for the ‘Time to Talk’ campaign encouraging people across the organisation to talk about stress and mental health at work. A typical session would include staff from directors down to analysts and in a typical session around 80% of them shared details of their own mental health condition.

Through his experience leading The Met’s disabled employee network, Andy Garrett felt that one of the most powerful things that can help a newly diagnosed member of staff is being put in touch with people with the same condition who are further down the journey with the experience of navigating support in your organisation. BT echoed the value of an employee network being able to connect a newly diagnosed member of staff to somebody else who has had the same condition.

Workplace adjustments

The request for a Reasonable adjustment is cited as the main reason for needing to share information about disability at work by 2,500 participants of Secrets & Big News. Reasonable adjustments are the cornerstone of legislation about removing barriers for disabled people in all areas of life, yet the term often means very little line managers or to the average person who acquires cancer or a back problem.

Secrets & Big News puts forward the argument that the word ‘reasonable’ suggests a legal process that puts employers in control of deciding what support to give disabled staff rather than taking a best practice approach to making changes in order to help people to perform at their best. Those employers who do have a good track record in encouraging disabled people to be ‘out’ at work have reviewed the language they use and started to refer to ‘workplace’ adjustments a much clearer definition.

Equally important is making your staff aware of your company policy for workplace adjustments. By presenting the process in a business as usual way, people don’t feel the need to disclose or come out and it just becomes about asking for adaptations and changes that will help you be more effective in your role.

BT is one of the leading employers in terms of managing and promoting the workplace adjustment process. They have championed the Disability passport to address the problem of changing line managers. It is a simple document that records your adjustments and anything you want the line manager to know about such as contact details, details of when you need to take your medication or require occasional flexible working.

Tips for becoming a more disability confident employee

The final discussion of the evening was around how as disabled employees do you become well practiced in sharing personal information, or asking for workplace adjustment?  The panel and audience shared these thoughts:

  • The more you tell people, the more comfortable you become in the information that you have shared.
  • Practice very quietly and very singularly with people you trust and who can keep this information in confidence.
  • Work out what is relevant to share about your disability at work so that you can get the support you need to do your job – use your disabled employee network for support with this.

Tips for employers

Kate brought the evening to a close by summarising three top tips to help employers to normalise difference and help disabled people to bring their whole selves to work:

  1. Use imaginative campaigns to help your own home-grown disabled talent share their stories. Look at examples from Accenture, Barclays and HSBC for best practice guidance.
  2. The ease of use of the workplace adjustment process.
  3. Encourage and support disabled employee networks – an invaluable source for developing an authentic narrative about how it is to have a disability and get on at work.

For more information and guidance on supporting disabled colleagues to be themselves at work, visit our website at businessdisabilityforum.org.uk.

For more information about Kate Nash OBE and Secrets & Big News visit the Kate Nash Associates website.

Why small businesses should forget the myth that hiring disabled people is ‘too hard’

This Saturday 6 December is Small Business Saturday in the UK. The aim of the day is to encourage consumers to support small businesses in their communities, and highlight the success of those that are getting things right for their customers.

Operating a small business can be tough – running on tight margins, competing with large businesses and dealing with high staff turnover are just a few of the many concerns on the minds of small business owners.

Image of a small business owner smiling on showroom floor

Recruiting for roles in a small business can be particularly hard when juggling these multiple priorities with day-to-day operations; it’s often tempting to settle for the person recommended by a friend or your neighbour’s relative who’s looking for work, just to temporarily fill the void.

If your business takes a similar approach to recruitment, you could be missing an opportunity to tap into the huge market of disabled talent here in the UK. There are 5.2 disabled people of working age in the UK, 53.7% of whom are not currently employed[i]. That’s a sizeable talent pool of 2.8 million people that might have the ideal attitude, skills and experience for your role.

In the past, the financial implications of making a hiring decision has prompted many small business operators to hesitate offering jobs to disabled people, regardless of whether or not they were the best person for the job[ii]. With 42% of disabled people looking for work naming employer attitudes as a barrier to successfully gaining employment[iii], initiatives such as the Department of Work and Pension’s (DWP) ‘Disability Confident’ campaign are looking to change assumptions about hiring disabled people.

Launched by the Prime Minister in July 2013, Disability Confident aims to dispel the myths about the complexities of employing disabled people, and increase awareness of the support available to employers of disabled people.

Part of this campaign involves bringing employers, including small business owners, together to discuss the support on offer from government and organisations like Business Disability Forum to improve employment outcomes for disabled people.

Image of an employee in a wheelchair holding a pot of flowers in a garden centre

The most significant support for small business employers comes in the form of ‘Access to Work’ (AtW): a labour-market intervention that provides grants to employers which can be used to pay for practical support for staff that have a disability, health or mental health condition. The types of support covered by AtW grants include the purchase of special equipment, a support worker to help disabled staff members in the workplace, and fares to work for staff who cannot use public transport.

Businesses with up to 50 employees do not have to contribute towards the cost of Access to Work grants, making it a viable and attractive option for small businesses thinking of employing a disabled person.

Recent changes to AtW have made the scheme even more appealing to small business; the ‘standard list’ of items AtW would not fund, which included vital equipment such as software and chairs, was withdrawn in 2013.

Once your business has made the decision to hire a disabled person, you may find that guidance and support is still needed to enable that person to be successful in their role, whether it be in the form of disability training for other staff or guidance for the new employee’s line manager.

Business Disability Forum offers a wide range of publications, tools and training to employers of disabled people. Our line manager guides can provide staff in your small business with practical advice on the best way to work with, manage and support disabled staff members.

In early 2015, we will also be launching a new suite of e-learning products suitable for small and medium sized businesses. E-learning is an ideal solution for SMEs, as it can be more cost and time effective than sending staff to face-to-face training. It’s a resource that can be used to train new staff, as refresher training for existing staff, or even to train your suppliers.

To enquire about our products and services for small business, contact us via email to enquiries@businessdisabilityforum.co.uk or call 020 7089 2452.

[i] Department of Work and Pensions, ‘Disability facts and figures’, 16 January 2014: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/disability-facts-and-figures/disability-facts-and-figures#employment

[ii] BBC News, ‘Moves to help more disabled people into the workplace’, 18 July 2013: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-23355252

[iii] Department of Work and Pensions, ‘National drive to boost disability employment: first ever Disability Confident roadshow tours Britain’, 21 November 2013: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/national-drive-to-boost-disability-employment-first-ever-disability-confident-roadshow-tours-britain

Awkward about disability in work as well

By Susan Scott-Parker

On the left is the text

Scope’s Awkward campaign shows how far we still have to go. In particular, it reveals how much depends on bringing human beings together, to start a very different person to person conversation, if we are to see these damaging deep rooted assumptions and stereotypes regarding people with disabilities finally fall by the wayside.

The Scope study, read alongside two other recent publications, should give us all food for thought – all three require us to face up to the fact that for most of society, (including many themselves legally protected as ‘disabled’) the word “disability”, is still heard as almost an insult. It’s a code word for someone who if genuine is inevitably dependent, sad, ‘unfit’, and if not genuine, for example when a government needs to justify throwing one off benefit, is a fraudster, scrounger, and irritant.

We know that at least one in three Europeans will be disabled or close to someone who is – yet 43% of those answering the Scope survey state that they do not know anyone who is ‘disabled’. Not only do they believe the label does not apply to them personally, (logically 10-15% of these respondents will themselves have a disability), but they have apparently never met anyone with diabetes, cancer, alzheimer’s, depression, stammer, dyslexia, hearing loss, RSI, arthritis… It doesn’t add up – unless you spot the fact that people tend to apply the label ‘disabled’ only to those they do not know personally, and then usually only to those who fit the visible stereotypes of wheelchair users, guide dog drivers, BSL interpreter users, etc…

It is clear that for many a stranger can be ‘disabled’ (it will always be stranger ‘faking’ disability to gain unfair advantage) but people we know, people a lot like us, well, they have a health condition, a balance problem, a wonky knee, a rugby injury…are feeling a bit down….

I often ask audiences to stand, if they can, and then read out a list of commonly encountered ‘disabilities’ – saying: “please sit down when I mention a disability which you have yourself or which applies to someone you know”.

In almost every case the entire audience will be sitting down before I finish. At one event, one man was left standing from the one hundred delegates when my list ran out. We decided afterwards he probably had a hearing impairment. My message: “obviously disability is about us …not about them.”, but the message is taking a long time to permeate to the world around us.

We must confront the fact that most people (and I would include many in the House of Commons) still hear the word as to do with an individual’s failure, a personal deficiency and inadequacy, even a lack of moral fibre; disability is rarely defined as society’s failure to treat us all fairly and with respect. The DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) in 1995 was miles ahead of UK popular opinion – we still desperately need the public education campaign which enables everyone to explain why it is that: “to turn me down for a job because I am disabled is fundamentally no different than turning me down because of my race or gender”.

The Scope survey focuses on attitudes and attitudes tend to justify a worldview, which then triggers behaviour. In this instance, we have a worldview that by positioning disabled people as ‘the other’, as ‘not like me’ – takes away their right to dignity and respect. And so these attitudes reinforce and disguise a largely unrecognised, yet often shocking level of ill treatment and abuse, as revealed by the second report to hit my screen recently.

The 2013 research report ‘the ill treatment of employees with disabilities in British workplaces’ published in Work, Employment and Society makes for sobering reading.

The British Workplace Behaviour Survey found significant differences in the experience of poor treatment of employees with a disability or long term health condition, when compared with other employees. For example:

  • More than one in three disabled people have been shouted at or experienced someone losing their temper with them compared with less than one in four non-disabled people.
  • More than one in ten disabled employees have experienced actual physical violence at work compared with less than one in 20 non-disabled people.
  • Close to one in four disabled people have been insulted or had offensive remarks made about them at work compared with less than one in six in non-disabled counterparts.
  • Close to one in six disabled people have experienced hints or signals from others that they should quit their job as compared with just over one in 20 non-disabled people.

People with different disabilities also have different experiences, so as hard as it is for these disabled employees generally, it gets even harder for those with non-visible or hidden impairments. Employees with a learning difficulty or a mental health condition had an increased likelihood of experiencing poor treatment at work by an extraordinary 177%.

Deeply troubling is that nearly half of the more serious examples of poor treatment were from line managers, supervisors or employers. The research found that line managers failed to comply with legislation often because of rigid procedures on sickness absence and discipline. Senior managers implicitly convey the message that compliance with equality legislation doesn’t really matter, by leaving the detail of operationalising how relevant policies actually work to the line manager.

Yet when we move the conversation from: ‘About Them’ to ‘About Us and how our organisations adapt for human beings’ … a different story begins to emerge in report number three.…

Kate Nash recently launched her ground breaking work Secrets & Big News …55 public and private sector organisations, employing hundreds of thousands people, have said that they have much to learn if they are to treat their disabled employees properly and if they are to enable their people to be themselves at work. These employers are breaking new ground and genuinely want to develop a better and more meaningful conversation with their employees. By participating in an anonymous survey conducted by Kate Nash Associates they are creating new conversations and opportunities with their disabled employees. I will come back to this extremely important work in a later blog.

I want to conclude today by saying that these reports provide ample evidence that the status quo is neither acceptable nor unavoidable – however, we will not get different results in five years time unless we start doing things differently – very differently.

At the very least, we need to use this information to challenge the all too many organisations who flatly refuse to admit that they have any need to improve their disability performance. Ironically, it is precisely because so many organisations are out of touch with the people they employ, out of touch with their customers, out of touch with the demographic realities around them – that they continue to behave as though disability has no impact on their business – and can and should be left to doctors, charities and social workers.

A huge well known company employing hundreds of thousands of people, most at minimum wage, recently refused to join BDF because: “we aren’t broken”. Another company explained; “we are too young” to address disability though they only employed 70,000. And another argues ‘we need to focus and our focus is on women this year’.

We are looking for radical ideas for how to close the performance gap between those companies, often our Members, who are determined to deliver best practice and the thousands of ‘not yet- members’ and ‘never will be member’ organisations who remain trapped in the old medical damage time warp. Above all we need to invest in the leadership potential of disabled people – real change will only happen when we enable everyone to understand that disability and disabled people, and potentially disabled people are part of everyone’s world. We are determined to re-launch our leadership programme for disabled social entrepreneurs in the next 12 months – again all proposals for how to maximise the impact of this initiative are greatly welcomed.