Disability and employment: bridging the gap

With a change in working dynamics during the pandemic, workers with disabilities hope for a more inclusive future. Could flexible working options be the solution? 

Inclusion banner word on wooden cubes and pencils on yellow background


Workers with disabilities face constant barriers due to the lack of measures put in place to support them. These barriers prevent many from working and progressing and are behind the disability pay gap. Also, the stigma around disabilities in the workplace often prevents many from disclosing their condition for fear of being penalised. 

On July 28th, the Department for Work and Pensions [DWP] announced a new National Disability Strategy of £1.6bn to improve disabled people’s lives. Some of the issues they are planning to tackle are accessible housing and commuting and promoting better job prospects. Also, £300m will be used to support children with special educational needs and disabilities in schools and to provide “an online work passport to help disabled students move seamlessly from education to work”. 

One of the objectives of the strategy is to “improve inclusive practice across the UK’s biggest employers” and to build “on existing gender reporting requirements” plans by looking also at disability. 

Charities and organisations have welcomed some of the changes planned, but many are doubtful that they will make a significant change. 

Liz Johnson, managing director and co-founder of The Ability People (TAP), says: “We do need a new disability strategy and it is important that we are talking about it, but if it’s not done correctly and implemented authentically, and people who have the knowledge about it, people who live with disabilities are not consulted at every stage of the process, it’s not going to work.”

She adds: “It’s good that they have done the agenda and things are moving, but we need to make sure that we’ve got a balanced viewpoint of what it needs to look like […] because the reality is lots of people say they want to make these changes and they want to do the right thing, but when it comes to the crunch, they don’t understand the issue.”

Lord Shinkwin, a disabled Conservative member of the House of Lords, has also criticised the strategy. Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme he said that it was “more of a mixture of a to-do list and a should have done by now list”. Talking about the employment plan he said that he does not think it will “make a massive difference”.

Indeed, one of the big concerns is around employment.

Currently, the disability employment gap stands at 28.6%. However, many employers do not register their employees’ disabilities. The strategy could require large business to report on disability in the workforce. However, some perceive this as a challenge that is too big for the strategy to solve the issue because it is too focused on consultation rather than on making active changes. 

TAP was in fact set up as a result of the lack of progress made to tackle the disability employment gap over decades. Every one in the team “has a disability, impairment or medical condition of some kind that means that maybe conventional working environments are their preference or don’t suit them,” says Johnson. 

She explains that TAP “exists on this idea of normalising differences within the work to create authentic inclusion, to enable meaningful employment, not just employment”. She adds: “The other issue that isn’t represented by the disability employment gap is how many of those people in employment are actually doing a job that they want to do or that tests them and satisfies them.”

Could flexible working options improve employability? 

The UK Disability Survey published in July 2021, which had more than 14,4000 responses, found that, of those employed, only “half of disabled respondents felt their employer was flexible and made sufficient reasonable adjustments, and half of carers felt their employer was supportive of their caring responsibilities”. 

Also, only a quarter of disabled people and carers felt they had the same promotion opportunities as their colleagues. 

Covid-19 forced many to reconsider the way jobs can be carried out, particularly through remote working. For many disabled workers that meant finally finding themselves on a more level playing field, without having to worry about whether their employer could provide adjustments which they often do not do. 

However, working from home is not necessarily the best option and it is important to remember that flexible working encompasses many other solutions. A flexible working option could allow workers to build their schedule around medical appointments or commuting to and from work at quieter hours. Also, part-time options could better suit certain workers who might get tired more often, which would allow them to take breaks to protect their health. 

Sometimes, even if those options are available, they might not be well-advertised or implemented in case they create divisions between workers who might need a flexible option compared to those working full time. 

Johnson advises businesses to “make sure that your company environment and your organisation as a whole lives by this. It’s not just processes or procedures or policies that are in place because people can put things in place and things can exist. But as we’ve seen that alone doesn’t change things.

“Often organisations will put certain things in place, but people don’t take them up on it because there’s still that stigma that would be associated with that. So I think it needs to be embedded in the entire organisation and people need to lead by example.”

Change needs to start now

Offering flexible work, including working from home, can help, but it is not the only solution. Often, it is the general work environment and a lack of measures put in place to support disabled workers that are truly disabling them. 

“Probably the biggest issue for people with a disability is that they have grown up in this world being treated like this and therefore some of them take on that burden. They’re making choices where they sacrifice their potential, their happiness, their opportunities and themselves because of a system that’s rigged against them,” says Johnson. 

Flexible working options can attract and retain more disabled employees. However, if the organisation is not disabled-friendly they are substantially more difficult to implement. Employers should be aware of making spaces for wheelchair users, accommodating requests to support workers with visual or hearing impairments and other issues.  For instance, online meetings can be challenging for those with hearing impairments if the video goes or if several people are speaking at the same time.

Because employers need to look at changing the work environment and not expect the individual to change, they need to provide employees with a range of different options, says Johnson.

She explains: “It’s about looking at what the objective is and then creating opportunities for that objective to be achieved, for example, that could be having different types of workspace within your organisation. This goes beyond disabled workers, but they would certainly benefit from it if it became the norm. The important aspect of this is not having to justify yourself.”

Johnson believes that proper inclusion in the workplace for any individual – not only those with disabilities – means that “you’re able to go and do your job without having to provide any additional information in order to access the same opportunity.”

She says: “They shouldn’t have to tell anybody if they don’t want to, it shouldn’t matter […] By removing unnecessary barriers and giving options people have a choice that empowers them.”

She adds that these are simple measures taken for the worker’s wellbeing which should not impact their pay. And she says that, in order to employ more disabled people, it is necessary for employers to listen to them and take all of the necessary measures to help them. 

In this way, Johnson believes that if an employer creates “the best and more authentic working environment” more employees will also also feel comfortable in disclosing their disabilities and in being “their whole self and their best self”.

Finally, Johnson’s biggest advice for any organisation of any size is: “Stop being led by accreditation and following legislation and meeting requirements and start looking at what you can do to remove any unnecessary barriers and benefit your workforce. Because, the legislation has been in place for decades, yet nothing’s changed.”

“Be open about your communication and start putting your ideas into action, because the reality is you could come up with the best incentives, but people might still not be able to engage. But that doesn’t mean that you should stop offering incentives or that you should only do the things that people ask you to do. Take the initiative, remove the unnecessary barriers and you will start to see your workforce thrive.”

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