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A new leaf: Why businesses need to invest in disabled employees

More and more organisations are learning to get the best out of disabled employees by being more flexible.

When Paul Burrows suffered from hearing loss back in 1994, he lost the ability to understand consonants, which makes speech very hard to follow. "If you take a sentence like 'the cat sat on the mat' and take all the consonants out, that's what I hear," he explains. Later, Burrows was diagnosed with ME and fibromyalgia, making it even more difficult to concentrate on what people are saying. It was at this point that Burrows, who is a social worker, was told by a nurse that he'd have to give up work.

"She told me over the phone and I was shell-shocked," he recalls. "I remember saying, 'What am I going to do now?', to which she replied: 'you'll have to rely on benefits'. I wasn't prepared to do that. It's not my work ethic. It was only thanks to a forward-thinking manager that I've been able to get back to work full time."

Fortunately, Britain's workplaces are becoming more and more sensitive to the needs of disabled employees. The Disability Discrimination Act – introduced in 1995 and extended in 2005 – places a duty on employers to make "reasonable adjustments". In Burrows' case, his employers made digital hearing aids available, which were at that time not available on the NHS. "They also made adjustments to meetings so that I could be more included and they enabled me to work on an entirely flexible basis – from home when necessary," he says.

It clearly paid off. Burrows received the Council Worker of the Year award after he developed a simple computerised form that replaced over 28 separate documents. This innovation freed up front-line social workers to spend more time doing what they do best – caring for people. Burrows worked with over 300 staff across Hampshire training them how to use the new computerised form. The episode underlined his importance to his employers.

Part of the success of the Act is that it isn't just about giving the stick to employers. The actual process of implementing reasonable adjustments tends to force a culture change in organisations, enabling employers to start realising that even a small adjustment – such as the replacement of a mouse with keyboard strokes for someone with repetitive strain injury – can enable someone to do their job. In turn, it's helped employers see the business case, which includes ensuring organisations don't miss out on talent just because someone is deaf or in a wheelchair.

The law aside, high-profile campaigning about disabled rights has also helped educate employers – and indeed society more generally – as has growing media interest in the topic.

Kelly Knox knows this all too well. She won Britain's Missing Top Model, the BBC series in which eight young disabled women discovered what it takes to be a model. Her prize was a photo shoot and appearing in a top fashion magazine and she has gone on to be a full-time model.

"I was working in a credit control job and decided to apply to help inspire others with arm or hand deficiencies who might not have as much confidence as me," she says. "I think it's worked. The response I've got since has been amazing and I love to think I've helped people realise it doesn't have to make any difference to anything to be disabled."

Caroline Ellis, joint deputy chief-executive of Radar, points out that Marie O'Riordan, editor of Marie Claire magazine, initially expressed concerns that the series might come across as a freak show. "But her attitude completely changed and she was one of the judges," says Ellis. "I think, like many people who watched the programme, she wound up thinking why the bloody hell shouldn't disabled people do these things?"

Ellis says that the Labour Government has played its part in making employment easier for disabled people. "It used to be that if you were on incapacity benefit you were more likely to die than get a job. Quite simply, people were left on incapacity benefit – despite the fact that most wanted to work – because it made unemployment figures look better. Now, we provide back to work support and that's been gathering pace. It's also helped that – until recently at least – there have been favourable economic conditions."

Ellis says the leap forward in the last decade – not just in terms of getting more disabled people into work, but achieving promotion to senior jobs – has been significant. "This agenda is no longer about getting disabled people into any old job," she says. "It's about ensuring you get disabled people in top positions, including on the board. The diversity agenda around race and gender – which has had the same aims – has helped to pave the way."

Some groups, however, have been left behind – notably those with mental health problems and learning disabilities. "Even now most employers say they wouldn't want to employ someone with either because it just seems such a Herculean task. So we do have somewhere to go," says Ellis.

The reality is that adjustments for these groups are perfectly workable. "If someone has a mental health problem and their job starts at 9am, the fact that they have to negotiate a packed Tube could mean they just turn around to go home as soon as they get to the station," says Ellis. "Simply by changing their start time to 11 – so they can start their journey later when there are less people around – the problem is solved."

Amy Whittaker, environmental services training officer at the Trafford Centre, has learned that it's just as workable to employ people with learning disabilities. "We have a woman who works for us called Christine. She has moderate to severe learning disabilities and in the past was told she'd never work, even voluntarily.

"But we decided to give her a try because she was so motivated. She now works in our food hall and has an ultimate goal of full-time employment. You ask anyone in the centre and they'll tell you what a hard worker she is. She motivates other staff because she's so enthusiastic about her job."

Alan Hewitt, who had a stroke 15 years ago and lost the ability to communicate, demonstrates just how much things have changed for disabled people. At that time, despite his speech having returned, his welcome back to work was shocking. "No concessions were made for my disability. No reasonable adjustments were made at all," he says. Today, he works at Connect, the communication disability network, where he has a high-profile job that is made possible by simple things like ensuring no meeting has more than three people and having budget sheets explained to him by the financial director.

At Sightsavers, the eye care charity, signage around the building uses colours that are suitable for people with low vision. Signs also feature Braille and symbols such as arrows for people with a cognitive impairment.

"All new employees are now issued with business cards that have Braille on one side," says Robin Spinks, Sightsavers' accessibility and assertive technology adviser. "And our annual review is produced in multi-formats such as Braille, audio cassette and hard copy that uses the clearest font available and paper that isn't over shiny."

But while Sightsavers attracts people with vision impairments – by the very nature of the charity's aims – other employers don't know what disability they may be faced with. Take Royal Mail, which employs 1 per cent of Britain's workforce. Keen to ensure it doesn't exclude anyone, it has joined forces with Jobcentre Plus, so that every line manager has one phone number to call to find out what it can and should do to enable someone to work there.

"The purpose is not to disempower our line managers, but to make the process easier for them," says Kay Allen, group head of social policy and inclusion. "We know that as a result of the excellent advice these line managers are getting, we're employing a lot more people with learning disabilities."

Allen is quick to point out that many people develop disabilities while in employment. "We had a 26-year-old employee who was diagnosed with dyslexia last week, and we're keen to make sure she gets all the help she needs."

Perhaps surprisingly, it is small employers that are often best at making reasonable adjustments, says Bella Gore, head of legal policy at the Employers Forum on Disability. "Research has shown that they can be very good because they had the ability to respond quickly to different people's needs, while large businesses face the challenge of having systems in place that can lead to institutionalised discrimination. It's not that there's an intention of discrimination, but the systematic barriers can go against disabled people's needs. You get very good employers that work hard to overcome these – notably investment and retail banks – but others still do the bare minimum."

Also going against the popular perception, charities aren't always the most welcoming to disabled people. "I think there is a tendency to focus on their specialism," explains Gore. She adds that the public sector isn't always as good as it should be either.

Gore insists that if you can manage disabled people well, you will be a good manager generally. "This is all about treating people fairly, regardless of who they are."

'Our personal development programme is popular'

Tim Taylor is group manager of equality and diversity at Lloyds TSB.

"We've always had senior level support for diversity as a whole, with sponsorship and interest at board level.

We also have a history of devoting resources to things such as training, reasonable adjustments and building the profile of our disabled workforce. The Employers Forum on Disability says disability is the poor relation when it comes to diversity, but that's never been the case here.

I'm particularly proud of the fact that we work in a preventative way. For instance, we help people with back problems and RSI – who may not be covered by the Disability Discrimination Act – to prevent their condition from getting worse.

One of the most popular things we offer is our personal development programme for disabled staff. It involves getting delegates to look at things like how they project themselves and assertiveness. Assessment of this course tells us that delegates are more likely to stay with LloydsTBS and be promoted.

When you talk about reasonable adjustments, people usually think of chairs, desks and IT. But often it's the softer stuff, such as allowing people to travel at a different time that works just as well.

We place emphasis on providing disability awareness training for managers and use someone who is disabled. They understand both what it's like to be disabled and the business argument."

'Some reasonable adjustments cost absolutely nothing'

Kath Griffin is disability partnership manager at the Shaw Trust/West Midlands Police.

"When police officers were first covered under the Disability Discrimination Act, the Shaw Trust was contacted by West Midlands Police to help them provide more opportunities for disabled people. Together, we set up the Work Step initiative, which provides one-year fixed-term contracts for people. We felt disabled people were doing work placements to death, and we wanted to provide something more substantial.

We liaise with all the departments, looking for new staff. We have a budget to pay those salaries and we support them to develop the disabled person's skills and move them on when the year is up. Over 60 per cent do stay on and even those who don't are supported in roles in other organisations.

All this is coupled with training for the employee and also for managers in things such as epilepsy and blind awareness, which is key in getting rid of myths. There has been a definite shift in the organisational culture.

Some reasonable adjustments cost very little or absolutely nothing. It might just be a case of reorganising a job so that a deaf person doesn't have to do any telephone work."