Inequality based on disability is widespread, according to research. Virginia Matthews reports

"I'd rather be able to tell people about my situation, but I've always felt I wouldn't have the same chances as others if I did. In any case, I want to talk about my successes; the illness is only 10 per cent of me."

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 40, Helen Waygood, an HR director who specialises in public sector troubleshooting, is one of a growing number of disabled high-flyers who believes that organisations are signally failing to tap into disabled talent.

She argues that a combination of "fear of the unknown" as well as concern that senior roles will trigger excessive stress is preventing employers from considering disabled staff for anything but the most junior roles; particularly if they have mental-health issues.

Yet her successful 40-year career amply shows that despite, or even because of, the hurdles thrown up by her disability, Waygood has proved a consistent and top-performing business leader.

"I feel I have had such a varied career that I can be more open about mental health issues," she says. "But I tend only to tell my employers about my bipolar once I've successfully completed a project for them. I have to admit if I was still 20, and at the beginning of my career, I would be very reluctant to disclose anything at all."

New and groundbreaking research by Radar, the country's largest disability campaigning network, explodes some of the myths about what disabled people can and cannot achieve at work, and demonstrates that inequality based on disability is widespread.

Sponsored by Lloyds Banking Group, the study has identified a significant but often hidden talent pool of disabled high-flyers – most of them with significant, long-standing impairments such as paraplegia or multiple sclerosis – earning salaries of between £40,000 and £80,000-plus in a wide variety of industries and jobs.

The survey identifies a stark pay gap between disabled and non-disabled staff – the non-disabled being more than three times more likely to earn £80,000 or above – as well as far less access to the mentoring and support that many disabled people crave. In addition, while staff with mental-health conditions are far less likely to be top earners or board directors than those with more visible, physical impairments, they are also significantly less willing to disclose details of their condition for fear of being stereotyped or sidelined.

Radar believes that while barriers to success for disabled people have received scant attention to date – particularly so when compared with such research among women or black and ethnic minority (BME) staff – this must change if ambitious, disabled employees are to be offered more than the crumbs from the employment cake.

While the persistent view of disability remains one of dismal career opportunities and lifelong underachievement, Radar's chief executive, Liz Sayce, believes there is an alternative view. "Until now, there has been virtually no research into the disability pay gap or glass ceiling because expectations of disabled people have been so grindingly low.

"Although the Government continues to restrict its policy on disability and work to one of merely including disabled people in the workplace, and facilitating access, we want long-term careers to be recognised and supported."

She adds: "We need to raise expectations of the role that disabled people can play in modern organisations and break down the fears of those who attempt to pigeonhole them into junior roles. Once we do that, we can truly open this undiscovered talent supply line."

Although enlightened employers do more than the legal minimum when it comes to hiring and promoting disabled people, the unnecessary fear among managers that promotion will lead to untenable levels of stress among their disabled colleagues continues to hold many people back.

Yet Waygood says: "The only triggers to episodes of bipolar in my life and those of many of my friends have been personal, not professional. If anything, my hugely demanding work gives a structure and a shape to my life that I desperately need."

To Susan Scott-Parker, founder and chief executive of the Employers' Forum on Disability, attitudes towards mental or physical frailty need to be turned on their head. "The way I see it, disability is simply part of the human condition and must be dealt with as such. As long as organisations continue to require human beings to work for them, they will need to become disability-confident and will simply need to shrug off all the assumptions about what disabled people can and cannot do."

"Far from being a 'nice-to-have' when the economy is in good shape, developing internal talent, wherever it comes from, is essential," she adds. "I would argue that giving all your existing staff the chance to grow and develop, rather than spending a small fortune on bringing in people from outside, is even more vital in a recession."

Asking staff what they want from their long-term careers is key to treating disabled staff with fairness, says Kath Sutherland, development officer at the Association of Disabled Professionals.

"By not being asked the question of what they would like to achieve in the long term, many disabled professionals have been expected to take what is given to them; and that tends to be fairly undemanding and badly paid roles, and a lot of 'basket-weaving'," she says. "Many of the people who come to us for advice have impressive sets of initials after their name and valuable life experiences to offer. Yet because they have an obvious disability, or have declared an otherwise hidden one, they may well be relegated to a junior role by an organisation that doesn't know what to do with them."

Lloyds Banking Group, Radar's partner, actively sponsors career development via its disability networks and has pioneered personal development programmes for disabled staff. But Tim Taylor, manager of equality and diversity, agrees that low expectations have historically been the norm at the company. "We began a major review of our disability strategy around 18 months ago, and found most of our efforts to date had tended to focus on getting people to work and ensuring they had no IT or physical barriers put in their way. "What we really needed to concentrate on, though, was something more complex – fostering talent and supporting disabled people's long-term career aspirations."

While Lloyds Banking Group has disabled people in senior management roles, they have tended to rise through the company's ranks, rather than be appointed externally.

"Headhunters have often told us that these people simply don't exist in the job market as a whole," says Taylor, "but via the Radar research, we now know this simply isn't the case." Although only 1.2 per cent of the bank's 125,000 staff have declared a disability, Taylor believes this figure may look lower than it actually is.

"If a physical disability is visible, it is easy to make adjustments as an employer and add figures to the chart," he says. "But if it is hidden – and this may well be the case among senior managers with mental-health conditions – it is hard for us to know where we are statistically.

"While I understand why some people may be fearful of declaring a disability, I believe being open is the only way to begin to challenge all the negative stereotypes, particularly when it comes to conditions that are feared or less well understood."

UK figures

*One in three people is disabled or close to someone who is

*One in six adults lives with fluctuating mental-health conditions

*One in seven of the population has a hearing impairment

*Ten per cent have dyslexia

*Three per cent of the UK population has a visual impairment

*Some 78 per cent of disabled people acquired their impairment at 16 or over

*Forty two per cent of the 9.7 million people aged over 65 have a disability.

*Statistics provided by the Employers' Forum on Disability

'Many employers have shaken up their ideas after hiring me'

Helen Waygood, 60, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 40. She has proved a top-performing business leader and works as an HR director.

"Some years ago, I was shortlisted for the HR directorship of a famous American multinational. I decided to declare my disability and I was sent to see the company doctor for further investigation.

"I'd been in the role for three months when a letter came back to my department, stressing that 'on no account was Helen Waygood to be employed'. I filed the letter away fairly carefully and continued in that job, quite happily, for some years."

While she has had few episodes of bipolar at work, Waygood steers clear of any role that she knows will be excessively stressful.

"Working in change management situations, redundancies are commonplace in my job. While I have handled many one-to-one redundancies – I hope fairly and with sensitivity – the one thing I baulk at are mass redundancy programmes, which I know I would find too distressing.

"As I become more open about my bipolar, I find I am able to talk to my various employers about their attitudes to disability and I know that many of them have shaken up their ideas as a result of hiring me and being happy with my work.

"I am told I am very businesslike and even creative when it comes to overcoming problems and finding solutions that fit individuals as well as employers. Most of that, ironically, comes directly from my disability."

‘We bring sheer determination to our jobs’

After senior roles in the financial world, Tony Walsh, 44, recently launched his own occupational psychology consultancy. Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at 11, and a long-term wheelchair user, he feels there is widespread complacency regarding disabled talent.

"It's the subtle, inadvertent exclusion that causes divisions between the disabled and non-disabled – things like not being invited to meetings because the wheelchair is a problem or having to travel separately from everyone else because they all want to take the train.

Even going to the pub after work or to a hastily arranged leaving do may be more difficult if you're disabled and have fixed transport arrangements. Yet the irony is, far from being more difficult to manage than other staff, we bring something new to our jobs: sheer determination and a proven track record in overcoming blocks. When it comes to problem-solving skills, we tend to be the best staff around.

Working in recruitment, I find there is widespread fear among managers about hiring disabled people. Falling foul of the law is one aspect; so is using the wrong language when you describe disability. But most disabled people care more about the thinking and intentions behind the words than the words themselves.

There have been great improvements in attitudes towards disabled people, particularly among larger employers, but it comes down to one thing. Your disabled colleagues are no more all the same than you are – we simply want to be treated like individuals."