Investing in equality makes financial and moral sense – even in a recession, says Ellie Levenson

It is tempting, in times of recession, to cut costs where it is easiest and one of the first victims of this is often equality.

But it is at times like these that spending time and resources on ensuring equality and opportunities for people from all sectors of society becomes most important. "Future-proofing equality is about not creating new inequalities," says Caroline Ellis, deputy chief executive of Radar – The Disability Network. "In the last recession, disabled people paid a very high price. Many ended up on incapacity benefit in their droves and were just kind of left there. This time round, we need to take steps to avoid that."

But how can employers be brought on board to do this? The answer is threefold. First, there is legislative change. Disability laws need to be tightened, and these laws must be enforced. This is happening, and Ellis gives credit to the Government for pressing ahead with strengthening equality legislation despite the economic climate, with the Equality Bill currently passing through Parliament. "They could have said now is not the time to be increasing legislation in this area because there's a recession, but what we need to do is strengthen the legislative framework so that we can deliver the benefits, and it's important that the Government decided to press ahead with it."

Second is by making a compelling moral case. This is an area that Jeremy Holt, business development director at CHH Recruitment, particularly believes in. His company has been nominated for Radar's Doing Careers Differently award, and they try to put the moral case for equality at the heart of everything they do. "We recognised quite a while ago there was a dearth of people from diverse backgrounds in senior-level roles, and that's all kinds of diversity – be it gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, etc. So what we started developing last year was an initiative to actively work with diversity organisations to promote every vacancy in more of a progressive and semi-aggressive way – truly going out to organisations and saying: 'Have you got candidates or members that you would be prepared to promote our vacancies to, and we will work with them and you to make sure they are treated equitably'."

This moral argument is an approach that the Post Office also takes. "It adds to brand value if people see you as an inclusive organisation, and it very much resonates with who we are," says Paul da Gama, head of organisational development at the Post Office.

"We have a commercial but also a social responsibility, and ensuring we have a wide range of people working for us is important in making that come alive. We always look to see what adjustments we can make to help people with disabilities who work for us. That's good for us, because we can keep a valuable employee, it's good for the individual and, of course, there's a real cost benefit in having someone at work rather than somebody sat at home not working. What's more, I really do believe that consumers are much more discerning these days and they don't necessarily want to deal with a company that doesn't share their values."

And third, and perhaps the most convincing of all when it comes to persuading employers and businesses to do more than is required by law when it comes to disabilities, is to present the economic case. This is something that Andy Wright, the managing director of Accessible Travel, a tour operator which provides holidays to the less-mobile community, sees as an easy thing to do in times of recession.

Wright has been shortlisted for Radar's Person of the Year award, and he is keen to emphasise how being disability-friendly helps rather than hinders businesses. "Everyone I speak to, be it hoteliers, transport suppliers or public attractions, have had to search for new markets.

"So while some people from an employment perspective might want to compromise areas that cost them money, our suppliers have had to find ways of making themselves look more attractive and appealing to new audiences. So they've looked to the disabled market, which is very loyal and has a good repeat-booking rate."

For Wright, there are two ways of looking at the equality obligations on employers. "You can turn around and say 'Legislation tells me I need to put a lift in or a ramp in, and I have to find money to do so', and see that as a negative thing; or you can be positive and say: 'I'm making myself accessible to all, and I'm actually attracting the disabled person as well as the young mum with the double buggy and the elderly person with restricted mobility, and all of their friends, family and carers'."

And while we don't yet have a term to describe the money associated with this market, research suggests that the value of the "disabled pound" – that is, the spending power of people with disabilities in the UK – is up to £80bn. This, especially when coupled with legislative demands and a strong moral case, makes future-proofing equality a sound choice for all businesses.

‘All the offices are accessible and I’m treated equally’

Jason Wilsher-Mills, 40, is regional manager for the east Midlands at the Independent Complaints Advocacy Service (Icas), and looks after offices in Lincoln, Nottingham, Leicester and Northampton. Icas has been shortlisted for a Radar Doing Careers Differently award.

"Icas employs advocates who support clients through NHS complaints procedures, and my job is on the operational side. I first came into contact with Icas several years ago, because when I first became disabled I was a client and Icas was fantastic at giving me support when I had some negative experiences with the care I was given. At the time, I was a manager in an FE college, but when I saw this job come up I felt it was a real calling – I really felt passionate about it. When I talk to stakeholders, I'm able to speak to them as a previous client, so I have a very engaging story.

"I'm incredibly well supported here. Icas have done practical things like put electronic doors into the offices so I was able to get around and do my job. This isn't just good for me, but it's also good for clients as these changes help them too.

"I'm a wheelchair user and the nature of my condition, which is a neurological muscular disorder, means it can be very changeable, but I've been supported to work from home if needed. We pursued Access to Work funding and have accessed funds to get a support worker for me – so when she starts she'll be helping me with taking the chair out of the car and carrying my laptop and equipment and that kind of thing.

"The really good thing about Icas is they always listen. I feel incredibly secure and positive. I don't even feel disabled working here. All the offices are accessible. I'm treated equally. There's a real culture of listening and responding.

"I nominated Icas for the award, and I'm delighted they've been shortlisted. I wanted to acknowledge really good practice and how it should be done."

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