Posted 27.02.2020

In October 2019, it was reported that 19% of the working age population in the UK state they have a disability. Of these, 53% are in employment. For comparison, the employment rate for people without disabilities stands at 82%. There is a clear ‘disability employment gap’. But why should businesses be concerned about closing the gap?

In this QMS Good Business Podcast episode, Dr Laura Steele, Queen's Management School is joined by Sean Fitzsimons, Employment Advocacy Coordinator at Disability Action, to discuss these issues and more.

Podcast Transcription below: Many thanks to Jennifer Caughey

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Laura: Welcome to another episode of the Queen’s Management School Good Business Podcast. My name is Laura Steele and I am a lecturer in Business and Society within the School. The aim of this podcast is to go beyond the bottom line and examine the ethical, social and environmental responsibilities of businesses.

In this special episode for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on the third of December we will be focusing on the experiences of people with disabilities in the workplace.

In October 2019, it was reported by the UK’s Office for National Statistics that 7.7 million people of working age were reported that they had a disability - some 19% of the working age population. 53% of people with disabilities are in employment - up from 51% the year previously. But for comparison the employment rate for people without disabilities stands at 82%. In addition, people with disabilities were considerably more likely, than those without, to be economical inactive; meaning they are not in work or looking for work.

This high rate of economic activity, coupled with higher unemployment rates, has created what is known as the disability employment gap.

While other European countries including France, Sweden and Latvia have managed to substantially reduce the size of their disability employment gaps it remains stubbornly high in the UK.

Unfortunately the challenges don’t end once someone with a disability secures a job as evidence suggests that they are over represented in low skilled and low status jobs, more likely to work in jobs which they are overqualified and have reduced access to training and career progression opportunities.

But why should businesses be concerned about closing the gap?  

Well aside from the strong ethical argument that employers seeking to be socially responsible should strive to achieve a diverse and inclusive workplace, there is a compelling case that people with disabilities represent a huge untapped resource.

To discuss these issues, I am delighted to be joined by Sean Fitzsimons Employment Advocacy Coordinator at Disability Action.

Laura: Sean thank you for joining me.

Sean: Thank you very much for having me along here today Laura - it is a privilege to be here at Queens.

Laura: Thank you. Sean can I first ask you how we can define disability? Do you think it’s a word that is often accompanied by misconceptions and stereotypes?

Sean: Very good question Laura. I think the simple answer to your latter question there is yes - there is a massive amount of misconception and stereotype around the word disability.

There is also an awful lot of stigma as well and I think the best way to look at disability is to speak with disabled people and look at how they view it. Disabled people generally view disability in a kind of an understanding that it is society that disables them.

We would look to something called the ‘Social Model of Disability’ which says that it is the barriers around us that makes us disabled. So it brings into question - is it the ‘disabled person’ or ‘person with a disability’ - and that is kind of an ongoing question.

Disabled people generally, if they believe and adhere to that social model thinking, will say that they are disabled people - but I think either or is fine and I think it is the approach.

I think the big challenge for disabled people now is that they are kind of caught in the situation where you are either perceived to be a scrounger or an inspiration and there is no middle ground. I think as disabled people we want people to understand, as regular John or Jane, we to have aspirations, we have goals and desires like anybody else and they mightn’t be necessarily winning the paralympics. It also means if we are not fit for work, we are not necessarily a burden or a scrounger or anything like that. So, I think, that’s a big challenge that goes on.

I think a lot of that thinking has been shaped by the media and also by political agendas and I think that is very unfortunate because I think, as much as we try to resist it, there is a drip down effect and it affects us all and we all have to kind of keep a check on that when it comes to how we view what it means to be disabled. If a person isn’t in a wheelchair, are they just putting it on? If they are disabled and they are driving a new car, is that a DLA car, or do they really deserve that - you know they are working less than me. I think it’s an interesting time and I think there is an awful lot more we challenge now around that negative kind of stereotype and I think it is good to see.

Laura: Absolutely, how did you actually become involved in advocating for people with disabilities?

Sean:  As a disabled person myself, I have grown up with a disability, with various conditions which impact upon me, so I am kind of intimately aware of a lot of the barriers myself.  Now I wouldn’t for a second say that I understand and know them all.

My background is in law and education and I got involved in working for Disability Action close to ten years ago. I think the big driver for me in moving forward in this area of work has been sitting at so many tables where disabled people are largely absent and where decisions are being made around policy in practice that will ultimately impact disabled people - where they have not been meaningfully talked to, consulted or involved in the design and delivery of services. I think that needs to change and I am very proud to work for Disability Action and play a small part in trying to effect that change.

Laura: It is something that is incredibly important, isn’t it? Having people at the table that are involved in the decision-making process that actually have real lived experience?

Sean: Yeah, absolutely Laura.  I mean it seems like common sense and so many people say ‘oh yeah, yeah, yeah that makes sense’ but then if you look at maybe something that is being rolled out, a government programme quite topical; I mean if you ask where were the disabled people involved in the design of that system that is ultimately going to affect them specifically and if you scratch back through it you find very, very little evidence of it and sometimes that’s not through deliberate ‘lets keep them out’ - it’s just not thinking.

So, if you are speaking with certain organisations that work for disabled people that’s good. But are the disabled people at the table when it comes to it? And if they are not, they should be. I think what that does is that makes it easier for everybody - getting them in at an early stage, they will be able to point out things and this is equally applicable for ourselves. We at Disability Action we say we are not the experts in everything. We mightn’t always have the answer, but if we don’t have it we go off and find it for you and I think that we are constantly being checked by disabled people who will say ‘have you thought of this’ and we are very open to that and we try and do our best to be open and I think that is something we should all try and do.

Laura: For anybody who is unfamiliar with the work of Disability Action, could you tell us a little more about what the organisation strives to achieve?

Sean: Good question. Disability Action have existed for over 30 years now in Northern Ireland. We are the largest pan disability organisation around. We work in a number of fronts. We deliver services - in one area of our business we look at employment, training, transport, information and advice.

The main aim of our organisation is to advance and support disabled people in realising their rights as citizens and that’s a huge part of our work which is constantly ongoing and constantly evolving and it is something that we try and keep it at the forefront of everything we do.

So, if we are delivering a service, it needs to be a service that fulfils that goal.

I think one of the big things that we have had to contend with over the last couple of years has been changes, in terms of no government, changes in funding and stuff like that. So, what we are going through is a kind of state of change, but it’s an exciting time. I think our current strategic plan looks at advancing disabled people as leaders and it’s something that I am very passionate about - making sure that we create the opportunities for other disabled people coming forth to advance the agenda of disability equality.

Laura: Would you say that the demand for your services are only increasing at the moment?

Sean: Absolutely, massively and I think there, at times, it can be a lot of frustration. We would work very closely with government departments and stuff like that and a lot of the time we will take telephone calls and emails from them and we have to say to them ‘look we would love to become involved in this but if there is no resource attached to it we just physically can’t do it’.

Equally we would have disabled people in certain areas where barriers are being faced where we don’t actually do a lot of work, where we would like to be working. One example would be in education provision - that there can be frustration too. But I think that goes back to our efforts now of encouraging and supporting other people in terms of leadership, because there needs to be other people alongside us working together to achieve the change.

Laura: Absolutely and from your experience what would you say would be the main barriers or challenges you find that disabled people face in relation to finding and maintaining employment?

Sean: Very typical. I mean if we take the journey of the disabled person applying for a job. First and foremost, I suppose, is there an apprehension there in terms of the culture of an organisation. Are they presenting themselves as an organisation that is open to having disabled employees? And that sounds quite like - you might think ‘Sean why would an organisation not want that’. But some organisations are better than it than others in terms of promoting the values of having disabled people.

I would point out Microsoft, under the stewardship of Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Hector Minto and Jessica Rafuse, they have now made that part of their DNA and that’s not just selling accessible control pads to customers. It is in how they staff their accessibility area, how they take on contracts with providers, everything the whole way through. So, I think that, that initial challenge is ‘do they seem like a friendly organisation?’.

The application process. Is the application process set up in a way that might exclude a lot of people. If for example you don’t drive, say for example you are blind and part of the provision of that is you have to have access to a driving license and a car. We still see that and that shouldn’t be the case. That should be ‘can you make the transport or travel arrangements of the job’. So, it is getting past that initial hurdle.

We then have the question of ‘Do I disclose my disability in the application form?’ I get asked that time and time again.  I often joke if I had a pound for every time that was said I would be lying on a beach somewhere (laughs) and it is a very difficult one to answer and we say to people ‘you know that is entirely up to you’. If you want to request reasonable adjustments, we will say it’s better. If there is health and safety implications, absolutely you need to say it. But, it is entirely up to you and people say quite often ‘but my disability isn’t visible. I have enough challenges and barriers getting into the job. Like anybody else a lot of people are looking for work at the minute - why would I put myself at a disadvantage?’. So that is another big one.

So, that’s getting into the job; that is getting to the interview stage and if they request reasonable adjustments throughout that process, we have seen an awful lot of resistance. Particularly if it is within large organisations that are maybe doing standardised tests and stuff like that and you have probably seen there has been a lot of litigation, quite recently, around that and that has come down to favour the disabled person which was good but it’s still a big problem and still a big challenge. So, if they get into work there are those classic things like attitude. They may be going into a situation where the department is quite understaffed or under pressure and they are coming in the door, they are firefighting from the word ‘go’ and if they then raise the fact that they have a disability there is kind of a breakdown in relations to how do we deal with this.

There is also a fear I think from the employer’s side, and I think it is important to say the vast majority of employers want to do the right thing but it is getting the right information at the right time.

So, if someone discloses having a disability, quite often we will get telephone calls from employers who are quite panicked and we say to them ‘look you’re doing the right thing, we can work through this, this is grand’. People are afraid of saying and doing the wrong thing.

So, maintaining - the big one that we see around maintaining, is having a kind of a record of what those reasonable adjustments are and making sure that they are regularly reviewed and as I said there earlier about the kind of pressures in organisations - if you previously had a line manager that was very good and very supportive to you and they suddenly move off and there is no record of those things we would typically see things start to fall apart and people would fall out of work.

Retention is a big issue for disabled people.

Laura: I can imagine once somebody does fall out of work it can be really difficult for them for a variety of reasons, not least the damage to their self-confidence, to get back into work?

Sean: Yes, absolutely and I think depending on the size of the organisation, again it very much depends because you have huge organisations that are doing great work and you have small ones doing great work but I can tend to find in larger organisations sometimes that person can get lost. They become a number and through nobody’s fault it’s not advanced as quickly as it should be. Or if somebody discloses a disability for example, they are off sick, there is nearly this expectation they must follow policy and they must go to occupational health and this is despite the fact that an individual may be presenting a GP’s letter saying ‘look Johnny or Jane is fine, they are getting on grand, they are ready to go back to work’. Whereas they will maybe have to wait six, eight, twelve weeks for an occupational health appointment and then another four weeks for them to get the report and then find out that the report is maybe a ‘wee’ bit generic.

So, all these things kind off add up and that in the meantime can kind of create breakdown in relations, maybe a ‘wee’ bit of suspicion. People can become you know - they have worked with these people all their lives, why are they making me wait when I am telling them I am fit for work. So, absolutely it is challenging.

Laura: Just incredibly fraught from literally before the application is even submitted and there is a lot of discussion about how we have in the UK and in many other countries an ageing population. In addition to that we are going to have to work longer because of changes to pensions regulations. Is that likely to result in more people with disabilities in the workplace?

Sean: I would say absolutely and I would say that is it something that we should be thinking about now and I think you know there is that notion that you know younger people now, that maybe don’t have a disability or don’t know anybody with a disability, assume that this isn’t something that will affect them at some stage later in their life.

If we look at something like cancer. I mean the statistics change all of the time but the last thing that I read was if we all live to 100 one in two of us would get cancer at some stage in our lifetime. So cancer would fall under those DDA protections and what we would say to more and more people now is ‘that obviously you know if you get a diagnosis of cancer it’s not the end and you want to carry on working, you might have family commitments and all of that sort of stuff’. So, I think it’s definitely something that is going to be on the increase and something that we should be thinking about now as to how we adapt and adjust.

Laura: So it literally could affect any of us at any point in our lives and so as a result it’s something that we all need to be attentive towards and to be thinking about because one day you may be in a position of being the person that needs support in the workplace.

Sean: Yes, absolutely. One hundred per cent.

Laura: Do you think that there is really a lack of awareness of the potential value that people with disabilities can bring to the workplace?

Sean: I definitely think there is. In my experience, and our organisation’s experience, we work with employers across Northern Ireland and indeed further afield and I think there is this challenge of changing attitudes and it sounds cliché at this stage, but disabled people will tell you it is the biggest barrier that we face and I think those attitudes can affect us all and they affect employers.

So, if an employer maybe is encountering somebody or is thinking about a workforce and a disabled person, they may automatically think ‘well sure, I don’t have a ramp, that is going to be expensive’. They may also think ‘this person is going to be off sick much more often’, which statistics actually show the otherwise. ‘They might be asking for this, that and the other – everything under the sun, which is going to cost me money’.

They might cause difficulties in a team where we have a level of automation, where certain things need to produce a certain amount of numbers’ - and it’s all those fears and apprehensions that I think immediately put up those barriers.

Whereas if they looked at it in another way, I mean a lot of the disabled people that I would work with and know, some of the challenges and barriers that they overcome every single morning in getting out of the house on time and getting to work - tapping into those skills and tapping into that resilience and bringing that into your organisation will reap benefits and I mean we would work with organisations and see that and I name checked Microsoft earlier, they seem to be ahead of the game, when it comes to large organisations. They are getting it and they are definitely reaping the rewards.

Laura: Absolutely and even just thinking back on those statistics that I mentioned at the start, that 19% of the working age population identifies as having a disability. These are your clients, your customers and so you want to make sure you are providing goods and services that meet their needs and surely having a broad representation among yourselves would help you. Do you think maybe that’s why Microsoft have picked up on that early - is that we are selling products to many people with disabilities so surely we should have them represented on our teams?

Sean: Absolutely and it’s looking at the value of the purple pound. If we look at 1 in 5 of the population, their friends, their families and if, as you say, a workforce reflects the customers that they serve, that can only be a good thing and I think people are now much quicker to pick up when that doesn’t happen and I think social media has its pros and cons but I think that’s a good way of kind of mobilising people and saying here’s a company that obviously values us. Why would you not lend support and that goes for a lot of organisations. (I’m not getting paid or anything….)

Laura: …. By Microsoft. (laughs)

Laura: This is interesting; seemingly we’ve got better at spotting examples of sexism and racism particularly within advertising and marketing, but I wonder are we bit slower when it comes to either lack of representation or negative representation in people with disabilities?

Sean: Absolutely, I think we are. I think one of the things that, I was in conversation quite recently with somebody, that was very noticeable and they pointed it out…. They had driven up Botanic Avenue around pride and every business without fail had a rainbow flag out which was brilliant, absolutely brilliant to see and rights are rights and that would be our approach and I think more and more now the conversation is happening and it is a ‘wee’ bit slower but I think we are getting there. You know disabled people need to be represented, they need to be seen, they need to be perceived to have value and contributing to parts of society and I think businesses are starting to pick up on that but it is definitely slower.

Laura: And I suppose, one question that I really wanted to ask you was whether the fact that we have been through a decade largely of austerity and the cuts that have been associated with that have had an impact on the ability both for organisations like Disability Action to carry out the work that you do but also on individuals in terms of their ability to find and stay in work?

Sean: Yeah, absolutely. The austerity agenda has had a devastating impact on disabled people. You know, certain political viewpoints and certain media outlets for the past 10 years or more are playing a narrative that disabled people are largely to blame for the recession. That one point there in the last decade you could have looked at any kind of thing and disabled people were blamed in some shape or other.

I think that makes it incredibly difficult for disabled people regardless of their age. If you are a young disabled job seeker or if you are a disabled person that isn't fit to work and require the safety net of social security which is being eroded to the point of non-existence - I think you are in a very very difficult position. So, you are expected to go out and work if you can, but the employer is not in the position to let you into work or you are not getting successful with your job application. Okay social security isn't there. How do you live? You know you can't live. People are relying on food banks and stuff like that.

I think this last decade has set the clock back considerably for disabled people and I think, hopefully we are coming to the end of that but, the damage that has been done in terms of legacy particularly around social security is one which is going to take an awful long time to work out. I think, you know, it's important when, we were speaking about it earlier, disabled people need to be involved in the design and the development and the delivery of services and systems for them - and if they are not I think this is a classic example of what happens.

Laura: And in addition, in Northern Ireland we have obviously had a situation for almost 2 and a half years, actually no, coming up to 3 years now that there has been no Assembly in place. So, do you look at your counterparts and other parts of the UK and Ireland where there is functioning government and while they have had to deal with austerity they haven't had this additional challenge.

Sean: Absolutely and I think that kind of mechanism or legislator is not there and our ability to get better legal protection is completely frozen. Across the water they’ve got the Equality Act. We are still relying on the Disability Discrimination Act which is significantly weakened and needs replaced. But that cannot happen without our Assembly up and running.

It potentially could theoretically but it's low down the list of priorities for Westminster at the minute. I think the longer that goes on the more difficult it becomes, and I think the worry for disabled people is they typically feel that they are at the back of the queue. So even when we do get this up and going there is going to be a potential further delay as all that other stuff that has been piled up gets dealt with. I think it's important for disabled people and their allies to continue making noise around that.

That needs to happen. I think that it’s to everybody's benefit. Having strong legal protection will protect disabled people, will protect businesses. It gives everybody clear guidance as to what should be happening. It stops the uncertainty.

Laura: Absolutely and is that fear that it could fall down the list of priorities but actually it could also be a really amazing opportunity to become moral leaders in terms of legislative provision in Northern Ireland.  And your work would take a very international focus at times. You would be aware of what's happening around the world. Is there anything we can learn from other countries that we could bring in - whenever this opportunity arises?

Sean: Absolutely I mean I have been very very privileged over the last few years to work in a number of countries around the world on these issues. I think one of the big things looking towards the United States I have been privileged to speak at a number of the Harkin summits. There is definitely much more pride held in being a disabled person. You know that kind of disability as a political identity as a block of people who could affect change.

Next year they are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act and I think there is a lot to be learned there in terms of mobilisation, in terms of how they campaign, how they lobby, how they speak to their political leaders and how they affect change and affect pressure. You know, pressure on the leavers now we are looking at an election coming up in 2020 in the states and disabled people are having a lot of sway. We are seeing all the candidates coming out with their viewpoints on disability.  And I think that is a very strong thing.

They also frame it in terms of rights, and I think some people here do that. Others are a bit more nervous about the word ‘rights’ and I think we shouldn't be nervous of that. Disabled people are rights holders like anybody else. I think what is very telling to me is regardless of the country; I mean I have worked in countries in the developing world as well. If there is the right intention and there is a body for disabled people and their allies anything is possible and I think we need to encourage that type of thinking and that type of 'You can be a leader and you are a leader in fact.’ Not this kind of ‘You'll be a leader 20 or 30 years down the line’. You know, speaking to people with Muscular Dystrophy and saying ‘in 20 years’ time you can be a leader’. ‘You are a leader now if you are advocating and you are using voicing your opinion and doing it in a positive, constructive way. You are a leader and you are showing leadership. Bring other people with you’.

Laura: That was a question I wanted to ask you about that when I was reading around this issue on the Disability Action website and other websites I noticed that there is a lack of high prolife role models with people with disabilities and senior leadership in business. Do you think that is something that needs to be addressed?

Sean: Absolutely. I mean I think it would go an awful long way. I think there are undoubtedly chief executives out there, you know, locally and further a field that are disabled people and maybe just aren’t vocalising that as much. I think that will come to the fore in time. I think more generally, disabled leaders full stop - and I know we have spoken about paralympians and stuff like that - but just, and I say quote on quote to the average John and Jane, if they are working in part of their community where they are making a difference.

You know President Obama talked about community activists and stuff like that, you know we have community activists over here sometimes it’s not looked on as a positive thing but where you are working to effect positive change and you are disabled you know that should be lifted up. That type of behaviour is the stuff that’s going to affect change and I think that for us as an organisation is our strategic plan. That is where we are going as an organisation.

We have been through an awful lot of change in the last few years but we are very confident on how we are moving forward in doing that and we are looking forward to working with people and building relationships and working with people like yourselves Laura just trying to affect change, regardless of where it happens.

Laura: And final question I have for you is what, through your experience and your work with Disability Action, can organisations do to better support people with disabilities in the workplace?

Sean: First and foremost, speak to disabled people. That sounds very simple, but the amount of times that doesn’t happen and people will run around. Now I think at times it can be a challenge and there can be a fear around that. So, speak to disabled people but equally if you are an employer for example and you are looking for professional advice and you don’t know how to have that first conversation - reach out. Organisations like ourselves, you know, we are happy to provide advice and support. If it isn’t us, we are very quick to signpost you to somebody that will help you.

The support and advice is out there and I think for businesses especially what we quite often say you know if this was any other area of your business that you weren’t familiar with you would go get advice and support. You would speak to the experts.  So, speak to the experts.

I think create a culture where disabled people are accepted and don’t be afraid to challenge any negative talking and negative thinking. It happens everywhere and it can affect us all even if we don’t realise it.

So, you know stand out and be proud and I think the other thing you could do is you know when you are looking at things like recruitment go above and beyond. This notion of legal minimums, ‘Am I doing enough? What can I do to encourage more disabled people into my organisation?’ - I mean you will reap the rewards.

Laura: Absolutely and there is a lot of organisations including Microsoft as you mentioned; and other companies like Marks and Spencer’s, who I’ve spoken to previously, who really say we have seen the benefits of this and from all that you have said I get the impression that if you  haven’t done it before then you need to do it now because it is only going to become a more pressing issue over the next decade so why not get ahead of your competitors. Speak to organisations like Disability Action and position yourself as an organisation that is open to everybody.

Sean: Absolutely, keep moving.

Laura: Thank you, Sean thank you for agreeing to take part today and thank you to the audience for listening.

For more information on the Good Business podcast and our other work related to ethics, responsibility and sustainability you can follow us on twitter at QBethics or email [email protected]

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Laura: Thank you Sean for a really interesting conversation.

Sean: Thank you very much Laura.

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