Firms and businesses looking to create a diverse workforce may be aware of the physical barriers to be addressed, but bias and unconscious prejudice can be just as effective in shutting one particular group in society out of job opportunities altogether
That group is people living with disability, a cohort that is 650,000-strong in Ireland. It effectively embraces one in seven of the population, forming a significant – not to mention diverse and ever changing – demographic.
According to Employers for Change, a group that advises employers on recruiting and employing people with disabilities, 70% of people with a disability aged between 20 and 64 acquired their disability after the age of 16. That is a powerful indicator of how anyone can end up in this cohort as a result of an accident or illness.
In spite of some progress that has been made in recent years, Employers for Change also argues that the challenges faced by people with disability remain onerous. In Ireland, they are half as likely to be employed as their non-disabled peers.
‘People with disabilities are no less qualified, talented or ambitious than anyone else’
Perception and prejudice
A 2019 survey in the UK threw light on how people with disabilities view the challenges of gaining employment. Its findings make clear that, as with other forms of discrimination, perception and prejudice are at the heart of the problem.
The survey, by employers' network Inclusive Companies, revealed that 82% of job seekers with disabilities see finding employers who are genuinely disability-friendly as their chief barrier to work. Second to this is the recruitment process, which they believe discriminates against them through conscious and unconscious bias.
A 2018 survey of UK employers by disability charity Leonard Cheshire showed these concerns to be well grounded. It revealed that 24% of employers are less likely to hire someone if they have a disability, with 60% of that group fearing that disability would prevent a candidate being able to do the job advertised.
‘People with disabilities are no less qualified, talented or ambitious than anyone else,’ says Christabelle Feeney, director of Employers for Change. ‘In fact, they are often experienced and skilled problem-solvers as a result of dealing with obstacles on a day-to-day basis.’
Speaking at a recent ACCA Ireland disability and workplace inclusion webinar, Feeney agreed that the artificial barriers created by society’s attitudes were the critical factor, and cited lack of awareness in many companies at how their existing policies were creating obstacles.
She identified a ‘fear factor’ as driving this. ‘One of the bigger barriers is lack of knowledge and information among employers. Sometimes they are afraid of being taken down the litigation route if a placement doesn’t work out. That’s not the case and it’s not what inclusivity is about.’
The Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015 include disability as one of the grounds on which Irish employers may not discriminate against employees or prospective employees. The acts also set out the need for employers to make ‘reasonable accommodation’ for people with disabilities; this can cover everything from installing wheelchair ramps and accessible facilities to flexible working times and training support for the person with disabilities.
Among larger organisations, progress is certainly being made, with Feeney citing Bank of Ireland as a good example. Last year, it became the first Irish company to gain the Disability Smart Standard workplace accreditation. ‘Their disability network is really proactive in giving feedback on the recruitment process,’ she says.
In general, she thinks that multinational companies can be very progressive, but adds: ‘If an organisation doesn’t have someone who has a specific role in driving diversity and inclusion, then you have to question if they are really valuing it, because if you value it you’ll pay for it.’
Among employers in the SME space, concerns are often framed around physical accessibility. Feeney points, however, to FHM Accountants, in Gorey, Co Wexford, as a ‘brilliant example’. The firm has physically adapted its workspace for an employee who is a lifelong wheelchair user.
‘Very often, reasonable accommodation is about small tweaks that are not expensive’
‘They found in the end that all they had to do was change their filing system,’ she explains. ‘Very often, reasonable accommodation is about small tweaks that are not expensive and can make a huge difference.’
Various funding mechanisms – for example, the Workplace Equipment Adaptation Grant provided by the Department of Social Protection – are also available and can contribute to the cost of making a workplace more accessible for staff with disabilities.
Also speaking at the disability and workplace inclusion webinar was ACCA Ireland chair Jason Murphy FCCA. He explained why the issue should engage ACCA members: ‘Inclusivity is one of the core values of ACCA, and looking to build inclusivity was one of the reasons the organisation was created a century ago – to ensure the professional is open to all, and all are able to play a full part in society.’
Feeney believes the current squeeze in the labour market has created an opportunity to bring about real change. ‘There’s a far greater level of understanding about accommodating different experiences in the workplace right now. Covid-19 has humanised us all in the working world.
‘The opportunity to attract new talent is an opportunity around people with disabilities but also a broader one. Anyone looking at a potential employer will ask “Does the company reflect my values?”, and it’s particularly important among the younger generation.’
As to the steps a firm should take, Feeney recommends a two-pronged approach. ‘First, get yourself some disability awareness training. Any employer can contact us in relation to this and we will provide a totally free service.
‘Second, even if you do nothing else, for every job you post, make it clear that you welcome applications from people of diverse backgrounds and will make reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities. Do that and you will see an immediate impact on the profile of people applying for that position.’