Disability and inclusive recruitment practices
It is welcome to see organisations like Kinetiq, in association with the Local Government Association, using sophisticated analytics to provide in-depth texturing and layering of the workplace experience for those with a disability. The results reveal the ingredients that make the biggest difference to creating a sense of belonging and opportunity and which, in turn, contribute to the most effective and successful workplaces, for both employer and employee.Lord Holmes of Richmond MBE
I lost my sight at the age of fourteen. Ironically, one of the most challenging aspects was the fact that people immediately stopped seeing me. The attitudes of those around me became everything.
Practical challenges can be solved with practical solutions. But access to practical solutions – and the willingness of people to consider, or provide, these solutions – can be the difference between inclusion and opportunity, and an insurmountable barrier.
Attitudes and culture remain one of the major challenges faced by disabled people in modern Britain. Humans are social animals and we are predisposed towards ‘people like ourselves’. It feels safer and it is natural, but expanding our definition of who is included is an essential part of creating a civilised society. Qualitative research conducted in advance of the 2012 Paralympics found that almost no one would be likely to buy tickets for the Paralympics. Respondents were quoted as saying “why would I spend money, when I spend my life trying to avoid people like that.” Thinking about disability can make people without disabilities, or without direct experience of disability, feel awkward and frightened. Disability, when viewed as weakness or a personal tragedy, is something that sets an individual apart from the ‘ordinary’ and outside social norms.
One of the most successful ways we challenged these attitudes and stereotypes was with the Channel 4 ‘Meet the Superhumans’ campaign. Part of the campaign was a ninety second advert, soundtrack by Public Enemy, introducing Paralympic athletes. Simultaneously showing people with disabilities whilst inverting presumptions of weakness, the advert also showed short, shocking glimpses of a car crash, an IED, a neo-natal scan; in so doing connecting us all to the experience and challenging assumptions of difference. Disability is not ‘other’. It happens to you. It happens to me. People in the end did buy tickets, did come and watch the Paralympics, did enjoy an incredible world-class summer of sport. After the games many people reported feeling for the first time that their disability was not perceived as a negative thing. Attitudes can change, and we can all be part of effecting that change.
Further challenges exist – around equality of opportunity in education and employment. In 1995, a Conservative Government passed the Disability Discrimination Act, which subsequently became part of the Equality Act 2010. This Act enshrines the principles of equal access to education and employment. But despite this, currently, we are not where we must be. The Head of Ofsted has described the lack of support for children with diagnosed special educational needs as a “national scandal”. Twenty seven percent of children on the autism spectrum have been excluded from school. A BBC investigation in 2017 found that, over the previous five years, numbers of children with special educational needs being home-schooled had grown by 57%. We must not allow the clock to be turned back to a time when the visually impaired were offered careers as piano tuners or basket weavers. This lack of inclusion harms us all. Failing to ensure equal access to high-quality education misses out on a pool of talent that will be a devastating waste, not just to the individuals but to all of us.
The consequences of failing with education inevitably impacts on employment. Just over 53% of people with disabilities are in employment, significantly below the employment rate for people without disabilities which now sits at just over 81%. Again, the core principles are individual opportunity and enabling talent; talent in its broadest most brilliant form, not just that of a tiny elite. Creating opportunities for disabled talent is not looking to give anyone an unfair advantage. An equitable, inclusive, fully accessible jobs market puts everyone on the same start line. It allows everyone to run whatever race they choose with fairness, dignity and respect.
One of the areas that gives me hope is the potential for technology to furnish us with incredible, enabling solutions. The mainstreaming of assistive technology demonstrates just what a difference the new tools we have will make to all our lives. Disability research is often the ground-breaking, boundary-pushing work that leads to technology we all become familiar with, such as text-to-speech software and predictive text. Artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, 3D printing, genetic sequencing, to name but a few, are turbo-charging this process. Correctly deployed, the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ will enable, include and transform our world. As ever, though, we must root it all in ethical principles, with a ruthless focus on the society we want to create and the lives we want to live. No one must be left behind, no talent wasted, no individuals excluded.
In 2018 I produced an independent review for the Government on opening up public appointments to disabled people. Public appointments are important roles in society and have a significant impact on all our lives. Public bodies, and the appointees that constitute them, are responsible for the distribution of £200 billion of public funds across, but not limited to, healthcare, education, the criminal justice system, energy, security and defence. When I conducted the review – shockingly – just 3% of public appointees declared a disability. I was invited to look into why this figure is so low and make recommendations to ensure that public appointees better represent the society they serve.
My recommendations called for a more innovative and flexible approach at all stages of the recruitment process. Simple practical steps around accessible application packs, use of networks and role models, collection of data and making reasonable adjustments for interview that could all be translated to HR and recruitment processes in any sector or industry. In December 2020 I produced a follow up to the review as a kind of progress report. I analysed which of my recommendations were accepted by Government and what progress had been made on each of those commitments. The Government committed to 25 actions related to my 29 recommendations but as of December 2020 I found just 2 of these commitments to have been fully completed.
If you believe in individual rights, freedom and opportunities, and desire a world in which all people can contribute their talents and benefits, then there is work to be done. Currently, talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not. There is much that we can all do to change this. The rewards, should we succeed, will be great indeed.
Lord Holmes of Richmond was Director of Paralympic Integration for the London Olympics. He writes about his parliamentary and policy work here.