CDG Perspectives: Celia Hensman, Member of the CDG, 'How do we make flexible working, work for disabled people'?

Thank you to each and every single one of you who attended the Conservative Disability Talk we hosted on Wednesday 17th June, discussing numerous topics from flexible working, the Access To Work scheme and your rights as a disabled employee to disability focused resources. With only 49% of working age disabled individuals in employment, as a collective society, there is much more that can be done to encourage people with disabilities into work and ensure their working environments are suitable. 

As an employer, asking for advice or guidance is not shameful, frowned upon or discouraged, asking for help and improving your understanding is one of the most beneficial things you can do. The Shaw Trust is a fantastic organisation who offer free advice for employers on implementing disability confident working environments and understanding reasonable adjustments. In order to change the utterly false and outdated stereotypes surrounding disabled employment, education is paramount. Education in the support available to companies, to witnessing first-hand the expertise and unique experience that a disabled employee can bring to companies

There are numerous effective methods that employers can put into practice within their companies to ensure their working environments are better suited to those with disabilities. Job sharing (dividing one role between two individuals) is a fantastic way to grow a working team and allow for individuals to adapt their employment around personal commitments. If one positive thing can be extrapolated from the pandemic, it is the power and effectiveness of flexible working, working from home. One of the challenges of working from home can be a lack of motivation or accountability. A superb way of preventing these difficulties is through the use of online ‘team’ sites. On these websites each employee is required to track their work they are undertaking, ensuring that whilst not physically together the team stay connected, activities are tracked, and the company continues to operate as a single unit. Examples of these sites include monday.com and Trello. 

Daily Zoom/Microsoft Team calls each morning are also a superb way to maintain a work routine and relationships. It can be incredibly beneficial for employers to shift focus away from a specific number of hours worked per week to the quantity of work completed each week. This method of management and leadership is a fantastic way to ensure your team members are motivated, committed and performing at their highest productivity. If employers are unable to quantity to work rather than hours, Flexi-day working is a superb way to accommodate disabled employees who may frequently fall unwell or have to attend regular medical appointments. Flexi-days allow for an employee to work for 4 days per week for example, but which 4 days is at their discretion and subject to change to suit their personal circumstances.

Unless directly asked, as a disabled individual you do not have to disclose your disability unless you are directly asked, the disclosure of your disability is a purely personal decision. There are however many benefits in disclosing your disability. Disclosure allows for your employer to be in a better position to offer the adaptations you may need, provide additional equipment or services and above all helps to build a trusting and safer working environment. Individuals with a disability beginning a new job must always remember that their contract is their first greatest and most powerful security net. In many industries co-workers/management come and go rapidly, it is important to ensure that a verbal agreement between you and your line manager is embedded into your contract in case of team changes. A verbal agreement is not always legally binding, having your working adaptations in contract physical form is your greatest asset. For example, if you have regular medications to take or find it difficult to sit or stand for long periods of time, ask your employer to adapt your paid break time in your contract from 1 single hour to 3 20-minute blocks spaced throughout the day.

Disabled employees second greatest security net is The Equality Act of 2010, which can be extrapolated into 2 major rights. Firstly, that you are legally protected from discrimination based on your disability. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of reporting incidences of discrimination. We must hold individuals and companies to account, to set a precedent of unacceptable behaviour. Each case of disability discrimination carried through sets a precedent and an example to those who come after you, by taking a stand you are helping to shape the standards of acceptability. 

Secondly the EA, ensures that your employer has a legal responsibly to make reasonable adjustments to suit your individual needs. Reasonable adjustments range widely from providing unique chairs, disability friendly computer equipment to adjustable height desks. Many of those who have a disability require financially larger adjustments to their working environment such as the installation of a wheelchair ramp, a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter or travel to work. In these incidences where an employer is unable to make these reasonable adjustments, they may apply for the Access to Work Scheme. 

The Scheme allows for an employer to receive a grant of up to £59,200 per annum to cover these additional costs, alternatively the Scheme can also offer the employer a tax relief to cover the cost of adjustments that may have already been purchased, for example the installation of a stair-lift. There are a number of brilliant free services available to employers who are unsure of the reasonable adjustments they are required to be making. The charity Remploy offer training and learning platforms to companies wanting to increase their level of accessibility through developing knowledge, understanding, confidence and capacity. Similar training courses are also offered by Disability Rights UK and JobCentrePlus. 

If you are an employer and looking to bring more disabled candidates into your workplace, these training courses are a fantastic way to ensure you are prepared, receptive and create a safe and comfortable working environment for disabled employees. The additional needs of disabled employees are not one size fits all, and this is imperative to remember, seeking external help from outside services or having an open and honest discussion with your candidate is imperative. Another example of services available is The Association of Disabled Professionals, a network of companies that exists that provides guidance, help and support for the implementation of good work practice for ensuring the additional needs of disabled candidates are met and respected. The Business Disability Forum also supports employers to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees. 

Unfortunately, in a world of fast paced ‘easy choice first’ employment, there still exists the stereotype surrounding disabled candidates that we are not able to work to the same standard as someone who is able bodied. This is utterly false and disgraceful. Disabled candidates are just, if not more capable. There are numerous benefits to hiring a disabled candidate, for example contributing additional skills, people with disabilities are also proven to have greater empathy towards others, a necessary quality in front facing roles. The advantages can be broken down to an even simpler fact, encouraging disabled candidates, increases the number of candidates which in turn increases the likelihood of employing a perfectly suited candidate. Particularly in roles with interaction with the public, companies with a diverse workforce directly reflect the diversity of their consumers, increasing the effectiveness and receptiveness of their work.

One of the biggest comments that is circulated frequently within the employment process is that, ‘I don’t get any disabled applicants, I would employ a disabled candidate but no individuals with a disability apply for my roles’. There are 2 primary simple and highly effective practices which can instantly combat this issue. Firstly, and most simply is to display the words ‘disability confident’ within the job advert. The Disability Confident Scheme is a Government Scheme implemented to ensure that when disabled candidates are viewing job adverts, they can be assured that their potential employer provides a safe, adjusted and comfortable working environment without the fear of discrimination. The power of this phrase is monumental, a considerable number of disabled candidates will not apply for jobs without this acknowledgement for fear of discrimination. 

Additionally to this The Government Work and Health Programme runs in conjunction with the Disability Confident Scheme, the programme enables government funded recruiters such as the Jobcentre to match disabled candidates with disabled friendly employers. The Scheme offers 3 levels of training with certification given at the end of each level. This certification can then be displayed throughout your company website and within job adverts demonstrating your inclusivity as a company. Participation in the Programme will open your candidate search to a significant and talented untapped pool of resources. Secondly and perhaps most importantly is advertising on disabled only candidate websites. These websites are designed specifically for people with disabilities looking for a job, your job advert will be available in multiple forms such as dictated and large font sizes. These websites provide complete reassurance to candidates that the employer is disability confident. The Disability Job Site and Evenbreak are both fantastic examples of these job recruitment sites. Implementing either of these two methods will increase applications.  

Before beginning the process of advertising or applying, if as an employer or candidate you are needing additional advice please reach out to the relevant resources. The Jobcentre offers a fantastic learning and development programme run by Disability Work Coaches, for disabled individuals looking for work and looking to gain experience of the interview process. The National Careers Service provide a double-edged service of not only helping those with disabilities into work, but also offer a free consultation service for seeking advice in employing disabled candidates. The commitment of employers to encourage disabled candidates to their companies must not halt after posting an advert for their position, it must be followed through. Job interviews can be an incredibly daunting and scary process for a disabled candidate, it is imperative that you reach out to your candidate and discuss with them any reasonable adjustments that may need to be made. For example, extending test times, ensuring the meeting space if accessible or keeping the number of interviewers in the room to a minimum. 

The greatest piece of advice that can be offered to an employer is to ask questions, ask politely, but always ask. Demonstrating receptiveness, understanding and a willingness to learn often speaks a thousand words. The disabled community must work together with the able body community to build better, safer, and more inclusive working environments. Although we are making the correct steps forward through various schemes and Government funded programmes, there is still a long way to go.

Political parties must work hard to implement advancements in disabled rights, charities must continue their invaluable ongoing support, companies must take the time to educate themselves and above all, the disabled community must not give up. No matter your disability there is opportunity to demonstrate your talents and qualities. 

Celia Hensman is a member of the Conservative Disability Group, a Manager in the Conservative Party and is also a Young Conservatives Chairman. Celia has been campaigning and working to improve disability rights since she was 16 years old, including being part of Parliamentary Select Committees and various charities. Celia herself as Loeys Dietz Syndrome and has experienced first hand the challenges of working in politics with a disability, this has not prevented her and many others from achieving their goals.  

Celia led a discussion for CDG Members titled, 'How do we make flexible working, work for disabled people?'