Into the fold: Changing attitudes towards disability in the workplace

19th March 2019

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Warm words and token gestures are not enough, says Kye Gbangola – eradicating disability inequality in the workplace will take sustained, committed action from board level downwards.

Society and the environment are changing, and it is important for disabled people to be embedded in decision-making processes. There are massive gaps in the visibility and representation of disabled people in the workplace. Even in the sustainability sector, where issues of equality are often discussed, involvement of the disabled has a long way to go.

There are 14 million people with disabilities in the UK. This equates to around 19% of the working age population – but disabled people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people. According to the disability equality charity Scope, life is an average of £570 more expensive each month for a disabled person than it is for a non-disabled person. In addition, 43% of the British public say they do not know a disabled person, and 67% report feeling awkward around disability.

Fig leaf legislation

In 1995, the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was passed in the UK (it has since been superseded by the Equalities Act 2010). The DDA was considered historic and visionary for its potential to enhance economic self-sufficiency and social participation for disabled people, and its promise to eliminate discrimination for the disabled when it came to employment, the provision of goods and services, education, transport, housing and so on. Sadly, it never lived up to expectations; the soft disability protection it provides has been little more than a fig leaf for companies and governments to pretend they are taking action on disability.

Businesses need to undergo the transition that we have seen in the sporting world, where Paralympians and other disabled athletes are held up side by side with mainstream sportspeople. Disability must be placed higher up the agenda. Presently, many would-be entrepreneurs with disabilities are stunted in their efforts to pursue existing and new business, and disabled university graduates have trouble finding work. The marketplace is limiting its potential growth by failing to include people with disabilities. We need corporate communities that are fully dedicated to enhancing their cultures and increasing opportunities for the disabled.

Organisations can play a vital role in supporting those with disabilities. Before I was poisoned in an environmental incident that paralysed me, my work involved ensuring homes and estates functioned to enable disabled independence. I sought knowledge on the subject in an effort to get the best for those in need, so that they could remain independent. Now that I am in a wheelchair myself, I see how difficult it is to find support in the home, let alone in the workplace. The regulations I worked hard to enact are worth nothing when business leaders turn a blind eye to breaches; at that point, these leaders oppress those they have a duty to protect.

Belonging and acceptance

For a level playing field to be generated, behaviours need to be consistent and government backed, and must enjoy the support of boards and their executives. It is not enough to simply employ a disabled person as the company's disability officer. A good starting point would be to measure and drive change at senior and executive level. Companies should be proud to report that they have people with disabilities in senior positions.

Measurement, disclosure, accountability, transparency, leadership and reporting are disciplines that my sustainability consultancy seeks to embed as habits within the organisations it works with. The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) is the gold standard of 'report or explain' corporate sustainability reporting, and it has created the Disability in Sustainability Reporting guide to help companies disclose the percentage of their employees that have disabilities.

In the US, the Disability Equality Index (DEI) measures different organisations' culture and leadership on disability issues, examining elements such as enterprise-wide access, employment practices, support in initial recruitment and training thereafter, engagement with the disabled community, and support services. The increasing number of companies using DEI indicates a willingness to confront the issue – to take opportunities that boost the involvement of people with disabilities and promote high-level visibility of disabled professionals.

Disability-aware business leaders are able to better understand and leverage the unique differences, talents and perspectives of employees, investors, customers and suppliers with disabilities. Companies that are more transparent and disclose their efforts to integrate disabled people create a culture of belonging and acceptance – ultimately contributing to long-term sustainability across the business.

Kye Gbangbola is director and founder of sustainability consultancy Total Eco Management

Further reading

  • The Disability in Sustainability Reporting guide was developed by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and Fundaci√≥n ONCE – read it at

Image credit: Shutterstock

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