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December 3rd is International Day of People with Disabilities: a chance to raise awareness about the often-hidden talent pool of disabled workers. 

To provide some insights for employers around this important day, Ollie Thorn, Michael Page’s Senior Manager for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Client Solutions, gives insights shaped by his personal experience.

About ten years ago I was in a motorcycle accident and hit a car at 50 miles per hour, which left me with a lifelong disability, and a full-time wheelchair user. It was a huge adjustment learning to live life with a disability, from my own physical and mental adjustments, to the way I was treated by society. I was in the military, and a lot of my identity was  wrapped up in physicality. Suddenly, that changed. 

We all have role models in life. I went from having many, to not seeing visible role models relevant to me. Beyond sports, there weren’t many prominent examples of people with disabilities just getting on with life. How can we change the common preconceptions in society and get more people with disabilities playing more active roles in society, if we don’t have role models?

According to UK government statistics there are around 4.4 million disabled people in employment in the country, which converts to a disability employment rate of around 53 percent. For non-disabled people the employment rate is 81 percent. These can vary widely when looking at specific disabilities such as Autism or sight loss.

These statistics reflect the preconceptions about disabilities that still exist in many workplaces. As highlighted by this year’s International Day of People with Disabilities, which takes place on December 3rd, recruiters have unique opportunities to support people into work, and help clients companies and organisations forge more inclusive, equitable workplaces. 

With people who have disabilities representing an often-untapped and hidden talent pool, this can also give firms the edge in candidate-short sectors.

Unearthing success stories

When it comes to recruitment, a lot of companies’ attitudes are: “We read these statistics about disability employment, but when we put a job out, people with disabilities don't apply”. Not enough businesses ask: “Why would someone with a disability want to work at our organisation?”

Are you, as a company, open and welcoming? Do you promote stories about how you have supported people with disabilities? This is something PageGroup has worked hard on. For example, our CEO Steve Ingham has become a corporate role model by talking openly about having a disability. It’s important to promote those kinds of conversations and highlight the opportunities that people have had, beyond just the fact that there is support available.

If outsiders can see someone who they identify with succeeding, it can be a powerful motivator for them to want to get involved.

Being open to change

Creating an inclusive workplace culture, where everyone can feel they will be able to thrive. Many people assume this is about installing ramps and mental health awareness initiatives - but more is needed. Many people have hidden disabilities that they may not have declared. These people need to still feel like they are in a safe space where they won’t face unnecessary hurdles.

I’ve found that employee resource groups (ERGs) are valuable tools for achieving this. An ERG is an employee-led group designed to promote a diverse and inclusive workspace – it can feature people with disabilities and allies, working together and feeding back necessary improvements with the aim of making their work culture more equitable. Helping to formalise processes and making changes like this shows staff and candidates a company is committed to making positive change. 

Another way to show this commitment is by joining the government’s Disability Confident employer scheme. It’s designed to help employers – particularly small businesses – become better at recruiting disabled people, there are commitments involved that ensure people with a disability will have a more equitable process. Involvement with this shows a willingness to understand the underlying issues that might make the difference in attracting talent from this hidden talent pool.

Fairer recruitment processes

Whether a person’s disability is visible or not, negative stereotypes often lead to much focus on what they can’t do, rather than what they can. However, employers will find that with a bit of flexibility in their recruitment processes, they are able to engage with disabled people better and create fairer job application journeys. These are reasonable adjustments.

This might be as simple as allowing a candidate more time on an assignment, or to preview some questions ahead of an interview. This latter measure sounds counter-intuitive to an interview process, but I’ve seen how it can lead to very positive results.

Willingness to be flexible in ways like these needs to be communicated well. Ask a candidate with a disability: are there any reasonable adjustments we should consider, to make this process smoother for you? You need to ask candidates more than once, to show that you’re serious about inclusivity, rather than just making cursory gestures – trust needs to be built. Workplace shifts during the pandemic showed that really, companies can be flexible when they need to be.

Accessing hidden talent

Making your organisation more appealing for disabled people is not just the morally right thing to do: it’s a way of opening up a hidden talent pool at a time when recruitment across many sectors is incredibly tough.

Despite the challenging economic outlook, many industry sectors remain candidate-led, with fierce competition for the best talent. I’ve seen how much disabled people have to offer in the workplace, and if you can attract this talent, you can gain competitive advantage.

For example, a lot of employers are currently looking for candidates with top class soft skills, such as communication and interpersonal skills. People with disabilities often have incredible soft skill sets. They have learned how to thrive in a world that isn't always accessible for them. The emotional skills they’ve developed to succeed in this world aren’t easily found. This often feeds into strong management skills, too.

Problem solving is another area I see disabled people excel in. Even the simple things need a different approach for people with a disability: for me, the process of travelling to London before I was injured was completely different to the journey now. I plan, and my timing is on point, as is my risk analysis and ability to communicate to people I interact with. Disability requires a constant honing of skills and a meticulous way of thinking.

Don’t make the mistake of neglecting the huge value that disabled candidates have to offer. Putting in place processes that enable you to better connect with this talent pool is an investment in your own future as an organisation. 

Helping people from diverse backgrounds to find new opportunities and enrich the organisations they join is exactly what my team does, along with helping businesses develop more inclusive cultures. 

If you’d like to discuss this or any other related recruitment topic, please contact one of our experts or get in touch on the details below:

Ollie Thorn, Senior Manager for DE&I Client Solutions, Michael Page
E: [email protected]

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