Disability in the workplace
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As companies work to redress gender and minority imbalances, where’s the push for disability in the workplace?

More than 40 years ago, while lying paralysed in a hospital bed, my neurosurgeon gave me a few words of advice: ‘Strive to be as flexible and adaptable as you can – physically and mentally,’ he said, puffing on his pipe. ‘Happiness and fulfilment are linked to attitudes – yours and the people you will meet along the way’.

‘Disabled people can still make valuable contributions. We all just need to think a bit differently, that’s it.’

Kookal Krishnan had a lifetime’s experience in helping paralysed people get back to ‘normality’. Thankfully, being flexible and adaptable was something I was already familiar with. By the time I left school I had sampled life as a car cleaner, kitchen hand, waiter, sales assistant, market trader, and factory cleaner. When I fell into journalism, aged 16, my young legs took the pressure off the older, office-bound journalists, who appreciated me doing the twice-daily calls to the police, fire and ambulance stations.

I was 20 with the world at my feet. But life changed in an instant. While returning with friends from a road trip to Mount Everest, we were attacked by armed bandits in Iran. Miraculously we all escaped with our lives.

But a bullet severed my spinal cord, leaving me paralysed from the chest down.

A flexible approach to disability at work

It could have been the end of my short-lived career, but an employer with the ‘flexibility’ factor came to my rescue. Dave Williams, the boss of Ellesmere Port’s weekly paper, offered me a job. Just one snag, he said, ‘we work on the first floor and there’s no lift. You will have to use a desk in the ground floor kitchen and use a bucket for a pee.’ And so I became the town’s first rolling, roving reporter. But back in the 70s everywhere had steps, and more steps – no ramps or dropped kerbs.

Reporting was exciting, but not well paid…so I retrained as a sub-editor, hoping I could find an Accessible newspaper office and another free-thinking editor. The Liverpool Echo’s George Cregeen fit the bill, and I soon had my wheels under the features desk in one of Europe’s most modern newspaper buildings – with a parking space in the delivery van car park to boot.

As workplace technology developed, I was given the chance to work from home occasionally, thanks to the Access to Work scheme, which helps employers meet the cost of additional equipment or services for disabled employees.

In all, I was fortunate to spend almost 30 years working for the Echo – proving to all members of staff, including management, that taking on a disabled person can bring benefits to a business.  In my case, there were no additional costs to the company and I can count on one hand the number of weeks I was off sick. Being employed enhanced my self-esteem, helped me to earn enough to raise a family whilst contributing to the economy. It also kept me fit and healthy, saving the Government hundreds of thousands of pounds in benefits.

Of course, I’m not the only disabled person who has managed to be employed for most of their lives, but we are in the minority.

There are more than 2 Million disabled people who are just not getting the chance to shine.

But why not? It just doesn’t make sense.

Jobseekers afraid to disclose disability, employers afraid to discuss it

All the evidence suggests there is a strong business case for employing, and retaining, disabled staff. A cost-benefit analysis of employees with disabilities carried out by Chicago’s DePaul University found lower absenteeism rates, longer tenures, and employees who were loyal, reliable, and hardworking.

But a Leonard Cheshire Disability survey reveals that almost four out of five disabled jobseekers say they’re afraid to even disclose their disability in job applications, believing it would kill their chances of getting a job. And in another survey, disabled students claimed employers have ‘no idea’ about disability in the workplace.

Sadly, it seems they may well be right.

HR Magazine reports that, despite huge steps forward in the way companies are addressing gender imbalances or ensuring minorities are represented in the workforce, HR professionals rarely discuss disability. The article quotes Alice Weightman, founder of recruitment consultancy Hanson Search, who suggests that companies often don’t feel they know how to discuss it. ‘It’s about businesses knowing how best to talk about it, without feeling they’re going to offend someone or be hurled in front of a tribunal.’

Removing the mystery from disability

One way forward might be for businesses to start inviting inspirational disabled people to address board meetings, and to set up disability awareness courses for line managers and staff. This will start the ball rolling and hopefully give HR managers the confidence to start seeing disabled people as viable candidates.

Last month Acas launched a guide to help employers and managers identify, tackle and prevent disability discrimination in the workplace. It aims to demystify disability and educate employers on the basics of equality, discrimination and the wellbeing of disabled employees. I recommend you read it, it could go a long way towards making sure your organisation’s policy of inclusion extends to men and women with disabilities.

Disability in the workplace is nothing to fear.  All we need is a different approach, and some flexibility and adaptability.

I’m certain that’s something my old guru, Kookal Krishnan, would have raised his pipe to.