Closeup of roll of film indicating complexity of disability data
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Why your org’s disability data might not be telling you the full story, and what you can do about it

At some point in most companies, a senior stakeholder, such as the D&I director or the executive champion for diversity, will ask a simple question. Pay attention, the answer they get says a lot about the organisation’s approach to disability data.

Director: ‘How many disabled people do we employ?’

HR person: ‘About 3% have disclosed a disability in their HR record.’

Director: ‘That’s not enough. We need to recruit more disabled people.’

And there you have it, the belief that the number of people who have formally disclosed a disability is a measure of the number of disabled people employed.

Well, it isn’t. It’s a measure of the number prepared to share their disability status with you. Which might be a figure far off the actual number of disabled people you employ.

Sometimes people aren’t willing to share their disability status, which means several things. A lack of willingness to share suggests that your company culture around disability – people’s awareness, their understanding and behaviours – is not where it should be. In turn this impacts your ability to retain and develop disabled talent, as well as your ability to recruit it in the first place.

So, how do you go about getting more accurate data on disability in your organisation?

The disclosure challenge

Employees’ willingness to share their disability status was explored at length by Kate Nash OBE in her seminal research and report Secrets & Big News in 2014. Based on the views of 55 employers and 2,511 disabled employees, it lays out the barriers to employees sharing their disability status and the steps that employers can take to address them.

A fundamental barrier is language, expressed neatly in the title of the report. Many companies use the language of ‘disclosure’ and ‘declaration’ which suggests having a disability is:

(a) a secret to be shared, or

(b) a big announcement to be made.

Neither is helpful. Using language that encourages employees to ‘share’ their disability status is more fruitful.

Other barriers to getting people to share their disability status include:

  • Fears over confidentiality and discrimination.
  • Uncertainties over the benefits of sharing (‘what’s in it for me?’).
  • Doubts over whether they’re disabled or not.

Address these fears, uncertainties and doubts, and employees are more likely to share their disability status. Being candid about concerns and tackling them head-on when asking people to share is a good approach. For example ‘we understand you might be worried about confidentially, therefore only [name of person] will see it and we’ll never use it in a way that enables you to be identified’.

Improve culture and improved sharing will follow

Think of a queue of cars in a traffic jam; the car at the back of the queue will not start moving until all the cars in front have started.


Graphic of cars in traffic jam representing cultural change process

Using this analogy, sharing is at the back of the queue and culture is at the front. In between are all the things that make a workplace inclusive for disabled people (policies, workplace adjustments, personal development, etc.). Get the culture car and the other cars moving and the sharing car will follow.

Proof can be found at Channel 4 Television. In 2016 as part of a programme of activities to become the best employer for disabled people in the UK, the channel explained to its staff why sharing their disability status was an important part of helping the organisation determine how well it was doing in relation to disability. They also provided reassurances to address the fears, uncertainties and doubts above. The result was that the percentage of staff sharing a disability increased from 3% to 11.5%. And suddenly, the channel’s disability data was telling a much more complete story…

Sharing is not the only measure

The percentage of your employees sharing their disability status is an important indicator of your organisation’s cultural ‘maturity’, i.e. openness and confidence around disability and whether or not you have an inclusive workplace in which disabled employees can thrive.

But it’s important you look beyond the most basic level of data. There are other equally important measures that you should seek to capture. For example these could include:

  • Percentage of your applicants and new recruits who disclose a disability.
  • Percentage of your disabled employees being promoted.
  • Percentage of your staff receiving workplace adjustments, and the average time it takes to receive them.
  • Level of engagement for disabled employees (for example, how likely disabled employees are to recommend you to other disabled people).
  • Using exit interviews to gain an insight into the reasons disabled people leave and any general underlying issues that need to be addressed.

These will provide an insight into your organisation’s culture and performance with respect to disability rights across the employee lifecycle. Importantly, it’ll also include how disabled colleagues feel about working there and, at the end of the day, why they left.

Keep on tracking disability data, keep on improving

Employers are beginning to understand the value in having a workforce comprised of people with different life experiences and different perspectives. Getting your disability data as accurate as possible can provide valuable insight to enable you to improve your policies, practices and capability on an on-going basis.

The percentage of disabled people in your organisation who share their disability status is not the be-all-and-end-all. But it can be a very helpful indicator that you’re doing the right kind of things to attract, recruit and retain disabled people, along with creating an environment where they feel they can be themselves and be open about their disability.