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Series Six, Episode Four: Talking disability – the business case for attracting talent that both includes and empowers disabled employees

In this episode we explore the important subject of disability with Diane Lightfoot, CEO of the Business Disability Forum. Disability isn’t necessarily the preserve of the few. Given that some 83% of disabilities are acquired rather than present at birth, we may well be affected at some point in our lives. We discuss the business benefits and the organisational transformation potential for hiring disabled people and Diane helps define some of the language of disability. As always, we offer practical tips and set out a multitude of suggestions about how employees of all abilities can best work together to embrace employees with both visible and non-visible disabilities and long-term conditions.

Diane Lightfoot

Diane Lightfoot is CEO of Business Disability Forum, a not-for-profit membership organisation that supports businesses of all shapes, sizes and sectors to recruit and retain disabled employees and to serve disabled customers. Business Disability Forum’s 300 members now employ around 15% of the UK workforce and range from FTSE 100 companies and central Government departments to transport providers, construction companies, retailers, higher education providers and public services.

As part of her role, Diane sits on a number of boards including the Government’s Diverse Leadership Taskforce and Disability Expert Advisory Panel and the Institute of Coding. She is also the incoming Chair of the Disabled Students’ Stakeholder Group and in her spare time is Chair of the Challenging Behaviour Foundation.

Diane joined Business Disability Forum as in February 2017 after moving from her former role as Director of Policy and Communications for United Response, a leading national disability charity. Whilst at United Response, Diane also took on the strategic leadership of the organisation’s employment services as a whole and she is passionate about the role that good work has to play in transforming people’s lives.

You can follow Diane on Twitter @DianeLightfoot, and the Business Disability Forum @DisabilitySmart.

Series Six, Episode Four Transcript

Julia: Hello, my name is Julia Streets and welcome to DiverCity Podcast, talking about equality, inclusion and diversity in financial services. On the podcast, we seek to shine a light on positive progress, call out areas requiring further focus, and offer lots of ideas to help drive change.

Disability is an incredibly important part of the diversity inclusion debate and I’m delighted to dedicate today’s entire show to this essential topic as I am joined by Diane Lightfoot, CEO of The Business Disability Forum. As a not-for-profit member organisation, Business Disability Forum supports businesses of all shapes, sizes and sectors to recruit and retain disabled employees and to serve disabled customers. Its 300 members now employ a significant 15% of the UK’s workforce and range from FTSE 100 companies, government departments to financial services and far beyond. As part of her role, Diane has sat on a number of boards including the government’s Diverse Leadership Task Force and Disability Expert Advisory Panel as well as the Institute of Coding, and her previous tenures include a role as Diversity of Policy and Communications for United Response, a leading national disability charity.

Diane, a very warm welcome to the show. Thank you for joining us.

Diane: Thank you for inviting me.

Julia: Let’s start off with the essential question. Why is disability so important?

Diane: Disability is far too often the poor relation when it comes to talking about diversity. It often gets parked in the box of being too difficult, too sensitive. People worry about saying the wrong thing, so they say nothing, and yet it’s the one aspect of diversity that can and most likely will affect all of us. A lovely stat for you, 83% of disabilities are acquired rather than being present from birth, so surely it’s one area of diversity that we all should be talking about, although perhaps that’s precisely why we don’t.

I’m often asked about the business case for disability. It’s 2019 and you shouldn’t need a business case for doing the right thing. There is also a very strong business case for attracting a really diverse talent pool that includes disabled people, and there’s a long way still to go. We’re told that around 80% of the UK workforce is currently in employment. When you talk about disabled people, that figure drops to 51%, so only just over half, and it’s much lower for specific groups. For people with autism, only about 15% in employment, and for people with a learning disability, it’s just 6%, which is pretty woeful.

On a more positive note, having worked in the sector for 15 years, I’ve seen firsthand how people’s lives can be transformed by getting a job perhaps for the first time in their lives, and the business benefits and the individual benefits are huge, so that’s why it matters so much to me.

Julia: You were saying in the beginning, it’s a topic that some people don’t want to talk about as well. Let’s talk about some language and some definition. How do you define disability and what sort of language should we be using?

Diane: Our current remit is that we cover disability and long-term conditions, so technically we cover anything that comes under the scope of the 2010 Equality Act, and that definition is that you are disabled if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities, and in this context, long-term is over 12 months. But our stance is always to advise organisations not to get hung up on whether someone actually meets the definition of the Equality Act. If you have a member of staff who has a bad back, why not get them an ergonomic chair or a sit/stand desk? It’s really about making sure your employees can be as productive as possible.

Whether people refer to disabled people or people with disabilities is something that’s changed over time. The social model of disability is really saying that people are not inherently disabled. They are disabled by a society that is not designed for their needs. For example, if we had ramps everywhere instead of steps, people who are wheelchair users would not be disabled by their environment.

That said, other countries prefer to say people with disabilities because it puts the person first. Certainly when we are doing work with a global audience, I often explain why we use the terminology that we do because people obviously have personal feelings around that. Some people who have a condition that falls under the Equality Act, like a mental health condition does, for example, would never dream of describing themselves as disabled, so if we can just get to the stage where people talk about what support they need, that is going to get us a much more productive response.

There are some things that are worth knowing, though, about disability. One specific is talking about a wheelchair user rather than someone being in a wheelchair or wheelchair bound. And a small plug, if I’m allowed, is that we have some guidance on that. We have a guide called Welcoming Disabled Customers and one called Meetings Matter that helps to debunk some of the myths and also get over the bit where people are so worried about saying the wrong thing. They say nothing and then someone doesn’t get the support they need.

Julia: Can we find that on your website? Is that somewhere where we can go?

Diane: The top tips are on our website. I think there’s also some really important language around, we tend to refer to, or organisations refer to disclosure or declaration of disability, and both those words have really negative connotations. I mean, you would disclose the fact that you had points on your driving licence or declare the fact that you were smuggling too many pairs of jeans back from New York. It’s not something that is positive and if you compound that with the fact that that question often gets asked on an application form right next to the bit about a criminal record convictions, you’re already positioning it as something negative.

I always say, just ask people to tell you what they need. If you have an organisational culture that is maybe a sort of softer one, asking people to share their stories, but really being mindful of not having language as a barrier.

Julia: This point that you make, which really shocked me actually, that 83% of disability is acquired in the working environment; I’m very interested in whether there are particular disabilities that are common to certain industries or are there any insights you can offer about how disability representation, for example, in financial services, shows up today?

Diane: In terms of disabilities being acquired, given that we’re talking about non-visible disabilities and health conditions, they can affect any or all of us, conditions like diabetes, MS, cancer, they are not sector-specific at all. There are some sectors where musculoskeletal conditions are more prevalent, construction, for example, as is also hearing loss in construction, and back injuries are common in caring professions. 

When you get to the financial services sector, the first thing to say is obviously it’s a huge sector with a huge range of jobs, of course you could have people with any variety of disability or long-term conditions. That said, particularly in the more tech and professional services end, we do see more around neurodiversity, often a higher percentage of employees with autism or with dyslexia, and in some cases we’re seeing organisations doing targeted recruitment initiatives, particularly in the tech space because they realise they need the skill set that someone with autism may well have.

There’s a really important caveat to all that, which is that data can drive the wrong behaviours, it’s very easy for organisations to fall into the trap of thinking, “I need someone with autism to do a technical job,” which is not necessarily true. It is also not true that everyone with autism wants to work in tech. I was talking to somebody who works in an autism charity and runs an engagement programme with employers, and one of the young people who’s a candidate said, “Please, I know I have autism. I don’t want to do tech.” It’s really important that there are other options for people as well.

The other thing to say is that even though we’re in 2019, there are still a lot of people that get into adulthood and get into the workplace without a diagnosis, you’d be surprised how often we get a call to our advice service about someone who perhaps isn’t getting the required standard in their report writing and it turns out they’ve got undiagnosed dyslexia, or someone who is about to have performance management because they’re not paying attention in a meeting and it turns out they’re trying to conceal the fact that they’re losing their hearing. There can be an awful lot going on. A great complexity, which is why it makes it so interesting.

Julia: I’m interested to know whether or not within organisations, because of the environmental factors you were talking earlier about ramps, for example, and access and therefore working conditions and environments, there are certain things that organisations should be very mindful of with respect to disability.

Diane: The short answer is yes, and a couple of things really. The first is around inclusive design and building in accessibility at the beginning. That’s not just about physical access to buildings, though of course that’s really important, and I am still surprised by how many brand new buildings are not as accessible as they could be, building that in the beginning is so important, but it’s also about inclusive designs of systems and processes, whether it’s working patterns, whether it’s actually saying “is my recruitment system accessible?” Is it physically accessible in that a screen reader can read it, but also is it written in language that somebody maybe from a different background would be able to engage with? That whole piece around thinking about not just disability but about thinking anybody who might want to be a customer of your business, who might want to work for your business, who just might come through the doors, making sure that you don’t inadvertently build in barriers. Obviously there’s tons more that we could say about that.

The other one to mention, which is also a huge topic, is the one around culture. Going back to whether people talk around disability and the language they use, the organisational culture is really a massive make or break in that. One thing that we are seeing consistently as a top topic to our advice service is around mental health, and it’s great that people are talking about mental health in a way that would have been unthinkable ten years ago certainly, probably five if not less than that, so that’s fantastic, but making sure that the organisation has a wider culture that supports people to talk about that is really important.

I was really struck when in 2018 I spoke at two events a week apart. The first one was WharfAbility in Canary Wharf, which as you’d imagine it was full of professional services companies, banks, financial institutions, very corporate sector world. The following week was a construction sector event. On the face of it, you’d think they were very different. In both of them, the thing that came up was the culture around mental health and being able to admit what was perceived as being a weakness, and in the professional and financial services sector, that was very much around a long hours culture, very target driven, very performance driven, very much about being present in the office and last person standing, that sort of thing, and actually admitting that you were struggling being a really big issue.

In the construction industry, some of the issues were similar but they were more to do with it’s a very male dominated profession, people being isolated, people being far from home, this kind of culture of banter and everything being fine. Whereas a very sobering statistic is that the biggest cause of death for males aged 15-49 is suicide. In the construction centre, it’s three times higher than the rest of the population. There is a huge issue there and it’s not one that is easily fixed. But when you have an organisational culture that is driven from the top and you’ve got somebody senior saying, “This matters. This is what’s important,” and initiatives like Time to Talk and Time to Change and This is Me, that mean that people particularly at senior level, if they’re prepared to talk about their experiences of mental ill health, it can really transform the experience of other people and feeling it’s safe to do so. On a personal note, I’m not comparing myself to someone who runs a big FTSE 100 business, but in my small way I talk about my own experiences of depression because then it enables other people to do the same, that whole cultural piece can enable or disable people hugely.

Julia: As you say, the role of strong leadership, setting an example, the role modelling, the engaging with conversation and then having the influence upon the environment really matters, but there’s a level of leadership arguably one level lower, the hiring manager level, you might want to call it, for who this is actually quite deeply uncomfortable. Any tips and insights about if somebody comes to a middle manager wanting to talk about a disability. That either you could see it or actually is a very private matter is how you would recommend that leader then engages with that conversation.

Diane: It’s a big issue that you have hit on there. We believe that getting disability right is a whole organisational piece and we can talk about that, but the two consistent drivers, not the only two, are the senior leadership piece that says this is what matters around here and then the confidence of individual managers right through an organisation to have that conversation and the trust that their team members then also have, that they know that they will get a good reception, that the perceived benefits of actually talking about their conditional support they need will outweigh the risks, and that that manager will then know where to go within the organisation to put an adjustment in place and just get anything happening quickly and efficiently and without fuss. We do a lot of work in providing guidance for line managers who very often are just so afraid, again of saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing, that they do nothing.

I heard this wonderful, well, terrible, really anecdote from a recruitment consultancy that’s one of our members, they were talking about a process with a hiring manager who had an email from a candidate saying that they needed an adjustment for their interview. This hiring manager completely panicked and didn’t know what to do and went to their own manager and said, “I don’t know what to do. We’ve got this candidate who wants an adjustment. What do we do?” Their manager panicked and they didn’t know what to do, so they went to HR and so on and so on until eventually somebody said, “What’s the adjustment?” No one had asked because they were afraid of causing offence or doing the wrong thing, and I’m told that it went all the way back down the line. It sounds like a sort of children’s story, a shaggy dog story, and actually it was a shaggy dog because it turned out this was a candidate with a visual impairment had a guide dog and wanted to let the panel know that she would be bringing this dog and was it okay for the dog to be somewhere and have a bowl of water while she was being interviewed. It was something that was so simple to put in place, but that fear of getting it wrong could have ended the process right there. Making sure that managers actually understand about disability and know where to go to get an adjustment and know how to organise those sorts of things is really important.

Julia: Are you seeing that organisations are taking that very seriously and driving initiatives down through their businesses to help people just know what is appropriate and what to consider and/or how to take further if necessary?

Diane: Yes, very much so. Adjustments is something that is a real hardy perennial as a top topic for advice service, but we’re seeing some really fantastic practise. I’ve been working in the voluntary sector for about 500 years well, 400! And I was really struck when I started. There’s some really great practise in the private sector, and in a lot of cases the financial institutions are leading the way and starting to move away from saying, “what adjustment do you need”,  but actually saying, “what do you need, whoever you are, to do your job well?” Saying if you want speech-to-text software because you spend a lot of time driving and you can dictate or because you have to write a lot of reports and you can’t touch type or because you have dyslexia, it doesn’t matter. You can just get what you need.

One I was speaking to a little while ago was saying that they’ve gone beyond that and up to a certain level of spend, they are allowing employees to be self-service, so they can order their own pieces of kit up to a certain amount. I can recall vividly the conversation. We were sitting at one of our customer networks and someone else around the table said, “Well, aren’t you worried that will be abused?” Then we had to think about it and I thought, “Well, unless you want to buy speech-to-text software for all your family for Christmas, probably not.” There’s some really good stuff happening out there and people sharing good practise, that’s really encouraging.

Julia: What’s wonderful about that is you’re getting some great insights into what your organisation needs, either they’ve articulated what they need publicly or actually very privately just going out, and that will tell you some of the trends going through your organisation and what people are thinking about and also how that changes over time, which is important because, I imagine that disability also shows up in many different ways and many different forms and also at different times when there are very particularly about mental health, very stressful times, then consideration needs to be given in a slightly different way as well, which is fascinating.

You talk about technology. I’m really fascinated by the role of technology both within workplace and on a personal level. You talk about the speech dictation software etc. Have you got other examples of great tech that organisations should be thinking about?

Diane: We have a technology task force, and slightly laughably it was set up 11 years ago with the idea that it would run for maybe two or three years, I guess with the idea that technology will be fixed by then, and of course technology in the last 11 years has grown in a way nobody or certainly I couldn’t have predicted. There are two kinds of main strands we think about. One is around that personal assistive technology piece, like the speech-to-text software and also things like mainstream personal technology. For example, iPhones were not particularly developed for a visually impaired customer, but they tend to be very popular with people with a visual impairment because the functionality is really good.

There’s also some amazing things that are happening around artificial intelligence. I remember meeting somebody who is registered blind, completely blind, who has a smart phone that will take photos, and there’s various programmes that do this, that will take photos of objects around him or people around him, and because it’s learned, built up data and AI, it will tell him the rough age and gender of the person and it will tell him what objects are on the table, even down to what brand of phone, and for that it is completely revolutionised people’s lives. We did have a bit of a laugh around it because this was over dinner and everyone was trying to make faces to make themselves look a bit younger, and I can tell you that if you ever get that technology, smile because it’s more flattering if you smile than if you don’t. But with uncanny accuracy it was saying, I think this is a 45-year-old woman looking happy. That makes a huge difference to him knowing who’s around him.

It’s also really interesting seeing just the difference in technology over the last few years. Recently a friend of ours, someone from one of our member organisations who himself works in accessibility, he also is registered blind, though he has some sight, and he was talking about being at university and studying, I think it was accountancy, and having assistive technology that was a massive magnifying glass and some captioning software that if he was lucky probably caught every other or one in three words. Now the captioning software that is just inbuilt into many programmes and smartphone technology has made a huge difference in how he can live his life.

Then the other piece is building in accessibility into the mainstream. We’re seeing some companies actually seeing this as a USP and as a point of difference and recognising that although accessibility and usability are not the same thing, there is definitely a big sweet spot in the middle where if you design things that work for disabled people, they work really well for everybody, that’s great to see.

Julia: Can you give us a couple of examples on that?

Diane: Well, one specific one I think this is fine to mention because it’s well known, Microsoft have built in accessibility as part of their USP, and they’ve just built it in a standard across all their products. Their argument is that you shouldn’t have to get, or certainly not in the majority of cases, additional assistive tech as a bolt on. For the majority of people it should actually be there. It’s just a normal piece of the kit that you can use. They went beyond that when they released, this not so much work thing, you might get into trouble for this, but the accessible Xbox controller. They’ve obviously thought this is a point of real difference. This is really going to work for some of our consumers.

Then on a  more, slightly more prosaic level, I remember when I first heard the idea that cash points would speak to you if you wanted them to, and though of course that’s good for somebody who has a visual impairment, but the amount of times that I’ve been at a cash point with a bright glare on it and the sun, it actually really works for lots of people in lots of different situations. Thinking inclusively from the beginning can really make a huge difference.

Julia: We have a lot of listeners who are also product design people, hopefully there’ll be inspired by that as well. I think that’s a beautiful moment to turn to Robert and Cynthia for some research to support today’s discussion.

Robert: This week we looked at a couple of recent reports on disability discrimination. The first is a 2019 study based on research by employment lawyers Fox and Partners. It claims its employment tribunals have risen by 37% from 4,770 in 2017 to 6,550 in 2018.

Cynthia: According to a 2019 article in the Daily Telegraph, the rise may be driven by an increased willingness of individuals to bring claims related to mental health illnesses.

Robert: The 2018 study The Disability Perception Gap comes from the disability charity Scope. Here are a couple of the findings.

Cynthia: One in three disabled people feel there’s a lot of disability prejudice, and one in three people see disabled people as being less productive than non-disabled people.

Julia: Thanks, Cynthia and Robert. The links to the research can be found on our website, That’s where you can find all our episodes and sign up for early notifications of future recordings. Please do follow us on Twitter @divercitypod, and DiverCity Podcast is available on BrightTALK and all good podcast channels. We’d love a rating because it all helps to promote the show.

Diane, let me ask you about the recruitment process because clearly there’s an increasing awareness in the challenges of recruitment, and I’m wondering to what degree and not only awareness of the contribution of disability, but also the conversation might be changing.

Diane: It definitely is, and that’s something that I’m really pleased to see. I’ve noticed a real shift in the conversations I’m having probably in the last six to eight months, and before that my kind of routine to employers around disability was very much around the retention piece and very much about supporting people as they acquire a disability or even supporting people to tell you about an existing condition and what support they need, and of course that’s really important. More recently I’m really encouraged to see organisations across a range of sectors saying, actually it’s not just retention, it’s about recruitment. We cannot afford to exclude any talent pool. We certainly can’t afford to exclude disabled talent, and coming to us and saying, “how can we get better at attracting and recruiting and then of course retaining disabled talent within our business?”  And of course that in itself is probably a topic for an entire podcast, but it really starts with the whole attraction piece and the employer brand. As a candidate, does what I’m seeing, does the job, does the language, do the images, do they represent or reflect someone like me? Will I fit there? Does this look like somewhere that will want me for who I am? We often use the expression bringing your whole self to work. Is that somewhere where I can bring my whole self to work?

Julia: Are recruitment agencies helping with that process? Do you think that there are things that the recruitment agencies should be doing? Are they changing as well?

Diane: Some of them are, and some of them are in our membership. I definitely think the agencies have got a real advocacy role to say and just not necessarily even challenging clients, but saying actually if you change this language, you will attract more people. Even things like we found through the diverse leadership task force that you mentioned right at the beginning, by increasing the application window by say a week from three weeks to four weeks can have a dramatic difference on the amount of disabled candidates who apply, and then of course.

Julia: Could you give us a sense of why?

Diane: I don’t know why. I wish I knew why. I can only imagine that maybe it’s more about checking out the detail of the job. Maybe it’s about checking out whether there’s flexibility, whether there’s adjustments? Maybe it’s about digging deeper into the organisational messages and culture and saying, actually is it worth it? Actually do they mean it? But it does make a difference.

Then of course there are practical things around if you have a jobs portal, is it accessible? Can people apply in different ways? Making sure that if you have an online system that you don’t build in bias so that a system isn’t programmed to automatically screen out people who maybe don’t have a traditional educational background or have a gap in their employment history, so making sure this goes back to that tech and software and inclusive design piece. And then once you get to interview and assessment, thinking about how you do that.

We’re seeing a move away from lots of our members from timed tests. I met with a recent graduate who wants to get into the tech sector and she said, “I’m neurodiverse. I’ve got to do a timed test. I don’t know whether to tell the employer that I have a neurodiverse condition and ask for more time. I’m worried if I do that, that I might get it marked down just as a candidate. I also know that if I don’t ask for it, I won’t finish the test and I won’t do well.” So actually removing that for everyone and the amount of stress that doing a time test does is not good to help anyone perform. That’s really helpful.

Julia: You talk about the individual in the process as well, this is really all about identity of an individual coming into the organisation and its root into the organisation.

Diane: Very much so, and ultimately this cuts across all aspects of diversity with people again, being able to bring their whole self to work, to talk about a disability or not as they wish. For some people who are disabled, it’s a very important part of their identity. They want to talk about it. That’s absolutely fine. Other people don’t want to. Other people just want to quietly get on with the adjustments that they need, get on with their job, and not have to necessarily become the poster person for whatever condition they have, and that’s fine, too. Ultimately when we can just see everyone we work with, everyone in society as an individual with a difference that might need just something different to do the job or work or do whatever they’re doing in their life as well as possible, wouldn’t that be a great place to be?

Julia: Diane, it’s been the most wonderful conversation. I’m delighted we could commit the entire show to the question of disability. It is such an important topic in the spectrum that is equality, diversity, and inclusion. It’s complex, it’s nuanced, and there are some disabilities that show up very, publicly and that others are deeply private, and to have to be able to explore this from many different angles and directions and also talk about technology and the human being at the centre of that has been wonderful. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Diane: Thank you.

Kieron: This episode of the DiverCity Podcast was produced by me, Kieron Yates, on behalf of Julia Streets Productions. Thanks to Cynthia Akinsanya and Robert Pinto-Fernandes for their insights. You can find out more about the guests on this week’s show on our website, Whilst you are there, you can also sign up to our newsletter for all our latest updates.

To be sure of catching all our future podcasts, subscribe to our feed on iTunes, or your favourite podcast app. And, if you’ve enjoyed this episode DiverCity Podcast, remember to give us a rating or review. This all helps promote the show to a wider audience. Finally, our Twitter handle is @divercitypod. Thanks for listening.