Avencia Consults - Diane Lightfoot (CEO, Business Disability Forum)


Chris Buckingham (Director & Co-Founder) and Charlie Gordon (Director & Co-Founder) of Avencia were recently joined by Diane Lightfoot, CEO of Business Disability Forum for the latest Avencia Consults article. Diane has extensive experience of working in the charity sector and specifically in the field of disability. For nearly 5 years she has been the CEO of Business Disability Forum, a not-for-profit member organisation that supports businesses of all shapes, sizes, and sectors to recruit and retain disabled employees and serve disabled customers.

In today’s article, we find out how small to medium sized organisations can create opportunities for disabled talent.

Diane, have you seen a positive attitudinal shift towards disabled talent in recent years?

The pandemic has had both a positive and negative impact upon disabled talent. Overnight businesses and their employees had to drastically adapt their ways of working, with many having to operate from a fully remote landscape. With this came isolation and the negative impact of reduced social interaction on people’s mental health however, on the flip side it marked a huge shift in the way businesses viewed how and where jobs could be undertaken.

Prior to the pandemic, home working was the most frequently requested workplace adjustment and now many businesses are a lot more open to offering additional flexibility. As a result, people who, for example, may struggle with a commute, perhaps because they experience anxiety, chronic fatigue, or have mobility difficulties have more opportunities available to them. It has certainly taken the pressure off people having to justify why they aren’t in the office as we have proven that presenteeism doesn’t equal productivity.

In the early stages of the pandemic, I was braced for disability inclusion to be low down on the agenda for many businesses however, the opposite has happened. I think the pandemic has encouraged people to think more deeply about how we can be more inclusive and human in the way we work, our leadership, and our lives in general.  

The incremental improvements brought about in virtual platforms over the recent years has been extremely beneficial for disabled talent. Historically, you often would have seen meetings where half of the team is in a meeting room and the other half is remote and it would always feel two-tier. Now there is the ability to have everyone on the same platform and that makes it equal for everyone to participate and interact.

There is also a preconception that people are born with disabilities, yet 83% of disabilities are acquired during working life. I think there is still some awareness to be raised around this and for employers to ensure that employees feel supported.

What are the key steps that need to be taken by businesses to ‘build back better’ in creating opportunities for the c.26 million people in the UK living with disabilities and long-term conditions?

The conversation around talent needs to be reframed. Build back better refers to recovery from the pandemic, but there is also the impact of Brexit and skill shortages in many sectors, which could increase the opportunities available for people with disabilities. As an example, there is no reason why you couldn’t have an HGV driver with a disability, as long as their condition doesn’t affect their ability to drive so I think there is a real opportunity to turn it on its head.

From a government point of view, job schemes such as the kick-start scheme aim to be accessible and inclusive for all, however, there is often a disconnect on how someone can get into work if they require additional support. There is still a gap between education and employment; in education students can get Disabled Students Allowance, but as soon as you leave university and start looking for a job that support ends. Thinking holistically and easing the path from education to employment, providing more support and help to secure people their first job or volunteering opportunity could make a huge difference.

Where are the UK on this pathway compared with other countries and regions?

In comparison to many countries the UK compares favourably and has good legislation, but there is still a long way to go. I attend many conferences where we discuss the worldwide challenges and areas of improvement for workplace inclusion of people with disabilities and the key takeaway is that if you are a global business it is important to have a consistent overall approach to inclusive working practices with the ability to flex in different ways for different countries as every country has its unique challenges and barriers.

What are the most significant barriers to organisational change that a small to medium sized organisation (100 – 1500 employees) must overcome to create a disability inclusive culture?

Many larger organisations have access to a HR function and often a designated D&I function, which unfortunately many SMEs don’t have access to. SMEs also tend to have fewer roles making it harder to put in place a robust and systematic process for inclusive recruitment. However, because of their size, SME’s can often be much more flexible in terms of workplace adjustments than larger organisations as they don’t necessarily have the HR processes set in stone, meaning they can say yes to something which is often considered outside of the ‘norm’.

There is also a temptation from hiring managers to look at previous job descriptions and go ahead with the same version for ease. Taking a moment just to step back to create a job description which really analyses the actual needs of the role can make a huge difference to the accessibility of the job. For example, you should ask questions such as does the applicant really need a degree? Can the role be fully remote?

What can businesses do to drive greater transparency during the recruitment process?

There is often a preconception that all disabilities are visible, which over 90% are not. Many people fear informing their employer of their disability for fear of judgement or because they simply just don’t feel comfortable to do so.

The language you use during a recruitment and interview process can really help to combat this. For example, instead of using words such as ‘disclose’ or ‘declare’ when asking about disabilities, use phrases such as ‘tell us what you need to perform to the best of your ability’ or ‘what would make this the best possible experience for you’, then you don’t have to second guess what the answer will be as they will tell you.

It is best practice to offer adjustments throughout the recruitment process. Legally, offering a work trial is a reasonable adjustment which can be offered to anyone. Offering flexibility in the way you recruit can make a recruitment process so much more inclusive. A small tweak such as getting someone to show you how they would do a role rather than talking about it can make it more inclusive when assessing technical ability.  

With automation and AI in talent acquisition processes set to continue to grow, what impact do you think this will have on application rates for disabled talent?

AI and automation can be beneficial in a recruitment process, however, there are certainly some considerations and barriers which need to be addressed. For example, facial recognition can monitor how many times a candidate makes eye contact or smiles during an interview meaning a computer could literally decide if someone’s face fits in an organisation – potentially discriminating against people with autism who may struggle to make eye contact, or people with a facial disfigurement, for example. Additionally, businesses are likely to use online portals and screening applications which means there could be an automatic sifting out for people who have a gap on their CV, so businesses could be excluding great talent.

That said, technology can be great for inclusiveness – take platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom which have transformed the way we interact with one another. My advice would be, if your business is wanting to procure a system, make sure you factor in user testing. Get your employees involved and engaged in the testing of the system before you procure it to ensure it is accessible.  

How do you build the business case for disabled talent in an SME sized business?

It is important to find someone who is senior and receptive. Have a conversation with them and once you find a touch point utilise that as a lever for change. Having someone in HR, D&I or an employee focussed group can really make a difference.

Avencia can help make your recruitment process more inclusive. For more information contact hello@avenciaconsulting.com


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