Despite growing support for disabled employees, there is more to be done to create equality in the workplace. Even entering the workplace is a challenge for large numbers of the population.
According to the Office for National Statistics, the employment rate of disabled people was only 53.7% in 2023, and the same the year before. This is compared to the employment rate of those who aren’t disabled: 82.7%.
What more can employers do to ensure accessibility to work and within work?
Recently, Oxleas NHS Foundation Trust was named as the best place to work for disabled employees by the Sunday Times. The Trust’s Director of Nursing, Jane Wells, shares what Oxleas NHS Trust does for its employees to create an ability-inclusive workplace for all.
Watch or read the full interview below:
Q: How do you define disability?
A: I always define disability as it’s stated in the Equality Act of 2010, because I think this is the easiest way to explain it to people. And I like to have a really consistent approach that everybody understands.
That ‘disability’ definition is someone who has a physical or mental impairment, that has a substantial or long-term negative effect on their ability to do normal daily activities. Substantial means it's more than minor, and trivial, it takes them longer to complete a daily task, such as getting dressed or making a meal.
And long term means it's more than 12 months. I think it's the impairments that need to be considered rather than any conditions themselves.
We need to remember that many disabilities are hidden, and disabilities can be the result of interactions between people with impairments – attitudes and environmental barriers, as well, that prevent them from having effective or full participation in society on an equal basis with other people. That's how I would define disability.
Q: What challenges do people with disabilities still face in the workplace?
A: Unfortunately, people with disabilities continue to experience challenges predominantly around accessibility for many parts of their lives.
So, it's not just about navigating physical facilities, but it's also finding employment in the workplace, having access to the right healthcare equipment that they might need and feeling supported in these areas so that they can get into the workplace in the first place, through education and training and development.
I think they also are still experiencing negative or some limiting stereotypes, which we've seen prevalent in society [in] different people's attitudes over the years. And, I think, although we're seeing some great role models and some great changes in society, I think it does contribute to sort of social isolation and exclusion that some people with disabilities experience.
I believe, nationally, there's still lower rates of employment for people with disabilities and that has an impact on them in terms of cost of living and, you know, fulfilment with their life goals and things that they would like to achieve.
Q: What makes Oxleas NHS Trust the best place to work for disabled employees?
A: Well, we've recently been named as one of the best places to work in the Sunday Times, and we were the winner of the best places to work for disabled employees.
I actually found out [about] this on International Nurses' Day, so it was really great timing and made us all very proud as nurses.
We have subscribed to a number of initiatives aimed at addressing disability equality in the workplace.
We are a Mindful employer, so this promotes good mental health. We're disability-confident committed and this is a commitment to employment retention, training, [and] career development for disabled employees, and we are part of Time to Change pledge, and this is a commitment to change how we think and act about mental health in the workplace, making sure that everyone facing problems feels supported.
We've got key policies in place which support lots of initiatives and training for people.
We've got a reasonable adjustments policy, which sets out how we support both new staff and existing staff who have a disability or a long-term condition. This is supported by an easy-to-use health and wellbeing passport, which gives guidance for managers and the employees, and they can agree reasonable adjustments and review when these are needed. And, if there's a change in the passport, they can renegotiate the adjustments.
One big game changer for us was that we set up a central fund for reasonable adjustments, so different divisions didn't have to fund these themselves. And it means that everyone can access the adjustments that they need.
We promote our disability leave policy, recognising that many staff will need to attend appointments to manage their conditions effectively. And this leave allows staff to take necessary time out without it negatively impacting on their annual leave entitlements. It's really important that people have their annual leave to rest and recuperate.
We are a member of the Disability Confident Scheme, level one. So, this means a guaranteed interview for disabled applicants who meet the person specification criteria as part of our recruitment, and we also push our policies for training, career development, and promotion of disabled employees.
We've got clear policies to help disabled staff access learning. We ask all to share any reasonable adjustments required in confidence when accessing courses. We reflect this in our management system where consideration is given at the point of booking and the same principles are enshrined through our supervision, our appraisal processes, and our development.
Our last staff survey was really positive, saying that 60 per cent of our staff are able to access the right learning and development when requested. And this really supports our belief that staff are being supported to develop their potential and I think we've got a really thriving, highly energised staff network and this includes the disability and long-term conditions network, mental health networks, networks for women, neurodiversity, menopause - and I'm the exec sponsor lead for the disability network.
We also have some good, designated wellbeing champions signposting people to mental health and physical support. We have our 'Building a Fairer Oxleas' initiative, where we're supporting teams to go through a five-step challenge to become more inclusive and they can become, we call it BAFO, so 'Building a Fairer Oxleas' acronym, BAFO accredited. It can get quite competitive. Yeah, so there's a lot we're doing.
Q: Are there any areas you're still looking to improve on?
A: We're always going to be improving.
One of the things that we really need to do is to promote the disability network and support people to access it. So, something that we're working hard on is promotional materials of support available, making sure that the passport stays live, creating leaflets and flyers about the network.
Recently, we've done a survey for network members, to see what areas they would like us to continue to focus on, but also new initiatives. And that's being analysed at the moment. But, mainly, it's around the communications, just keeping it live and making sure people feel confident to come and seek support when they need it or if they need it.
Q: What do you think all businesses should do to create an ability-inclusive environment?
A: I think it's about talking to people and really engaging with people with disabilities and hearing about their experiences and remembering that disability is different to everybody. And it's very intersectional as well, so, there will be a real range of views and ideas.
Our BAFO - 'Building a Fairer Oxleas' - challenge is good and other businesses could think about how they generate a social change movement to be more inclusive.
It's important to think about a social model, [and] that disability is constructed within the environment. It's not by a person. And to keep challenging disability discrimination, be respectful, challenge assumptions, and just live our values of promoting disability equity at all times.
There are simple steps that businesses could do, but I think that would really create an inclusive environment for disabled people.
Q: Why is ability inclusion so important to businesses?
A: I've learnt this from talking to people with disabilities and reasonable adjustments that they've sought.
Actually, where we're able to embed really good, inclusive [measures] this isn't just good for the people with disabilities, but it's actually good for everybody - everybody benefits from it. Also, disabled people are not singled out.
It's really important that we create a great example of inclusive work environments, where people feel really comfortable about sharing their views, and businesses can encourage people to share opinions in a safe space and express curiosities without judgement.
That's why inclusivity will be a real driver for change for all employees within businesses. So, it's not just about the disabled employees.
Q: What other advice do you have for employers?
A: Open the conversations, and listen and hear, and don't be afraid. Some really great ideas come out of it. And people with disabilities bring an awful lot of experience and a wealth of compassion to the workplace. Really engage with people and be prepared to listen and change.
If you're looking for a talented employee or an ability-inclusive employer, contact your nearest Reed office today.