Disability and the diversity distraction

Susan Scott-Parker


Posted in: Employees, Guest Writers, Speaking Out

Disability and the diversity distraction

February 11, 2008

With the introduction of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the proposed single equalities legislation, the “diversity” brand is growing.
Its influence is widespread and it is now an emerging industry, with an association of diversity and equality practitioners on the horizon. However, generic workplace diversity policy may mean that disabled people are losing out.

One in eight working people in the UK is known to have a disability and, with an ageing population disability is a natural and inevitable element of working life. Disability can affect a person at any stage of their career, and two per cent of the working age UK population becomes disabled every year – 78 per cent of disabled people acquire their impairment aged 16 or older.

Workplace diversity is a good thing, but there is only limited evidence that diversity branded messages encourage a commitment to disability equality. Part of the difficulty with diversity is that it is hard to define. Diversity is vague. It is sometimes interpreted as corporate self interest and devalued by cynics as a brand, or as being political correctness and social engineering. For some it stands for a value system, or ‘ideology’, which can position the diversity manager in opposition to their own organisation. It could be argued that the diversity function is needed in the workplace because an organisation fails to live up to its own values. For many it seems to primarily group together race and gender, and increasingly just race.
As a result, for most, diversity policy in the workplace is at best ambiguous and at its worst prevents employers from taking – and thinking about taking – action.

Many people, even some diversity ‘experts’, still do not regard disability as a discrimination issue like race or gender. They feel it’s covered through occupational health and sickness policy, while diversity focuses on ‘capable’, non-disabled people. In fact, diversity may even make it easier to justify not investing in disability specifically given that the concept of ‘equal treatment for all’ does not work for those disabled people who require reasonable adjustments in order to deliver ‘fair treatment’. There is a danger that we claim to value everyone but do nothing about one of the most excluded groups of people.

The results of the Employers’ Forum on Disability’s Disability Standard Benchmark Survey 2007 show that disability is still regarded as less of a business priority than race or gender. A comparison of the benchmarks on race, gender and disability from 2006 to 2007 shows that while over three quarters of organisations set goals for gender and race, only 44 per cent set goals for disability. Similarly, while 91 per cent of organisations have made a business case for race and 72 per cent for gender, only 28 per cent have done so for disability. The Disability Standard showed that all too often participating organisations’ diversity related policies made no reference to disability specifically.

Aside from the legal risk involved in omitting disability specific goals from diversity policy, we also have to ask if, for many organisations, disability is positioned as an equal opportunities priority at all. A sequential approach to diversity (‘we’re doing race this year’) will just not do.Evidence shows that organisations that prioritise disability see benefits right across the business. By designing systems, policies, products and cultures that work better for disabled people, business will be more efficient, responsive and innovative.

For example, through looking at recruitment processes from the perspective of disabled applicants, employers will improve the way they recruit everyone, ensuring that they are genuinely employers of choice, not just employers of convenience. They will be able to attract and recruit from the widest pool of talent and will reduce the risk of legal action under the Disability Discrimination Act. Employers will be better able to put in place effective flexible working practices and the effective management of individuals. They will also be better placed to understand how disability affects the communities in which they operate.

We would not urge business to dismiss diversity – but to consider how it might undermine disability specific change – which is good for all. The diversity brand in itself does not enable employers to become truly inclusive and have the right to call themselves ‘fair’. That will only happen if employers mobilise behind the inclusion of all and openly challenge the use of a diversity brand that is not totally clear on the inclusion of disabled people. Disability confidence is about opening the door wide enough so everyone can get in.

Susan Scott-Parker is the founder and chief executive of Employers’ Forum on Disability. Susan is general advisor to the charity Changing Faces and has also written and edited numerous publications.