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Disability and recruitment: Are we discriminating? By Louise Druce


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Changes in the law mean recruiters may be discriminating against disabled people without even realising it. So how do you make the interview process fair? Louise Druce finds out.

Say the word disabled and most people still picture a person in a wheelchair. Even if you might have thought of someone who is deaf or blind maybe, chances are that a person with HIV, cancer or a mental illness wouldn’t have immediately sprung to mind. But failing to make “reasonable adjustments” for people with these less visible illnesses could mean recruiters fall foul of the law under recent changes to the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).

There are still employers out there who are reluctant to hire people with a disability. According to Agnes Fletcher, director of policy and communications at the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), employers associate the word with phrases like “less capable”, “off sick” or “risky because of health and safety”. Mental health problems in particular are still shrouded with misconceptions and stigma, with people branded as “unpredictable” or “difficult to work with”, and sufferers are more frequently than most managed silently out the back door.

However, attitudes are changing for the better since the DDA was first introduced 12 years ago. More recent surveys show that the majority of firms are more than willing to spend more time and money on putting in place better policies for disabled workers. B&Q, BSkyB and the Barclays Group, for example, were all recently shortlisted for an award for positive disability access changes.

The main challenge for employers who actively want to encourage more disabled people into their workplace is trying to navigate through the minefield of legal jargon that is supposed to be helping them understand their rights and obligations. The term “reasonable adjustments” in the DDA is a case in point. “What people find difficult is what constitutes a reasonable adjustment. What is reasonable for one employer isn’t going to be reasonable for another,” says Sally Humpage, employee relations and diversity advisor at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

“The DDA in general is very complex and far reaching,” she adds. “The codes of practice that accompany it are complex, very long and inaccessible, which creates complete barriers to understanding and, therefore, action on the employer’s part because they are afraid of them. What employers need is better signposting as to where they can go for further help where the codes of practice don’t address their specific needs, and to recognise that they can’t possibly have all the answers.”

This is especially true for small and medium sized businesses, which comprise the majority of companies in the UK, as they may not have dedicated HR personnel to provide the kind of support larger companies have.

Preparing for an interview

It’s not just candidates who need to prep before an interview. From the outset of the whole process, employers need to think about the wording and accessibility of their recruitment material, such as making forms available in Braille or adding a sentence asking if people have any special requirements so any adjustments can be made before the actual interview takes place. For example, a person with a hearing impairment may need extra lighting to make it easier to lip read; the interview may have to be scheduled at a specific time to suit someone who has a mobility problem and relies on public transport; or if the assessment is going to last for a long period of time, breaks may have to be scheduled to allow a person with diabetes to eat or inject themselves with Insulin.

The most important thing is not to be afraid to ask how you can make the interview more comfortable for someone if they have already been upfront about their disability. This can also lead to more dialogue about their specific requirements to do the job if they are successful. After all, the person with the disability is the best person to let you know what they’ll need.

“What employers need is better signposting as to where they can go for further help where the codes of practice don’t address their specific needs, and to recognise that they can’t possibly have all the answers”

Sally Humpage, CIPD

Disclosure can be a tricky area. What the interviewer does need to be wary of is asking the right questions, especially if the person hasn’t been as open about their disability. “If you want to know if someone is able to do the job and perform the core functions then there are ways to ask without mentioning the word disability,” cautions Kerry Smith, manager of the disability directions information service at the Employers’ Forum on Disability.

“If someone had dyslexia and a key function of the job is minute-taking, which could be a particularly difficult skill for that person, you wouldn’t necessarily ask them how they would do the job because they are dyslexic as this could put the employer at legal risk. What I would advise the employer to ask is: ‘A key part of the job is taking minutes. Have you had any experience taking minutes and how would you go about it?'”

“Disclosure is a very personal thing and it really comes down to the individual, their disability, the job they are applying for and how they feel about other people knowing that they have a disability,” adds Smith.

Awareness and training

Right or wrong, we all make assumptions about people based on the way they look and act. That’s why disability awareness training can be invaluable before conducting an interview to make sure you don’t draw any misguided conclusions about the candidate. “Our unconscious decision-making process may be affected to a certain degree by how much someone makes eye contact but a person with a vision impairment may not make regular eye contact with you,” explains the DRC’s Fletcher. “An awareness of these sorts of issues will help overcome any unconscious bias someone might not know they have because of the way they are conducting the interview and the non-verbal cues they pick up.”

Employers need to think about the recruitment and employment policies they have in place covering disability. Fletcher admits it is impossible to cover every disability but the policies should be explicit enough that managers understand the diverse nature of disability. They then need to be available to everyone involved in the recruitment process as well as line managers and the applicants themselves to ensure they are open and understood. This will help make it easier for people to discuss and put in place reasonable adjustments.

Humpage adds that training is paramount to understanding diversity and equality. Policies and practices should be constantly reviewed and include consultation with any disabled employees to identify areas that may or may not be working well to improve on them. If in doubt, ask. There is a wealth of information available from employment and disability organisations, and many charities will come into a company and carry out an audit to help employers identify what they need to do to comply with the law.

One success story is Manpower, who is working in partnership with BT and Remploy to increase the number of disabled people working within BT’s 31 UK customer service centres. The trio established the Able to Work initiative four years ago and over 1300 BT and Manpower managers have attended disability awareness seminars.

Manpower currently works closely with specialists such as Working Links, Scope, Dyslexia Action, National Autistic Society, Royal Institute of the Blind and the Spinal Injuries Association to ensure a fair and balanced approach to recruitment. The company also has independent assessment tools to provide non-biased information about a candidate’s ability to do the job, which, according to Lisa St Claire, Manpower’s project and diversity manager for BT, also works as a great motivator in recognising skills and aptitudes people sometimes didn’t know they had.

“This has since affected positive changes so the staff gain a better understanding of the issues surrounding disability, as well as how the wider business can adapt to people with disabilities,” says St Claire.

The CIPD’s Humpage stresses: “You’re not on your own. Learn from what you’ve done. You’re never going to get it perfectly right straight away because we are talking about individual people with individual circumstances. Work with the disabled person and with your customers. The more people are honest and say ‘we don’t know the answer’, the easier it is to find a solution.”

2 Responses

  1. Out of step
    I’d like to agree and support Peter. Kerry’s approach to interviewing is considerably out of step with current trends and practices. Peter has it right.

  2. Reasonablr adjustments
    Good article
    but not comfortable with Kerry Smith’s approach to interviewing.
    let me start by saying that I have a dyslexic wife and two dyslexic children, as well as a fair degree of expertise in the DDA.
    Even if you did not know they were dyslexic the proposed questionning is flawed. The “how would you go about it” is a hypothetical Question that those of us who use a competency based approach abhor because it gives a theoretical rather than an ‘evidence based’ answer, so the correct final part should be “… how well have you done it and how have you made sure the minutes were of good quality”?
    if you do know they are dylexic then I see nothing wrong is asking “I see that you describe yourself as dyslexic and a core function of this job is taking minutes, how have you overcome this particular issue in the past and what would you need to be able to do this part of the job well?” It may be a bit long but I see no point tiptoeing around the issue

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