It isn’t often that workplace disability rights make national headlines.
But following recent news that 27 Remploy factories – including five dedicated to employing disabled people – will be shut, that has certainly been the case.
Disability activists and employment specialists have been publicly rethinking what equal access to work means and how society can best help those with mental and physical incapacities to find fulfilling jobs.
As the debate rages on, what is clear is that the £320 million Remploy budget will be diverted into producing more tailored support in a bid to help disabled workers enter sustainable employment.
So with thousands of disabled people looking for work and a new funding stream available to support them, employers will likely hear more from groups urging them to consider relevant applications.
However, an HR or hiring manager’s first thoughts might understandably be dominated by worries about an ever-tightening payroll and the difficulties of making the necessary physical or procedural workplace changes to accommodate a new employee’s disabilities.
Equally, they may be concerned that a disabled worker will not be capable of delivering on the job requirements.
While such reactions are natural, none of these specific worries outweigh the benefits of building a more inclusive workforce. For example, disabled employees tend to bring dedication and exceptional loyalty to the job.
Carving a job role
In addition, by hiring them, you can give someone the opportunity that they need to build confidence, achieve independence and lead a more fulfilling life.
Nonetheless, concerns about the practicalities of hiring disabled people still persist. The good news is that huge amounts of information and support now exist for employers. Moreover, in the majority of cases, minor, low-cost changes are sufficient to enable disabled workers to perform just as well as their able-bodied colleagues.
‘Carving’ a job role in a creative way can likewise help to accommodate a given worker’s disabilities, while also ensuring that business requirements are met at the same time.
For instance, many supermarket jobs require employees to undertake a long list of tasks such as stocking shelves, returning carts from the car park, bagging groceries and helping customers.
But while many disabled people could easily cope with cart collection and bagging, dealing with customers or stocking shelves may prove more difficult. If an employer is willing to re-think – or ‘re-carve’ – job roles, however, they often find that they are rewarded with high performance on the more focused job description.
When hiring a disabled worker, employers should recognise that, as with any other staff member, the level of up-front support and investment required is likely to diminish over time, as the individual builds skills and confidence in their ability to perform the role.
Many disabled people begin their careers in supported employment – that is, they are provided with support services, funded by the government, to make it easier for them to secure and maintain paid employment in the open labour market.
Such services include in-work job coaches or communicators, the installation or purchase of special workplace equipment, or even help with covering specialist transport costs until individuals are comfortable with their commute to and from work.
While for some disabled people, it is unrealistic to work without the specialist help that supported employment provides, there are many others who start their careers with such assistance and go on to transition into mainstream jobs where additional help is no longer required – as long as they have the support of their employer and co-workers, that is.
For instance, we recently helped a deaf mute person who had been unemployed for several years to secure work at a storage and packaging factory. The position was supported at the start and we provided a sign language interpreter to enable him to communicate with his co-workers and carry out his responsibilities effectively.
In order to transition out of a supported role, however, his boss and colleagues were taught basic sign language. As a result, his employer no longer requires government support to pay for a translator and the worker is now in employed in a mainstream way.
However, it is also common for employers and disabled employees to use an in-work job coach to help communicate instructions, give feedback and ensure that the workers’ questions or concerns are passed on to management.
In many cases, the government’s Access to Work scheme may help to subsidise job coaches in providing on-site support for up to eight hours a month during the first two years of a disabled person’s placement.
For example, we recently placed someone with Asperger’s Syndrome at a busy restaurant. As one of his first tasks, the employee was asked to remove chewing gum from underneath the tables. But when his supervisor returned, he found the dining room littered with gum.
With the help of a job coach, the supervisor realised that the worker needed more specific directions and so he subsequently instructed him to remove the gum, bag it and throw the bag in the rubbish bin. Doing so meant that the task was carried out to his satisfaction and he is now aware of how to brief the employee effectively in future.
As a final thought, employers who are considering whether to take on disabled workers could consider undertaking a two-week trial to enable both the firm and the candidate to give the situation a test-run before deciding whether to engage in a more permanent contract.
Such trials enable employers to try out a potential worker and see whether a suggested ‘job carve’ would work in practice. They also give disabled individuals the time to decide whether a given position suits them and to overcome any anxiety about entering a new environment.
Offering the right contract and being flexible are critical factors in accommodating disabled employees. For instance, rather than require people to take on full-time 40-hour per week positions, allowing them to work 16-hour weeks opens up a wider variety of job roles to them.
Sixteen hour contracts, rather than 12- or zero-hour ones, are perceived as ideal because they enable disabled workers to still apply for the Working Tax credits that many rely upon. They also enable people to become self-sufficient and gain the benefits that are generated from being in work and contributing positively to society.
Aside from the reputational benefits that can be gained by publicly showing your company’s commitment to employing disadvantaged minorities, hiring disabled workers also signifies your long-term investment in building a loyal and reliable workforce.
While their learning curve may be higher than that of able-bodied staff, once it has been mounted, the dependability and loyalty of disabled personnel will ultimately prove to be a major business advantage.
Frances Brennan is director for the South West of England for welfare-to-work provider, Working Links.