Johny Cassidy. BBC Producer. For Special Reports. 3/5/18.
© Anna Gordon/FT

When it comes to training, rather than focusing on disabled people, companies might do better to focus on everyone else, says Johny Cassidy, a BBC producer who has been blind since his teens.

“If you talk to a room full of disabled people, you’re preaching to the converted. It’s the rest of the organisation you need to bring on board,” he says.

The problem, he explains, is that staff who are not disabled, from managers to those working in procurement, are often unaware of the needs and support requirements of those that are. “Employers — especially big ones which have the resources to do this — should be training all staff.”

Conway Kosi, chair of a diversity and inclusion council which covers Fujitsu’s operations across Europe, Middle East, India and Africa, says that his company is doing just this. Every manager undergoes unconscious bias training, as well as diversity and inclusion training. “But what really makes the difference is the awareness-raising webinars that we run, he says. “Sharing people’s stories, both from the perspective of the person with a disability but also their manager, helps to build more understanding of what people need to do on a practical day-to-day level.”

More businesses now boast high-profile disability champions. Microsoft, for instance, has a chief accessibility officer in the form of Jenny Lay-Flurrie who is deaf. She has spoken of refusing a promotion while in her 20s at the UK internet company Energis, because she believed that her deafness meant she could not use a mobile phone. In fact, her manager told her to take the job and made the accommodation.

Jill Miller, diversity and inclusion adviser at the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says that policies which are aimed at getting the best out of disabled staff make good business sense. “Companies should be asking themselves what the benefit of recruiting, promoting retaining and retaining people with disabilities is. It’s a huge pool of talent.”

As populations age and people work longer, the number of jobseekers who are affected by disability is likely to rise.

Businesses are also waking up to the spending power of the disabled and their families, estimated to be about £249bn a year in the UK. By employing disabled staff, companies can better understand their needs as consumers.

Companies are often held back by a perception that recruiting disabled people is too difficult and costly, says Ms Miller. “However, a lot of the ‘reasonable adjustments’ are low-cost and relatively easy to implement.” Training managers, she adds, involves ensuring they do not make assumptions and apply unfair stereotypes. But training should also aim to give managers “practical tools and the confidence to make adjustments”, adds Ms Miller.

A further challenge is to attract people of disability in the first place. “We believe it’s key to show people with disabilities that they can ask for adjustments to the [recruitment] process if they need it,” says Mr Kosi. “We proactively contact all shortlisted applicants to ask if they would benefit from adjustments to the interview or assessment process.”

Other multinationals are actively targeting certain groups with disabilities. Microsoft has a hiring programme through which the company identifies and trains people with autism. Indeed, many say that “neurodiversity” is the next big frontier when it comes to inclusive employment policies.

Companies can also offer support in other ways too. One policy is to extend forums for disabled people. There is, Mr Cassidy notes, a large body of informal knowledge that can be shared. “Disabled people have to employ workarounds frequently and that’s a massive cache of information that can be shared. It can also be things as simple as ‘How do I change my chair?’.”

Assistive technology — including tools such as the screen-reader Jaws (Job Access With Speech) which Mr Cassidy uses — is also playing a large part in helping employers support disabled staff. Smartphones, in their more recent iterations, have been a real boost as most now come with built-in accessibility support. Robin Christopherson, who works on digital inclusion at AbilityNet, the UK charity, says: “The kind of bespoke support that once cost thousands is now widely affordable because your phone does it.”

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